Blogs > Cliopatria > On the Justice of Roosting State Senators

Aug 8, 2005 1:03 pm

On the Justice of Roosting State Senators

The Ward Churchill thing has been flogged pretty hard, by me as much as anyone else. But there's one dimension I don't see discussed very much, namely the role of academicians in helping to create the controversy in the first place.

A few weeks ago I listened, via streaming audio, to an interview with Churchill on a Denver radio talk show. The host did a fairly good job of handling the interview. Churchill himself was fairly articulate except when called upon to explain the infamous "little Eichmanns" analogy. Then he suddenly got sort of quasi-articulate: articulate enough, I thought, that his supporters would find him lucid, but not so much as to deprive his opponents of ammunition. It seemed pretty much the way he liked it.

Toward the end of the broadcast, a Colorado state senator named Tom Wiens called in from the road to ask Churchill a few questions about his salary and teaching load: details he had planned to have his staff track down but if Churchill could offer them over the phone, what the heck. Senator Wiens did not exploit the chance to demagogue, posture or grandstand. He sounded to me like a conscientious public official intent on doing his job. I found that refreshing and sent him an email to say so.

To my surprise, a week later he actually wrote back to thank me. He offered some thoughts on the "free speech" aspect of the Churchill imbroglio, as opposed to all the other aspects that had yet to make much of an appearance: Churchill's Native American identity or lack thereof, his credentials, the charge of plagiarism, and so on. I will not quote from the email because he did not specifically give me leave to do so, and although I asked permission I never heard from him again. But as I began writing this post, I checked Senator Wiens' political web site and found that soon after he got a follow-up email from me--which I'll reprint in a moment--he joined the campaign to get Churchill dismissed.

"[C]hurchill's offensive comments are grounds for dismissal alone," states a press release from his office, "however Wiens also pointed out that the professor's statements show a lack of serious scholarship and questioned why a prestigious university such as CU would choose to hire someone of such questionable academic caliber and entrust him with our children's education. Just like any other state-paid job where competence is expected, Wiens is concerned that Colorado taxpayers aren't getting their money's worth in this case. In addition, this episode could cause CU's commitment to academic excellence to be called into question."

I think the senator is wrong about the offensive comments being grounds for dismissal. It doesn't fit my reading of CU's policies. But judging by the senator's email to me, the idea that "Colorado taxpayers aren't getting their money's worth" is where the rubber hit the road for him. The rest could well be just political posturing of the sort that politicians do.

Here's my reply to Senator Wiens. I have polished the style just slightly; otherwise it is word for word what I wrote:

Hi Tom (if I may),

I think you're on target.  The question is how the enforcement mechanism is handled.

The Ward Churchill thing has served as a wakeup call for a lot of people, not just among public officials and university administrators but also rank-and-file professors like myself.  I didn't run across Churchill's "roosting chickens" essay until a couple of weeks ago, but had I done so in September 2001 my most likely response, as a professional historian, would have been to ignore it.  Every profession has its own characteristic culture.  Physicians think, act, and dress a certain way.  So do lawyers.  So do clergy.  So do military officers.  And so do academics.

Confronted with a piece of shoddy scholarship, the response of most academics is simply to ignore it.  We don't discuss it, don't condemn it.  We  just evaluate it as unworthy of engagement.  Shoddy scholarship doesn't even get reviewed in academic journals, because space is at a premium and why expend space discussing a book or article that is egregiously sub-standard?  True, books and articles do get evaluated negatively, but these nearly always are books and articles that have met some sort of "quality threshold," if you will.  Typically they have been published by a university press or in a refereed journal, which means that at least a couple of experts have read and commented on the book or article in manuscript and said, yes, other historians--at least specialists in a given field--should read this.

It seems to me that a person occupying your office could legitimately pressure the historical profession to revisit this tendency to ignore shoddy scholarship, when shoddy scholarship attempts to gain a hearing by lobbing grenades like the "little Eichmanns" analogy.

