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Mar 5, 2005 3:48 am

Why I Agree with Everything that You Say and with Nothing that You Say ...

The Ward Churchill story and the larger, on-going debate about intellectual diversity on American campuses are never resolved for me by intellectual abstractions. Instead, they summon to mind the story of a remarkable moment in 1965. I was then a senior in the theological school at Drew University, president of its student body, and about to return briefly to the South to represent our faculty and students on the Selma to Montgomery March. This week is the 40th anniversary of those remarkable days.

But I'm thinking of a moment just prior to that when Will Herberg, my favorite teacher at Drew, my rabbi, got into the front seat of my car for me to take him into Jersey City, where he was also teaching at St. Peter's College. Herberg was an awesome intellect. I write about him often here and always with great affection and admiration. Growing up in a secular Jewish family, he had become a leading intellectual influence in the Lovestonite faction of American Communists. They were named for their political mentor, Jay Lovestone. Like many radicals of his generation, however, Herberg grew increasingly disillusioned with Marxism. In mid-life, he turned to study historic Judaism and became a professing conservative Jew. He was the author of two books that helped shape the public life of the mind in mid-20th century America, Judaism and Modern Man and Protestant, Catholic, Jew. By the time I knew him, Will had grown increasingly conservative and was publishing in William Buckley's lively new periodical, National Review.

So, as I say, one day Herberg gets in the car for our regular trip into Jersey City and our conversation turned to the civil rights movement, then churning in my beloved Southland. I was fresh from the movement and full of its hope that"We Shall Overcome." Har-rumphf, grumbled Herberg, lawless, ignorant troublemakers. (I paraphrase, but that was the substance of his reply.) As always, he soon had me on the defensive, because Will gave no quarter in intellectual combat. Casting about for some respectable defense, I cited the fact, after all, that Martin Luther King had a doctorate in philosophical theology from Boston University. Herberg replied that he had friends on the theological faculty at Boston and that he'd inquire into King's academic credentials. I doubt that he ever did. Even if he had, King's mentors at Boston would have given glowing accounts of the brilliant record of their most famous student.

I recall that moment when my rabbi sat beside me on the way to Jersey City and questioned Martin Luther King's academic accomplishments for several reasons. I think about it often because subsequently, as Associate Editor of the King Papers, I directed much of the research that exposed a remarkable record of plagiarism in King's academic work, including his dissertation. Undoubtedly, if it had been exposed in King's own lifetime, his earned doctorate at Boston would have had to be revoked. But, I think about that moment on the way to Jersey City also because shortly after Will Herberg's own death, we learned that he had fabricated every one of the three academic degrees that he claimed to have earned. He claimed to have a B.A. from C.C.N.Y., when he'd actually been expelled from the place for getting into a fight with the instructor of a required ROTC course. The M.A. and Ph.D. that he claimed to have earned from Columbia were simply wholly fabricated. He'd never been admitted there. Beyond that, apparently in order to postpone the day of his retirement, Herberg had regularly pushed forward the date of his birth in reports to Who's Who. I've often thought, what if I'd known all of that in that moment. What if I'd said to my beloved teacher:"Yes, King is an academic fraud; and so are you."

Of course, I didn't know those things then and they continue to puzzle me now. When the subject of someone like Ward Churchill or intellectual diversity on our campuses come up, they puzzle me in ways that cause me to say: I agree with everything you say; and I agree with nothing that you say. The man who I sometimes regard as the greatest moral authority in the twentieth century, my revered Martin Luther King was, undoubtedly in some ways, an academic fraud. And the man who I revere as the greatest teacher I've ever known, Will Herberg, my rabbi, was, both a conservative and, undoubtedly in some ways, an academic fraud. But every one of us at Drew conceded that Herberg knew more than any one of us and more than most half-dozens of us put together. Struggling in the midst of the McCarthy era against a personal history of Marxist-apologias, with no academic entitlements, and knowing that an academic community was his true home, Herberg affected entitlements that were expected of such people. In some ways, I love and admire him all the more for having successfully exploited the vacuity of our credentialing processes. A university that could not find a place in it for a conservative so learned and so devoted to teaching as Will Herberg is unworthy of the name.

So, yes, you're damned straight. Our universities must be places where conservatives are welcomed on their faculties. And, no, academic fraud is not definitive. Martin Luther King's academic plagiarism undoubtedly shades his moral leadership. And, yet, how many of us who are altogether innocent of plagiarism have ever risked our pristine hides to give moral leadership about anything? And, no, academic fraud is not definitive. Herberg was the greatest teacher I've ever known – an encyclopedic mind, with a tough, combative style. If Ward Churchill had any of his intellectual heft, he'd be worth defending.

