My Exchange With Air Force Cadet Robert Kurpiel: Seven Years On

These are undated photos of former Air Force cadet, now presumably officer Robert Kurpiel, a graduate of the Air Force Academy in 2006. The falcon is the mascot of A.F.A. and it appears he is a falconer or engaged in some type of bird-training activity. Note the protective guard over his hand and forearm.

The cadet sent me an e-mail on October 31, 2002 soliciting support, publicity and attendance at an “Academic Assembly” event at the Colorado Springs institution. I responded with a robust, anti-war, denunciation of the military and the cadet. This, otherwise protected speech under the Constitution, was widely circulated and I became a centerpiece in the culture wars. This led to a Veterans Day suspension and subsequent three-year reprimand by Air Force veteran Richard Yanikoski, former president of St Xavier University and president until August 2010 of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. If only he were a pacifist like me!!

This was one of the more highly publicised academic freedom cases of the current century in which The Wall Street Journal editorialised frequently for sanctions. It was covered by the Weekly Standard and major academic freedom organisations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education defended my rights and protected my career.

Since this event transpired seven years ago today, I have increasingly involved myself in academic freedom activities. I was elected to the Illinois Council of the state conference of the American Association of University Professors. I was then elected vice-president and recently appointed chair of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

I published two items in the last two months related to academic freedom. One is a book chapter, “Challenges to Academic Freedom Since 9/11,” in Matthew Morgan, ed., The Impact of 9/11 and the New Legal Landscape: The Day That Changed Everything (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 57-74 on the topic. The other has just been released that is an article on academic freedom that appears  in Roger Chapman, ed., Encyclopedia of the Culture Wars, M.E. Sharpe Press, 2009, Vol 1, 5-7. Every book chapter, every scholarly article, every lecture, every op-ed that I have written on the topic of academic freedom includes some reference to my case.

I hope at this point Officer Kurpiel is doing well and that he learned too from the incident. I have previosuly published additional e-mail he and I exchanged subsequent to our initial exchange that by all accounts should have ended this controversy and was indeed told by Dr Yanikoski that it had. Yet as the thunder of the right began to blow heavy on our campus, principles became swamped by short-term pragmatic decisions to “save the institution” but a counter-thunder that will not be silenced emerged from the ashes of the inquisition.

I can report that since the departure of Dr Yanikoski on October 1, 2003, the situation on campus both personally and institutionally has become considerably more supportive of critical thinking, controversial speech and academic freedom. The test of academic leadership is not its support of academic freedom in irenic times but when controversy emerges and institutional pressures are mounting. That is the time when long-term visionary concerns needs to be balanced against the constraints of the present. Faculty also have responsiblities to exercise academic freedom within parameters and not abuse the trust their position confers upon them. The issue of punishment, of sanctions, however, raises the issue to a more distinct level of responsiblity. Speech, even controversial, inflammatory speech is best countered by more speech, by more debate and not by silencing speech which eviscerates the pursuit of the truth and stymies critical thinking.

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