Here is how you could do it.  And please forgive me if this sounds obvious or somehow condescending.  I was first exposed to the literature on professionalism and professionalization as an undergraduate, but it was in an unusual context--military professionalism--and I am not sure how common it is for educated people to receive systematic exposure to this literature. I may be telling you much that you already know.  If so, I apologize and ask for your patience.

Professions enjoy a privileged status in society because they serve as a reservoir of skilled talent which society cannot readily supply.  It takes a physician, for instance, to train a physician, and so we give the medical profession wide latitude in choosing those who will receive the chance to learn medicine, in determining how such people will be trained, and in deciding when they will be regarded as competent enough to practice.  We also give the medical profession wide latitude to police its own membership.  We as a society do this because we assume that the medical profession-- so long as it is socially responsible --will recruit, train, and police physicians better than we could do it ourselves.

Presumably, professional (i.e., academic) historians enjoy a privileged status in society according to a similar rationale.  If that profession fails to demonstrate social responsibility, however--if it ignores the Ward Churchills rather than demands that the Churchills produce competent scholarship--then I think that you and your fellow public officials have the obligation to insist that the profession meet its social responsibilities.  And if not, to serve notice that society will have to revisit the privileged status it accords academic historians.

I think that if UC were to fire Churchill for his essay it would be in violation of its own current policies.  If it fired him for "fraud," for not being a "real Indian," no one would be fooled.  We would all recognize that the real reason was, again, that "Roosting Chickens" essay.  Cardinal Richelieu once said that if handed two paragraphs written by any given man, Richelieu would find something in it that would hang him.  Similarly, most middle-aged Americans have something in their backgrounds such that, if you looked hard enough and then squeezed hard enough, would wreck their lives.  Witch hunts succeed because of this.

The better course would be to encourage the historical profession to do in the future what it failed to do in 2001, when Churchill first published the essay;  and again in 2004, when Churchill republished the essay in book form.  What we should have done goes something like this:

You call this an indictment of American foreign policy?  Such indictments are a dime a dozen.  Who on the left has not argued that 9/11 is a reaction to American foreign policy over the past 20-30 years?  Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, and Gore Vidal are only three names on the long list of people who have made this case and made it more eloquently, rigorously, and persuasively than you.

You might say that no one else compares the WTC "technocrats" to "little Eichmanns."  But you can't get your "little Eichmann" analogy to work, because you fail to explain clearly Eichmann's defense in his trial for war crimes that the Final Solution was bureaucratized, and that his responsibility was merely to round up and transport Jews.  His responsibilities ended at the Auschwitz gates.  Had you done so, your readers might have seen that, arguably,  the "technocrats" in the World Trade Center worked on financial deals that ultimately harmed people in the developing world and did so without realizing it, because as bureaucrats they were trained to think in terms of the job in front of them, not in terms of its larger consequences.  Of course, in that case your analogy would fail because Eichmann assuredly knew the entire design of the Final Solution.  He kept the minutes at the Wanssee Conference in January 1942.

Calling the terrorists "combat teams":  Nice try.  We need, for purposes of analysis, a vocabulary concerning terrorism that is less fraught with moralistic overtones.  But you cannot possibly be serious to frame the attack on the World Trade Center within the structure of strategic bombing under the laws and usages of war.  For one thing, that structure contemplates the use of force by state-level actors, and these were non-state actors.  More importantly, the structure arises out of just war doctrine, and I somehow doubt the hijackers understood and justified their acts within the framework of a Judeo-Christian ethic of war.

Three years have passed. You wrote the original essay the day after 9/11, when we could only guess at the hijackers' identity and had few specifics about those who died in the attack.  At this point, however, much new information has emerged by which you could test the ideas in your original essay and add specifics and nuance.  Have you revised the essay in order to incorporate the wealth of information on Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda?  Have you investigated what the firm of, say, Cantor Fitzgerald was actually doing the morning of 9/11?  Identified and developed a case study or studies to show how a specific trade deal created in the Twin Towers played out in a specific place and affected a specific group of people?  There is a fairly substantial literature on the adverse consequences of globalization, you know.  Have you  incorporated any of it into your scholarship?

I thought not.

