Revolution: Fall 2007
Reverse the Firings
Purge of Professors Accelerates Suppression of Critical Thinking
As the school year opens on campuses around the country, an ominous chill is in the air. For years right-wing political forces have been working, largely behind the scenes and “below the radar,” to suppress dissent and critical thinking on campus. These forces include Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice-President Dick Cheney who started the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA); and David Horowitz, who founded the fascistic student group Students for Academic Freedom (SAF) and is an intimate of Karl Rove.
Their aim? Turn the university into a zone of uncontested indoctrination in the values and mind-set of empire.
The scope and scale of this dangerous and accelerating attack is not widely recognized, or understood. But just this summer two major universities purged controversial scholars highly regarded by their students, their departments, and in their fields—Native American Studies Professor Ward Churchill from the University of Colorado at Boulder; and Norman Finkelstein from DePaul University in Chicago. In addition, the trustees of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio—long known for its radical and open-minded approach to education—announced the school’s shutdown, despite fierce opposition from students, faculty and alumni groups around the country.
While the circumstances surrounding each of these decisions are different, together they mark a dangerous leap in this reactionary agenda; they must not be allowed to stand.
Why Were Churchill and Finkelstein Targeted?
What “crimes” did these two* scholars commit? In short—contributing to research and scholarship that calls into question core assumptions about this country’s history; about its role in the world; and the role of Israel, a strategic ally.
Tenured Professor Ward Churchill was fired by CU’s Board of Regents on July 24, 2 1/2 years after a controversial essay he wrote after 9/11 became the object of a nationwide witch-hunt involving two Republican governors, the reactionary TV & talk radio megaphones, and Horowitz and ACTA. The university first tried to see if Churchill could be fired for the content of his writings. Then they switched the form of attack, and now claim he’s being fired for shoddy scholarship. Claims of research misconduct against Churchill have been shown by many scholars to be either completely bogus or grossly exaggerated.
As Anthony Romero, the national Executive Director of the ACLU, said, “The investigation of Professor Churchill’s scholarship cannot be separated from the indefensible lynch-mob furor that generated the initial calls for his termination. Firing Professor Churchill in these circumstances does not send a message about academic rigor and standards of professional integrity. On the contrary, it sends a warning to the academic community that politically unpopular dissenters speak out at their peril.” In reality Churchill was fired not because of errors in his scholarship, but because of inconvenient truths his scholarship raises—the genocide of the indigenous peoples and the FBI targeting of political opposition in the 1960’s—and his dissenting views on 9/11.
On June 8, DePaul University President Dennis Holtschneider notified Professor Norman Finkelstein that he was denied tenure—and essentially fired—by the country’s largest Catholic university. This followed a year-long campaign against Finkelstein led by Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor and torture advocate. Finkelstein, whose parents survived Nazi death camps, is a fierce critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, of U.S. complicity, and of Israel’s Zionist defenders in this country. Dershowitz is a zealous defender of everything Israel has done against the Palestinian people.
Holtschneider admitted Finkelstein is a “nationally known scholar and public intellectual, considered provocative, challenging and intellectually interesting.” But it accuses him of “unprofessional personal attacks” that “polarize and simplify conversations that deserve layered and subtle consideration.” His work supposedly “shifts toward advocacy and away from scholarship” and “fails to meet the most basic standards governing scholarly discourse within the academic community.” The President of the Illinois conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) wrote to DePaul that these grounds for denying promotion violate the standards of the AAUP—and those of DePaul’s own faculty handbook.
The impact of these purges, if they aren’t reversed, will be far-reaching. Tom Mayer, CU—Boulder Professor of Sociology, wrote in the midst of the witch-hunt: “The permanent or temporary expulsion of Ward Churchill would be an immense loss for CU. In one fell swoop we would become a more tepid, more timid, and more servile institution. His expulsion would deprive students of contact with a potent challenger of accepted cognitive frameworks. The social sciences desperately need the kind of challenge presented by Ward Churchill.” Raul Hilberg, pre-eminent scholar of Jewish Holocaust studies, said of DePaul’s decision, “I have a sinking feeling about the damage this will do to academic freedom.”
Who’s next? These decisions send a clear message: Stay clear of scholarly inquiry that could challenge core myths and official “truths”—or your job, and maybe even your career, will be finished. Another DePaul professor, Matthew Abraham, drew on a colleague’s comparison of the Churchill and Finkelstein cases to public executions, and said: “You don’t need to do ten or twenty of them. You just need to do four or five just to keep people in line and to have them remember what can happen if you get carried away with your speech. Ward and Norman, these are top-flight scholars, and if they can take them out, believe me they wouldn’t hesitate to take out people of much lesser stature.”
The effect is clear. Those students who come to college to learn about and change the world will find a climate of fear, the exact opposite of the spirit of critical inquiry and daring to challenge the status quo they should expect. They will run into professors who’ll think twice before sponsoring speakers or activist groups, or who decide not to bring controversial speakers to their classrooms for fear of harassment, or worse. They’ll find administrators deciding to dis-invite prominent but controversial scholars, as the Graduate Center at the City University of New York just did to University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer and Harvard Professor Stephen M. Walt, who dare in a recent book to criticize the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. Students will find fewer and fewer opportunities and avenues to explore refutations of the ‘official narrative’ on any number of controversial and vital questions—this country’s origins in slavery, genocide, and the theft of land; its current international aggression in the Middle East and around the world; the true history of revolution and socialism, etc. The stakes involved are tremendous.
Today’s campuses are a far cry from the “leftist dictatorships” claimed by those behind these attacks. But there is in academia still more space than there is in the rest of society for critical thinking to be encouraged and for dissent from the official narrative to still find air to be expressed. This is essential to the role of the university, and this academic ferment stimulates and influences the rest of society. For that very reason, these attacks aim to change not just the universities in a radically reactionary way, but to affect all of society.
The closing of Antioch College has to be seen in this context. Its Board of Trustees couched their closure decision in terms of lack of financial resources and low numbers of student admissions. But the newly appointed president of Antioch, Steve Lawry, told the New York Times that the college “became less about intellectual rigor, than a political and social experience…. The boot camp of the revolution became the model.” The trustees hired a consultant who talked of shutting down the campus to “cleanse the ghosts” of the ’60s/early ’70s spirit of questioning and rebellion. It was this, rather than financial problems, which drove the shutdown—and that inspired the right-wing columnist George Will to devote a nationally syndicated column to crowing about it. Coming on top of the firings, this is a further serious blow.
As we wrote in our supplement to Issue #81—“Warning: The Nazification of the American University”—“If this reactionary program wins out, universities will be turning out students who will have had little, if any, opportunity to think critically, into a society qualitatively more severely repressive than anything seen in this country’s history.” Cores of faculty and students at both DePaul and the University of Colorado—Boulder are fighting to oppose these faculty dismissals, and Antioch alumni are organizing opposition to its closure. Every student and every scholar committed to the search for the truth and to the importance of ferment and the clash of ideas in arriving at it, should be alarmed and searching for ways to join their efforts to reverse these decisions, and the whole direction for the campus that they reinforce.
* DePaul Professor Mehrene Larudee, who had organized support for Finkelstein as he came under attack, has also been denied tenure. Her case is also being taken up by those fighting for Finkelstein to be tenured. [back]
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