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Julie A Hofmann - 3/13/2005

Perhaps that's in part due to the traditional roots of university education in, and as preparation for, the church?

Jim Williams - 3/7/2005

The issue definitely needs to be raised. My college has a number of long-term adjuncts who are fully deserving of a permanent position in terms of the quality of their teaching and their dedication to the welfare of their students and this institution. Unfortunately, they will probably never get the status they deserve because they lack the magic letters "Ph.D." after their names and will not claim credentials they don't possess.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/6/2005

It may have been in Halberstam's book that you'll find a description of Bundy's acceptance to Harvard as a student. If memory serves, he scored a perfect score on the entrance exam, despite the fact that he didn't answer the second half question, merely noting that he thought the question inane -- the grading committee, upon reflection, agreed with the assessment and gave him full marks.

Greg James Robinson - 3/5/2005

Perhaps in referring to Bundy's publications you mean his collaboration(s) with Henry Stimson. In fact, according to the book by Werner Sollors et al., BLACKS AT HARVARD, the chair in government that McGeorge Bundy occupied was specially created to woo Ralph Bunche after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, in hopes that he would become the first African American professor at Harvard. Bunche ultimately chose to stay at the United Nations, and the powers that be elected to give the chair to Bundy. So a case might be made that Bundy was the first beneficiary (if residual) of Affirmative Action at Harvard!
In the interests of full dislosure, I should add that I took a graduate course with Bundy in his last years teaching at NYU, and that he served on my Ph.D. orals committee. I found him a very talented teacher and a very nice man.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/5/2005

There are those two sometimes competing citeria -- credentials and talent. McGeorge Bundy was himself the beneficiary (as you point out) of a progressive attitude on the subject of credentials. But it went beyond that. He was put up for tenure, only two years after being appointed despite his lack of credentials, his sole publication was a biography of Henry Adams. Harvard's president, Conant, was said to have commented that that would never have happened in chemistry (his own field).

Fast forward a few decades, and Kenneth Wilson came up for tenure in physics at Cornell, despite a thin publication record. The department tenured him, and he went on to win a Nobel Prize. Zuckerman at Columbia has demonstrated that Nobel Prize winners publish at a rate below the norm for their fields. Hmmm.

Jason Nelson - 3/5/2005

Dr. Luker,
Since that is what you meant of course I am wrong. I apologize. I predicted at the beggining of this mess that Churchill will be fired, and he will be; and Ms. Hoffman is going to follow him, Churchill, out the door.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/5/2005

Mr. Nelson, There you go, dragging your knuckles again. I knew full well that President Hoffman is a woman. You misread my pronoun "him" which properly refers to Ward Churchill, not to President Hoffman. Last time I checked, Ward Churchill is a "him." Attacking me simply because you can't understand plain English is par for your course. Fortunately, people who can understand plain English -- not you -- will make the decisions about CU's future.

Jason Nelson - 3/5/2005

Mr. Luker,

Would you have to be a "knuckledragger" to find Ms. Hoffman's use of this kind of language offensive? Is it that anyone associated with academia is immune to any consequences that may result by the words that come out of his or her mouths?

Things are out of control at the University of Colorado and Hoffman must go. No surprise, but I guess I'm one of the "knucledraggers" that you are referring to. It would add credibility to your arguments if you were more aquatinted with the actions of the individuals that you choose to defend. Since you did not even know her gender, I have serious doubt that you know anything about her checkered record of running this University.

Jason Nelson - 3/5/2005

Mr. Luker,

The president of the University of Colorado is a woman, Betsy Hoffman. She certainly would not have gotten away with this other issue, cited below, if she was not.,1299,DRMN_15_2969471,00.html

Ralph E. Luker - 3/5/2005

That's an important point, Caleb. The partisans on Ward Churchill, it seems to me, are energized almost exclusively by the question of his moral authority or depravity, but the issue of his relationship to the university needs to be decided entirely without regard to his moral status.

