Monday, February 21, 2005

Churchill and Summers

Isn't there anyone out there willing to defend both the right of Ward Churchill to express his ideas, and Larry Summers's right to express his? Anyone who won't defend both of them really isn't making a principled stand on academic freedom. (Please note that I don't agree with what either of them said that has gotten them into hot water.) I've only found one thoughtful discussion, here, where Peter Levine writes,

Academic freedom is not an individual civil right, but rather an institutional prerogative. When we support academic freedom, we mean that colleges and universities, scholarly associations, journals, and presses should be free to set their own standards for expression without (much) state interference. In other words, the ideal is autonomy for certain professional associations, not rights for their employees as individuals.

Tenure causes confusion: it makes us think that the central commitment of a university is to the individual autonomy of professors. But tenure only applies to senior faculty (not to students, junior faculty, or administrators). Moreover, it is part of a larger system. It is aimed against one problem--invidious political pressure on professors not to teach or publish unpopular ideas. That is a real threat, but universities also worry about "free speech" that is incompetent, undisciplined, or irrelevant. To address that problem, they put academics through a lengthy and grueling socialization process before they grant tenure. And even after tenure, they apply all kinds of pressure to make faculty express themselves in particular ways.

Which brings me to the two cases of recent weeks. I haven't made a study of Ward Churchill's writing, nor do I have time to do so. But there are tenured professors--possibly including Dr. Churchill--who are radical blowhards: offensive and totally lacking in rigor and discipline. Such people are one price we pay for the tenure system. (Some other costs are the burnouts and timeservers on our faculties.) If tenure makes sense, it's because the advantage of protecting trenchant, insightful radicals outweighs the cost of all those blowhards and timeservers. I don't know for sure that this price is worth paying--it probably is. In any case, we should evaluate tenure overall, and not let particular cases dominate our thinking. Thus Churchill may have to be allowed to speak offensively and foolishly in order to uphold an institutional rule that is valuable, overall.

That strikes me as just right. If anything, parsing the Churchill and Summers cases with relation to the institutional issue of academic freedom tends to lead me to the conclusion that Churchill should be defended more strenuously than Summers, since the criticism of Summers is at least in part based on the fact that he is an administrator with the power, presumably, to hire and fire on the basis of his ideas. Churchill's ideas, however, are just the ideas of one man among many others, and a man with no power.

But with no one interested in defending both Summers and Churchill, instead the Plen-T-plainters are just using the two cases to rile up the masses about those damn liberal elites in advance of the push to abolish Social Security (e.g., Jonah Goldberg, and more sadly, since he ought to know better, Andrew Sullivan).

Update, 9:51 pm: As an aside, it amazes me that someone as asinine as Goldberg can continue to get published. By his own testimony, his only qualification for his job at the WSJ is what he calls his "good political judgment." But what are we to make of the political judgment of someone who, when asked him why, if he was so in favor of killing people abroad, he didn't make the sacrifice of signing up to go do it himself, replies that his family needs the money he gets from his work and that he has a daughter?

As Juan Cole tersely put it, "This response made me embarrassed for him.... A young man (and this applies to W. and Cheney too) who mouths off strongly about the desirability of a war is a coward and a hypocrite if he does not go to fight it." No doubt there will be cowardly pro-war people who balk at this and talk about our professional army, comparative skill advantages, the importance of manning the homefront, and so on. But the notion that the army is just another professional group is pretty hard to square with all the patriotic fervor that these same wingers invest in the military, not to mention with the fifteen-hundred-plus-and-counting bodybags that have come home from Iraq. (Is counting bodybags a sign of bad political judgment?) Would it be bad political taste to point out to Goldberg the unprecedented difficulties the active-duty army is having meeting recruitment goals?

Then again, I guess no one should be surprised that a chicken-ass like Goldberg continues to get published. As Cole concludes, "Rich people hire sharp-tongued and relatively uninformed young people all the time and put them on the mass media to badmouth the poor, spread bigotry, exalt mindless militarism, promote anti-intellectualism, and ensure generally that rightwing views come to predominate even among people who are harmed by such policies."


Sam said...

But I think the cases are somewhat different. Churchill is being attacked for his activity as a scholar, protected by tenure and academic freedom. Summers is not being attacked because of what he said as a professor, but as the president of the university, subject to different kinds of legitimacy and accountability. So far as I understand, no one is attacking Summers' right to speak as a professor or as such; they are attacking his legitimacy as president and the leader of a university. The presidency of a university is like the presidency of the country: no one cries foul when presidents lose their constituencies, because that's democracy. The difference is that tenure and academic freedom are designed to entirely insulate faculty from popularity; presidents don't -- shouldn't -- have that insulation.

purpleprose said...

Sam, I agree, and I tried to suggest something similar in the passage after the long blockquote. As I wrote to a friend last night, "It was an unnecessary thing for Summers to have said. It's been blown way out of proportion, to be sure, but it was a remark that anyone with an ounce of sense for how the academy works should have realized would raise hackles. What was dumb was not the statement itself, which can be argued and proved (or disproved) in a variety of ways. What was dumb was for Summers to present musings off the cuff, without any evidentiary basis, thereby revealing that he (either or both) (a) doesn't realize that he has a political job, or/and (b) completely misread the political landscape of his job."