Academic Freedom is a Double-Edged Sword

Over the past few days I’ve been bombarded with e-mails regarding the Ward Churchill scandal. Many have expressed astonishment at how someone like Churchill could have been hired in the first place, let alone tenured and made chair of a department.

It’s a good question, but it’s not one that any of the academics who’ve written me have asked. We already know the answer.

One of the many ironies of this scandal that threatens to undermine academic freedom is that it couldn’t have happened if those who decided to hire, tenure and promote Churchill had taken advantage of academic freedom themselves.

The privileges created by tenure are supposed to insulate faculty from political pressures in general and censorship in particular. Yet those of us in the academy, if we were candid, would have to admit that few places are more riddled with the distorting effects of politics and censorship than university faculties.

Academics claim to despise censorship, but the truth is we do a remarkably good job of censoring ourselves. This is especially true in regard to affirmative action. Who among us can claim to have spoken up every time a job candidate almost as preposterous as Ward Churchill was submitted for our consideration? Things like the Churchill fiasco are made possible by a web of lies kept intact by a conspiracy of silence.

The University of Colorado hired Ward Churchill onto its faculty because he claimed to be an American Indian. Anyone who has the slightest familiarity with research universities can glance at his resume and state this with something close to complete confidence.

Churchill thus represents the reductio ad absurdum of the contemporary university’s willingness to subordinate all other values to affirmative action. When such a grotesque fraud _ a white man pretending to be an Indian, an intellectual charlatan spewing polemical garbage festooned with phony footnotes, a shameless demagogue fabricating imaginary historical incidents to justify his pathological hatreds, a plagiarist who steals and distorts the work of real scholars _ manages to scam his way into a full professorship at what is still a serious research university, we know the practice of affirmative action has hit rock bottom. Or at least we can hope so.

As someone of generally liberal political inclinations, I support affirmative action in principle. (And I have surely benefited from it in practice: my parents came to this country from Mexico in the year of my birth, and I spoke no English when I started school). In theory, the argument that aggressively seeking out persons of diverse backgrounds can enrich the intellectual life of the university has great force.

Affirmative action is based, in part, on the idea that it will help us understand the viewpoints of the conquered as well as those of the conqueror, of the weak as well as the strong, of those far from power as well as those who wield it.

Too often, these sentiments are abused by those who sacrifice intellectual integrity while engaging in the most extreme forms of preferential hiring. Ward Churchill’s career provides a lurid illustration of what can happen _ indeed, of what we know will happen _ when academic standards are prostituted in the name of increasing diversity.

Tenure and academic freedom are hard to defend if they don’t provide we who benefit from them with the minimal degree of courage necessary to say, when confronted by someone like Churchill, enough is enough.

If even the extraordinary protections of tenure don’t lead us to condemn a fraud of this magnitude in unmistakable and unapologetic terms, then we don’t deserve them. What else is academic freedom for?

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)