Greg James Robinson - 3/5/2005

This is a magnificent post, which brings up some of the wonderful and terrible aspects of our credentials process and also gives us pause. It is hardly a new thing. It is said that Erasmus was ashamed that he had received his degree from the University of Turin, then a low-class institution, and tried to pass himself off as a graduate of the University of Bologna.
Without commenting on the Churchill case specifically, it is worth remembering that Ethnic Studies being a new discipline, many of the first generation either had scanty or unorthodox academic training, or were trained in fields that were far distant from their eventual employment. I myself never took any kind of Asian American Studies class before I taught the former--there was no such thing at the time in my part of the country. We should probably have some more flexible system of hiring and promotion, because relying on scholarly degrees can bias the process, excluding self-taught scholars of exceptional talent. I think of David Halberstam's description of McGeorge Bundy (who had no doctorate himself) as Harvard Dean presiding over the hiring of Lillian Hellman to teach literature.
Conversely, we should work to prevent fraud. In my university, because salary is based on seniority, you must present documentary proof--diplomas, hiring letters, pay stubs, etc.--as to your professional experience. Because I went through this process right at the time of September 11th, and many of my records were in New York and thus difficult to procure, they let me make a sworn declaration as to some of my experience. I thought this all a massive inconvenience at the time, but perhaps it is necessary.

Caleb McDaniel - 3/5/2005

Great post, Ralph. I think it might be helpful to stress that moral authority and academic authoritativeness are different things. Our credentialing processes were never meant to confer the former; they only provide the bearers of diplomas with the latter. The interesting question is how, in modern America, academic authority has become tangled up with moral authority, so that they are each seen as prerequisites of each other.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/5/2005

I'm not sure I agree with your conclusions, but you're right to raise these questions about academic credentialism.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/5/2005

I simply take issue with your use of the terms 'mistakes' and 'errors'. They seem drained of moral content. I prefer 'malfeasance' or 'misfeasance'. The Dean leaned on departments to retain him. One department folded. They didn't read his stuff, nor did they solicit outside opinion, when reviewing him for tenure. They were well and truly and often notified that he was not as advertized, yet I guarantee you they claimed him as an affirmative action Native American hire in their report of statistics to the federal government. They profited, in that sense, from their own malfeasance. For CU to now, after they've willfully prostituted themselves, announce to the world that they're shocked, shocked that gambling is taking place, is not just too rich for words, but deserves a special kind of punishment -- so special, I can't actually conceive of it right now (but I will take suggestions).

Ralph E. Luker - 3/5/2005

Yes and the mistakes were made 15 years ago by an earlier crew of administrators and, even then, only after a dozen years in which he had served on the CU staff -- so even those who made the errors had reason to think that his retention was desireable. CU's current administrators are facing enormous challenges and the knuckle-draggers seem determined to do as much damage as possible.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/5/2005

My Mom made me take typing in summer school at Seaholm High back in ... anyways, the lessons never really took -- I was only 10 at the time, and all. Yeah, its mostly the knuckledraggers that are after him. And yeah, maybe rewarding Churchill is just not the best way of punishing CU. But it was the supposed very opposite of knuckledraggers that invited him into the temple, and promoted him up the priesthood. You know, the guys with all the credentials. Too damn funny for words. If somebody can propose a punishment for CU that does justice to their profanity without rewarding Churchill, then count me in. I just don't want to see CU walking away from all this playing the victim.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/5/2005

Well, _actually_, you misquoted me. I had it right in the first place!

Ralph E. Luker - 3/5/2005

Unlike you, Richard, I'm not in favor of rewarding Ward in order to punish CU. In fact, so far as I can tell, the current president of the University is a tough-minded, very sensible administrator and the howling lynchmob that is after him is largely composed of knuckle-draggers. I simply hope that the University can unhinge itself from his baggage with as little additional damage as possible.
P. S. Sorry about "credentially" -- I meant "credentialing", of course.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/5/2005

"I love and admire him [Herberg] all the more for having exploited the vacuity of our credentially processes."

Perversity, I assure you, loves company -- though I don't love and admire Churchill as much as I admire the scamming of a bogus system of hiring, retention, promotion, and tenure.

Hala Fattah - 3/5/2005

Dear Ralph,
What a great post. It reminds me of an incident in my father's life. He'd gone to MIT straight from the American-administered Baghdad College in the 1940's. Until today, he recalls the marvelous intellect of one of his Physics professors at MIT who had dropped out of school but been accepted for a teaching post at MIT all the same. I've heard of all those computer nerds in the 1980's who dropped out of school but been accepted to teach at prestigious universities in California because, of course, their skills and knowledge were sorely needed at that time. But I guess that offering jobs to geniuses without degrees in the hard sciences and information technology is more acceptable than recruiting Professors of Divinity without proper credentials, although I'm not sure I understand the difference!