Part II Excerpts: Professor Kirstein Remarks at DePaul University Academic Freedom Conference

These are the remainder of my remarks that were delivered at the stirring DePaul University Academic Freedom Conference on February 2, 2008. I replicate the conclusion that appeared in the first portion of my remarks but have added the content on Mister Ward Churchill and Doctor Nadia Abu El-Haj: 

A Profile in Courage: C.U. Regent Cindy Carlisle voted against firing Ward Churchill

Ward Churchill, a tenured University of Colorado professor of ethnic studies, condemned in an article American foreign relations and asserted the September 11, 2001 attacks were defensive in nature. Mr Churchill used such descriptions as “little Eichmanns” and “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire” to refer to the casualties that were trapped in the burning World Trade Center towers in Manhattan.[1] He defended Al Qaeda’s strategic targeting as aimed at American capitalism and hegemonic profligacy. In February, 2005, several years after the article’s publication, its content was used to prevent Mr Churchill’s appearance on a dissent and critical thinking panel at Hamilton College in New York. The event was canceled because a well-intentioned, progressive college was bullied with threats of violence and financial repercussions if it did not disinvite Mr Churchill.

On February 2, 2005, Bill Owens, Republican governor of Colorado, in an egregious intrusion upon an academician’s right of free speech, recommended the firing of Mr Churchill. The University of Colorado investigated the matter and refused to impose sanctions for protected speech under the First Amendment. Mr Churchill was then gratuitously charged with academic misconduct ranging from plagiarism, ghost-writing and the misuse of sources on small-pox blanket transmission to Native Americans in 1837.

The Standing Committee on Research Misconduct, despite the absence of Native American scholars on the panel, claimed Mr Churchill was guilty of research misconduct and recommended his termination, although some preferred a multi-year suspension without pay. Interim-chancellor Phil DiStefano recommended the revocation of his continuous tenure on June 26, 2006.[2]  Still another university committee, the Privilege and Tenure Committee, heard an appeal against dismissal and recommended a one-year suspension and reduction in rank from professor to assistant professor.[3]

Mr Churchill was suspended from the classroom in spring 2006 and, while on paid leave, was barred from teaching during the entire 2006-2007 academic year. American Association of University Professors guidelines and policies on suspensions are explicit. A suspension of a professor is valid only “if immediate harm to the faculty member or others is threatened.” This is contained in a multiplicity of documents that include the ninth “1970 Interpretive Comment” of the “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” the “1958 Statement on Procedural Standards in Faculty Dismissal Proceedings” and the revised 1999 “Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure.”

Hank Brown, president of C.U. and a supporter of Lynne Cheney’s 1995 creation, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, subsequently recommended removal of the tenured professor in a letter to the Board of Regents. Democratic Colorado Governor August William “Bill” Ritter, Jr., as did his cowardly predecessor, also demanded the dismissal of Mr Churchill. The ideological persecution was certainly non-partisan. The process returned to the Privilege and Tenure Committee, and the Board of Regents by a vote of 8-1, revoked the continuous tenure of Mr Churchill on July 25, 2007.[4]

While Barnard College anthropology Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj was granted tenure this past fall, her seminal monograph, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society generated websites, blogs and online petitions that tried to use virtual referenda to deny her tenure; there were pro-tenure online efforts as well.

Dan Rabinowitz and Ronen Shamir of Tel Aviv University in a recent article, “Who Got to Decide on Nadia Abu El-Haj’s Tenure,” Academe, named Paula Stern, a Barnard University alumnus, living in an Israeli settlement in occupied Palestine, as having initiated the “Deny Nadia Abu El-Haj Tenure” petition. The authors report primarily American Jews signed the anti-tenure petition. Professor Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University, in his remarks at the October 12, 2007 University of Chicago academic freedom conference in Rockefeller Chapel, revealed that most of the opposition to his receiving tenure emanated from American Jews, not Ben Gurion University or other Israeli academics. Professors Gordon, Rabinowitz and Shamir affirm it is easier for Israeli academics to criticise Israel than it is for Americans. To quote Rabinowitz and Shamir:

To put it bluntly, their sensitivity [and they are referring to some American Jews] to critical inquiry that questions the practices and sensibilities of Israel and Israelis is much greater than anything we have experienced in the Israeli academic, public, or political arenas. Israeli academia, by and large, is fairly tolerant when it comes to critical thinking in the social sciences and the humanities… Israeli academic institutions are tolerant when it comes to critical thinking voiced by Jewish Israelis… Not so in the United States, where the prevailing climate, especially among Zionist Americans, tends to label dissenting voices-regardless of the scientific merit they reflect-as anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist and to try to suppress them.

Norman Finkelstein, Ward Churchill, Nadia Abu El-Haj and I were involved in highly charged controversies that were propelled by forces external to our respective institutions. We must resist censorship from those who equate support for the Palestinians or opposition to American imperialism as unworthy of an academician. We must resist the armies of the night who want “to cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom” and turn academia into an extension of interest-group politics. We must defend our students, who ultimately represent the voice of change of a new generation, by preserving their access to critical thinking from dissenting professors from the current order. We must challenge complacent tenured faculty to abandon their diffidence and sense of comfort and rethink their role as defenders of institutional order and culture to join the fight against repression and censorship.

We must confront the new McCarthyism with its David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, Alan Dershowitz, Lynne Cheney and Laura Ingraham and demand that progressive voices will be heard and progressive calls for international peace and security will not be silenced. We must denounce universities that are complicit in this unseemly, autocratic purge of idealistic professors who defy the canon of Judeo-Christian elitism and American exceptionalism. Professors should profess and not be silent. To be silent, is to lie and accept the destruction of academic freedom and the inevitable closing of the American mind.


[1] Ward Churchill, “‘Some People Push Back’: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” Pockets of Resistance, #11, September 2001.[2] Hank Brown to Patricia “Pat” Hayes, May 25, 2007.[3] Jennifer Brown, “CU Plans to Fire Churchill,” Denver Post, August 14, 2006; “Ward Churchill Defends His Academic Record & Vows to Fight to Keep His Job at University of Colorado,” Democracy Now with Amy Goodman! September 27, 2006. http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/09/27/146255[4] The dissenting vote was cast by Cindy Carlisle, who as regent represents the 2nd Congressional district. She argued the regents should not impose sanctions beyond those recommended by the Privilege and Tenure committee.

This entry was posted in Academia/Academic Freedom. Bookmark the permalink.