-- That, Tom, is what we ought to have done.  We failed to do it, and we owe you an apology for that.  As professionals we are now necessarily obliged to defend Prof. Churchill's right to free speech, and as professionals we warn of the baneful effects that would fall upon controversial but sound, rigorous scholarship if Churchill were to be stripped of faculty status as well as his chairmanship of the ethnic studies department.  But as professionals we could and should have stopped this train before it ever left the gate.  We should have fixed this problem.  You should never have had to spend a moment of your time with it.  You have a right to insist that we clean up our act.  I won't mind a bit.  The next time I defend some controversial bit of scholarship, I don't want to feel my face redden when I do it.



Obviously, I didn't have much influence on Senator Wiens. But if you were looking around for evidence that we are prepared to do what I suggested, how much would you find?

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Alastair Mackay - 3/14/2005

Prof. Grimsley's exchange with Sen. Wiens looks like a move in the right direction, and the thoughts expressed by Prof. Dresner earlier in this thread are very apropos.

Despite finding the "Roosting Chickens" essay at once mediocre (sorry, MG), fatuous, and offensive--I don't see how it could be a "firing offense." Having awarded Churchill the almost unlimited free-speech rights that it gives to all its tenure-track staff, how could CU renege without gutting this principal?

But Churchill and his lawyers and friends seem to be advancing a line of argument that runs as follows: because many have labeled my essay offensive and controversial, CU is prevented from subjecting me to any professional discipline. This "Hate Speech Defense" is bizarre. Imagine an analogous rejection of oversight by a political-loudmouth police officer, high school principal, nurse, or electrician who stands credibly accused of multiple, serious derelictions of duty.

So one question is: How should an academic institution proceed when a professor's protected speech draws attention to many credible allegations of misconduct unrelated to the speech?

Another question: Misconduct aside, what has been Churchill's record of positive professional accomplishments, as he has advanced from assistant professor to department chair? Asst. Prof. Dresner alluded to this question of professional standards, with some nervousness. Seemingly unwarranted in his own case; Google brings one quickly to his c.v., suggesting a solid record of accomplishment. Compare that to what’s on display at Full Professor Churchill’s own department, or what Wikipedia authors have found. This public record is one of almost no scholarly accomplishment (though, of course, a quick search can miss much scholarly material).

Which comes around full circle to a point raised earlier in the thread: who, and what institutions, undertake the responsibilities of setting professional standards in the Academy, and seeing to it that those standards are fairly applied? This question has been asked in regard to the standards at CU by Dave Kopel and href=",1299,DRMN_86_3547736,00.html">Paul Campos. Most CU faculty, and the CU administration don’t seem in a great rush to raise such questions. Nor, it would seem, is it a burning issue for the Academy at large--this web-log is a happy exception in that regard.

Mark Grimsley - 3/14/2005

This is a matter that we really ought to pull out of the comments section and place more prominently on Cliopatria or elsewhere.

One model I have in mind is simply the one used in the Michael Bellesiles controversy. Another, and I make this now just to briefly preview a possible line of development, would be the "community standards" element that courts use to determine what constitutes pornography. That is to say, I have in mind fostering a professional culture that more vigorously distances itself from commentary in which an academic historian transgresses professional norms of argument and use of evidence.

Were I to argue, for instance, that historical developments have shown that California has prospered to a much greater degree than it would have done had the U.S. not fought and won the Mexican War, and that therefore the promotion of democracy and free market capitalism through war makes sense, you can be pretty sure the profession would lose little time in letting everyone know how reprehensible it finds the comparison.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/13/2005

I'm perfectly happy with a committment to do what we do here: open discourse with a fairly strong committment to truth and coherence over political niceities. But I'm already doing it here: do I have an obligation to read the National Review, Nation, American Prospect, Field and Stream, Hawaii Tribune-Herald, Hawaii Free Press, New Your Daily News, etc., just in case one of my professional colleagues steps out of line? If they do, and I write a letter and it doesn't get published, have I fulfilled my obligation? If I write a letter which takes a different view -- implicitly critical of the first -- and it gets published somewhere else, is that enough?

