What did I say? What did I say?
Excerpt from a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed appears here.
A shorter excerpt:
One morning a few weeks back, David A. Sandoval was sitting in his office at Colorado State University at Pueblo and speaking to a local reporter on the telephone. The reporter had called to get the Chicano-studies professor's opinion on Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado at Boulder professor who had recently tripped the switch of national outrage by calling the victims of the World Trade Center bombings "little Eichmanns."
In the firebrand's defense, Mr. Sandoval offered the standard-issue rhetoric of academic freedom: Mr. Churchill's words were hurtful and terrible, yes, but it was nonetheless "appropriate for him to raise the issues" as a university professor. However, with the reporter's next question, the conversation dropped abruptly from the rhetorical sphere.
Can you think of any circumstances, the reporter asked, where a professor's speech would constitute a firing offense?
"Yeah," said Mr. Sandoval, "I would pull professor Dan Forsyth from the classroom in a second."
With that, yet another investigation of a professor was set into motion, one that would follow a pattern that is fast becoming typical. In the shadow of the Ward Churchill controversy, the past several weeks have seen a flurry of verdicts handed down from ad hoc investigative committees -- some of them the result of proceedings lasting years; some spurred by complaints made against professors in recent months; all of them vying for the same awkward balance between defending academic freedom and demonstrating public accountability.
In some precincts of the debate over academic freedom, commentators say these investigations are just a natural outgrowth of scholarly debate -- an honest effort to get to the bottom of things. Others contend these are not really investigations, but inquisitions.
If you read the story, you find that Ward Churchill wrote some controversial (okay, insulting and stupid) stuff, and Dan Forsyth said some controversial (again, insulting and stupid) stuff to students in his class.
To me, that makes a world of difference. You can write anything you want, because of academic freedom. That doesn't mean it's good, or should be rewarded with tenure (do you hear me, U of Col?), but universities simply cannot punish profs for anything they write. Nothing. Ward Churchill, you go, girl.
But...in the classroom? C'mon. Dan, Dan, Dan: If the claims are true, and you really said to students what it is claimed you said, you deserve to be punished. Not because you said stuff that was wrong (no truth squads patrolling the hallways, please), but because you are a terrible teacher.
I share F.I.R.E.'s concern about investigations becoming witch hunts. We have a non-partisan concern about political correctness of the left or the right exerting a chilling effect on academic discourse.
But you can't direct racist harangues at students. You can't do that. Here is the money quote from the Chronicle article:
It just so happened that, shortly before the phone rang with the reporter's call, a student had come to Mr. Sandoval's office to discuss a class she had attended the day before -- taught by Dan W. Forsyth, an anthropology professor at Pueblo. The student, a Chicana freshman named Victoria Watson, had brought with her a written complaint that described the last few minutes of the class, when she said Mr. Forsyth ranted about "lazy, bitter Mexicans." Ms. Watson then wrote that, when she moved to exit the classroom before the end of her professor's tirade, Mr. Forsyth yelled "screw you."
I don't think this happens very often. I also think that it is more likely to happen with profs on the extreme left, and there are plenty in the academy. But if I...if we...don't all decry this kind of teaching, there is no credibility in the defense of the real academic freedoms. To my mind, profs have much greater responsibilities to civility and moderation in the classroom than they do in the written page. Dan Forsyth, shame on you, man.
(nod to TtwbC: thanks!)