Controversial stances covered by academic free speech

One of the more difficult jobs in America right now is serving as a member of the Board of Regents at the University of Colorado. It has undertaken a review of tenured ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill’s writing and statements to determine if grounds exist for firing, lesser punishment or no action at all. Churchill’s now well-publicized 2001 essay, titled “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” compared victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to Nazi death camp facilitator Adolf Eichmann. The angry reaction to his statements, while understandable, needs to be balanced with the importance of diverse views and opinions on college campuses today.

I am sure the Board of Regents would just like to put this whole situation neatly behind it and focus on other challenges at the university, but this issue won’t go away. The quandary in which it finds itself is really a no-win situation. As USF has learned firsthand via the Sami Al-Arian case, dismissal of a tenured professor is a difficult process that can draw the sort of attention no school wants. On the other hand, to do nothing about Churchill will cause attention as well, much of which would arise from those who listen to the daily rants of Bill O’Reilly, who is only too quick to give out names, numbers and e-mail addresses to his foot soldiers to fight his battles.

The Board of Regents should avoid passing judgment based on individual comments and opinions from Churchill. It needs to focus on the bigger issues at stake and allow him to remain on the faculty.

When I originally heard Churchill’s remarks, I too was enraged. After all, America’s post-Sept. 11 healing is far from complete and any analogy to the Holocaust seems particularly misguided and inflammatory. It is important to understand, though, that the key issue here is much bigger than one professor’s ideology. The issue is the challenge to the nature and effectiveness of academic freedom.

If academia will not allow professors with differing and often inflammatory ideas to make their case in a safe and thought-provoking environment, then the education system will be comprised of one-sided institutional indoctrination. Success for institutions of higher learning includes the healthy debate of ideas that challenge the belief systems students bring to campus. Diversity is more than just a word used in recruiting brochures. It means actively protecting the freedom of expression for those with views different than our own.

If Churchill’s views affected how he graded his students based on their personal opinions, the situation would be different. If Churchill were advocating a seditious overthrow of the government — clearly an illegal act — it should not be permitted. However, Churchill has, up to this point, only used spoken and written words in an attempt to foster dialogue amongst his audience about the sometimes harsh and underreported effects of American foreign policy.

Until a few weeks ago, very few people had heard or read the controversial statements written by this Vietnam veteran and ethnic studies professor. Now, due to daily print media and talk-radio stardom, Churchill’s academic career is under the microscope. We can only hope that the level of debate surrounding the professor and his opinions can rise above Bill O’Reilly’s assertions that Churchill is incompetent.

It remains to be seen what, if any, long-term effects the debate about Churchill and his academic freedom will have on American colleges and universities. The institutions that display the fortitude to open their campuses to different and sometimes extreme views will succeed in going beyond rote textbook learning to foster healthy introspection. It is this introspection that will either reinforce existing ideas or create new ones, both vital to the ongoing quest for knowledge.

Aaron Hill is a junior majoring in chemistry.