Let's take Churchill and me. About the same time that Churchill published "Roosting Chickens," I published a letter in my local student newspaper which said, in part:

Targeting civilians is an atrocity, an act of pointless rage. It is not a legitimate form of political expression, of armed resistance or even of warfare. In fact, it is often responsible for the intensification of conflicts, deepening divides between peoples and points of view. That may well be the aim of the terrorists: to get us to treat the Islamic world as an enemy, so that their portrayal of the US and Israel as their enemy is justified. If that is the case, then the attack has been frighteningly successful.

However, the criticisms leveled by extremists are often right, though their solutions are questionable and their methods unacceptable. Monarchy and aristocracy needed to be replaced by democracy and meritocracy, though the violence of the French Revolution was certainly excessive; the backlash was even more violent, and the end result was the Napoleonic Wars. A Russian proverb, newly created in the post-communist era: "Everything the communists said about communism turned out to be a lie. But everything the communists said about capitalism was true." And personally, I always enjoy watching the Republican National Convention in presidential election years, though I'm a lifelong liberal Democrat, because the most energetic and effective speakers are the social conservatives who have a keen sense of the tensions and dysfunctions of American society, even if their proposed solutions make me very, very nervous.

In this case, while making every effort to bring the terrorists to justice, we should also take a moment to consider the sources of this rage. This attack was made by people who defied our best understanding of suicide bombers by being educated, older, some with families. What could possibly have brought these men to this point?

Was I being sufficiently responsible or did I fail in my obligation to directly attack Churchill's errors (of which I was unaware because I wasn't monitoring his publications)? Was I remiss in not submitting this to my department-mates either before publication for vetting or after publication to give them a chance to rebut?

You are positing an entirely new class of professional obligations, and while I understand that we are in danger of being controlled from the outside if we can't credibly claim professionalism for ourselves (and by the way, many other "professions" are not entirely self-policing, as they have their standards imposed on them by legislation, regulation and civil judicial enforcement; and another aside, self-policing in the most visible professions -- law, law enforcement, medicine -- hasn't really kept these professions at the top of people's "most respected" lists), but I also want (and I think this is my professional responsibility) to understand the extent to which this new professionalism will cost us in terms of time, freedom and public respect.

I don't want to seem hostile, but it's because I'm worried. I don't know, from what I read here, whether I'm already doing my part and it's the rest of the profession which is failing, or if I'm part of the problem. That seems to me to call for clarification: if I can't tell, who can?

Mark Grimsley - 3/13/2005

Failure? I'm not there yet. I see a lot in the profession that concerns me, but I still see much that is good. I'm not trying to be pollyanna here, just measured. Ultimately I want to actually do somehing to address this issue, not just wring my hands. (I do not say that you are; I merely say that unless we use these forums to generate action, at the end of the day this academic blogging thing is idle.)

Mark Grimsley - 3/13/2005

That's the counsel of despair. Many things in our profession are regulated not by formal policy but by academic culture. If we had a culture where individuals criticized sloppy bomb-throwing scholarship instead of primly ignoring it, we would be a long way toward the objective without any risk of the procrustean beds that formal policy solutions sometimes produce.

You haven't hesitated to engage with me, both today and on previous occasions, with courtesy and intelligence. I'm just talking about widening the stance of engagement that you yourself model.

Mark Grimsley - 3/13/2005

This may sound odd, but I want to rebuke myself for something I said about Churchill. I called him "a modiocrity." That was uncalled-for. I have never met the man, and I have no right to belittle any human being that way. I do think the online "Roosting Chickens" essay was mediocre, and I am not impressed by its final version in On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2004), which I bought and am reading. But if I'm going to expect civil discourse from others, I had better set a stronger example myself.

Robert KC Johnson - 3/13/2005

This, of course, is the problem. The post-tenure review process about which I know the most is Rochester Inst. of Technology, which I looked at as part of my Arts of Democracy work. At RIT, a very Ed-school-oriented administration has used the post-tenure review process to impose new and very dubious teaching strategies on the tenured faculty--hardly what many outside advocates of post-tenure review want the concept to accomplish.

John H. Lederer - 3/13/2005

A distinguishing chracteristic of a profession is that there be an authority that enforces professional norms.

A second related charcteristic is that the profession be supported by those outside the profession -- at least to the extent of allowing it to violate general societal norms for a presumably desired end purpose, e.g. we grant physicians confidentiality for our benefit.

Seems to me that the Chruchill case suggests that these characteristics are perceived as being thin to non-existent.

The university failed to hold Churchill to professional norms -- indeed it hired, promoted, and supported him while in violation of these norms (ethnic discrimination, plagiarism, copyright, credentials, competence, integrity, accuracy, etc.). Is that an isolated or general failure?

It is also questionable, if a professional norm is that Churchill be able to make extremist statements, whether society will support the claimed profession. They certainly will not do so if the only permissible extremist statements are at one end of the political spectrum. The contrast with the educational community's reaction to Summers is bound to impress the public.

Maybe Churchill is an idiosyncratic exception, but I think education's problem is that society is beginning to perceive his example as indicative of higher education's failure as a profession.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/13/2005

Everything we publish as scholars already goes through peer review -- not a perfect process, but still substantial -- as well as being looked over by tenure and promotion committees. But there are whole categories of writing which don't fall into that category, including "public intellectual" work (most of HNN, for example) which are not considered an integral part of the scholar's job and therefore not subject to crtical review, even if it's considered "service". And there is very little post-tenure review: there is no mechanism by which a tenured scholar submits to colleague review (which is different from peer review) substantial portions of their post-tenure work (and tenure and promotion decisions are personnel decisions, anyway, and subject to privacy protection).

I'm trying to see how you can institutionalize this without turning it into either kangaroo courts or vigilantism, and vastly accelerating the politicization of all discourse in the academy.

Louis N Proyect - 3/13/2005

Your point is well-taken. Clearly you don't share the Ernst Nolte-type mentality of those HNN editors who saw fit to publish Guenter Lewy's filth.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/13/2005

Grimsley is right that we have the public looking over our shoulder. I'm surprised that any historian would think otherwise! (Never do Civil War reenactors go up to physicists and tell them that their lab equipment doesn't have the right insignia.)

Johnson certainly is "less optimistic regarding the academy's potential response than Mark is," perhaps because he's had to fight off a darker side of academic politics than most of us. (In some sardonic moments, I thought of my T&P application as "idiot-proof and screw-proof," for reasons I won't go into, but I know the difference between my experience and those of others.)

More generally I'm not exactly sure how to balance the who-pays issue with the responsibility to the public and professional autonomy except to note that these issues are not simple to sort out. As Jack Benny said to the robber, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking!"

Robert KC Johnson - 3/13/2005

I agree completely. I am, however, less optimistic regarding the academy's potential response than Mark is. A reasonable response from the Colorado faculty would have been to couple defenses of Churchill's right to free speech with calls for reform of the procedures that allowed a mediocrity to be hired, tenured, and promoted in the first place. Instead, we've just gotten the former, with an implication that when the next Churchill comes along, he too will move up with the system as long as he articulates political/ethnic viewpoints that most mainstream people in the academy either agree with or don't want to challenge.

The kicker from yesterday's Denver Post story, to me, was further confirmation that Colorado had access to credible allegations that Churchill had engaged in plagiarism--undoubtedly the most serious possible sin for a professor. Colorado has a post-tenure review process (cited by Churchill's defenders in this controversy as part of their argument that the "process" should be allowed to function as normal). There's no evidence that these allegations were even considered in WC's earlier post-tenure review.

Mark Grimsley - 3/13/2005

I hope things aren't as bad as that. I was hoping to be shown wrong.

The weird thing is, on so many things the academy isn't afraid to make judgments at all. Grades, graduate admissions, hiring, tenure, promotions: We're judging, gate-keeping fools. On my blog there's been a discussion of the negative professional response we may get merely for exploring a new medium like blogging.

So why, for crying out loud, are we so reluctant to step up to the plate and say, yes, we'll take responsibility for keeping our house in order when it comes to the Ward Churchills. He can make as extreme an argument as he wants; he had just better make it according to the best standards of the profession. Or else.

Or else what? Loss of tenure? No.

Scorn and defiance, slight regard, contempt,
And anything that may not misbecome
The mighty sender

That usually gets the job done. It sucks the oxygen out of the atmosphere a Churchill needs to prosper. He needs to look like an embattled rebel speaking truth to power. He can't afford to look like what he truly is: a mediocrity who feebly mocks the many gifted scholars who have spoken, do speak, and shall speak truth to power. We know the difference. Let's quit pretending we don't.

Mark Grimsley - 3/13/2005

Ahem. Before you pillory me take some time to get to know me.

American Holocaust

John Earl Haynes - 3/13/2005

As to your question, "if you were looking around for evidence that we are prepared to do what I suggested, how much would you find?" There is some, but not very much, not even enough to amount to a respectable try. I am a habitual optimist but on this matter I don't think there much evidence that in the historical profession there is even a significant realization that such an effort is needed. John Earl Haynes

Louis N Proyect - 3/13/2005

In all of the furor over Ward Churchill on Cliopatria and Crooked Timber, his detractors seem to be missing something. Churchill raises the question of Eichmann because it relates to his overall thesis, namely that a genocide of historic proportions took place in the USA. Academics are uncomfortable with that. You have to remember that the first reference to Churchill's scholarship on HNN was Guenter Lewy's atrocious "Were Indians Victims of Genocide?" This is the same Lewy who wrote an atrocious book claiming that war crime accusations against the USA in Vietnam were exaggerated. If Grimsley wants to go hat in hand to an obscure State Senator with a promise to improve academic standards, he address the unfathomable elevation of a holocaust denier like Guenter Lewy on HNN, who is an American Ernst Nolte.

Mark Grimsley - 3/13/2005

Rats. I keep forgetting we use regular html here. That should be "really is as important."

Thanks for your citation to that essay, and for engaging with this issue.

As to the busines of our having a professional responsibility to society, not the government or the taxpayer, the government is under the impression that it represents the taxpayer and the taxpayer is under the impression that he and other taxpayers comprise society. Are they incorrect?

Mark Grimsley - 3/13/2005

On your immediate point: Maybe we can't read all the dreck that gets published, but if a department chair (which Churchill was) is writing dreck, that certainly merits attention. I hope you're not suggesting that because we can't do this perfectly, we shouldn't do it at all.

On my immediate point: I agree the job we do is not something that lay people can readily evaluate. That's why we professionals are best equipped to do it. But if we don't do it, and history really [i]is[/i] as important to society as we like to claim, then society will take a hand. It is already starting to do so.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/13/2005

I forgot to ask the practical question—given that we already are obliged to read student work and comment on it regardless of the quality, and that we comment on the work of colleagues as referees for journals and outside reviewers for tenure and promotion, who would join academe if we also pile on the responsibility of commenting on all the dreck that does make it to print?

Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/13/2005

The key phrase here—and I think it's wonderful that someone captured the essence of this from the perspective of a legislator— is "entrust him with our children's education," with "getting their money's worth" following hard upon the first. As I've noted elsewhere, faculty and universities have a fiduciary responsibility, but precisely what that responsibility consists of is muddled in public discussion. First, people would like universities both to conserve existing values and also to advance knowledge, not necessarily seeing that there might be conflicts among the two. Thus, we read the concern in the Colorado legislator's letter with letting someone teach, infantilizing adult students with the term "children" -- as if I could easily indoctrinate the 25-year-olds in my class!

Second, people confuse the source of money (taxes, in this case) with the larger responsibility to society. But as lawyers and realtors will explain, professional responsibilities aren't dictated by who pays the bills. (Ask a defense lawyer if the state can tell her or him what to argue because it pays her or his fees or salary!) That's a different argument from the legal one (which is that public agencies are restricted by the First Amendment, while private ones are not).

The best short piece explaining professionalism—and its dilemmas— is Eliot Friedson's "Are professions necessary?" in Thoma L. Haskell, The Authority of Experts (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1984), pp. 3-27.