Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Churchill, Horowitz, Plagiarism, and Academic Freedom

The University of Colorado has found that Ward Churchill is guilty of plagiarism and other serious academic misconduct. You can find a short article and Churchill's response in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, a more detailed article in Inside Higher Ed, and various documents at the University of Colorado at Boulder website.

What disturbs me, however, is the academic freedom debate. In this post responding to David Horowitz, I argued that issues of academic freedom need to be decided by faculty because faculty are competent to make judgments about the creation of knowledge (the context of that debate, however, was political bullying by professors). I wrote that:

Horowitz objects that academic freedom is whatever faculty says it is. I agree
that this situation leaves room for cronyism and enforcement of political
consensus [....] but it must be, however the situation changes, that judgments about the proper use of academic freedom are left to professors. [....] In the great majority of cases, non-academics are not competent to make that judgment, because they don't understand how knowledge is created.

So, here we have a judgment rendered by academics, with damning evidence that Churchill committed some of the worst academic sins possible. In my mind, the debate is over. There are cases in which apparent plagiarism or academic honesty can be excused -- editors accidentally removing citations or quotation marks, small record-keeping errors, slips of the memory, dishonest co-authors, etc.-- but Churchill's appears to be a career of dishonesty. Game over, case closed. He's out on his ear, right?

Wrong. Academics, who should be on the forefront of calling for Churchill's ouster, are among those looking for possible ways to keep him from suffering consequences, all in the name of academic freedom. Only one of the committee members is calling for firing him, with recommending more weaselly sanctions -- a suspension of either two or five years. Um, I don't know about the rest of the world, but being suspended for two-or-more years would be akin to firing me, since I can't exactly go without income for years on end. Even more absurdly, the report says that revoking his tenure is "not an improper sanction," (in clear violation of Orwell's not-un construction ban). Uh, by "not improper," don't you mean, "proper?"

But they don't want to be said to have called to fire him ("No, no, I only called for suspension"), and they don't want to be said to have called for revoking his tenure ("No, I never said it was proper. I just said it wasn't improper"). Reading around the blogosphere, I find other academics wondering if we should be defending Churchill as a defense of academic freedom (read the comment section here).

OK, time for a reality check. Academic freedom does not mean freedom to plagiarize. It does not mean freedom to falsify sources. It does not mean freedom to make stuff up. Is it true that Churchill would never have been investigated if there had not been a public outcry against his politics? Almost certainly. But the sin here is not that he has been subject to a politically-motivated investigation; the sin is that he was never subject to an academically-motivated investigation.

I think some people are worried that if administrators don't like their politics, they will have their own publications searched. So what? I wish some administrators would read my publications! If we find situations in which such review falsely concludes academic misconduct, then we can react with outraged cries of "academic freedom."

I argued in my post responding to Horowitz that academics have to be the gatekeepers for academic freedom. Horowitz, in his writings, suggests that academics have proven themselves too irresponsible to police themselves. Please, let's not shame ourselves by proving that verdict right.

[Update -- Steven Taylor's distinction among three different issues -- Churchill's qualifications, Churchill's academic freedom, and Churchill's plagiarism -- is exactly right, I think. Wish I'd have written it so clearly in my own post]


  1. Anonymous12:02 PM

    It is perfectly obvious what is meant by 'not an improper sanction'.

    The relevant section (conclusions, page 103 of 125) should be understood as a whole.

    The phrase 'not an improper sanction' is best understood in the context of an accompanying phrase in the line directly after it occurs.

    This reads: 'one of these members (i.e. the committee members) believes and recommends that dismissal is the most appropriate sanction; the other two believe and recommend that the most appropriate sanction is suspension form University employment without pay for a term of five years.'

    The committee distinguishes between sanctions which are 'not improper' and sanctions which are 'most appropriate'.

    The blog entry does not include any reference to the second, related phrase.

    As an aside, looking through the report, I find that the issue is far less black and white than your blog entry implies.

    The root of the problem is most likely (page 100): "We believe that the University of Colorado may have made the extraordinary decision to hire Professor Churchill, a charismatic public intellectual with no doctorate and no history of regular facult membership at a university, to a tenured position in part because at that moment in the institution's history, it desired the favorable attention his notoriety and following were expected to bring."

    Churchill's unusual road to tenure is (lack of training, inoculation with good research habits etc.), seem to me to be the likely cause of his errors.

  2. Anonymous3:16 PM

    Page numbers refer to:

  3. Anonymous3:31 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Anonymous4:59 PM

    Brendan's a "conceited dandy?" :p

    What's sad is that there's probably going to be all too many people defending him in the end (simply because of the currently political climate in this country). Let's hope he doesn't drag scores of good professors down with him.

  5. Brendan,

    Yes, I understand the way in which the phrase was used, but I would refer to you George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" for a sense of why I object so vociferously to the phrase. I take more of my own philosophy of rhetoric from Orwell than from any other modern writer, so if you still find that insufficient, we are going to have to disagree.

    As for your defense that it is not black and white because he was improperly hired and tenured (no argument from me there), how does that support Churchill? The argument that "We never should have hired the guy, so now we have to keep him no matter what" doesn't make sense to me. The argument that "We never should have hired the guy so now we should fire him and investigate those who hired him" makes a great deal more sense to me. I'm not sure hiring an incompetent should be a firing offense (though it might be), but BEING an incompetent should be a firing offense. So, if you want to claim that Churchill isn't dishonest, he's just incompetent, I'm not sure that gets you anywhere.

  6. Cagey1,

    Please do not call people names on my site. There are other places on the web you can do that if you desire; Unlocked Wordhoard is not one of them.

    Cagey1's comment, with the offending bit removed, read:

    "I'm no academic, but if I put my name on a poem I didn't write, no one I care about would ever speak to me again. It's wrong; I won't do it.

    If I wrap into one of my poems the words of someone else without the use of quotation marks, then I'm assuming the words are generally familiar--no harm, some chuckling, no foul.

    I mean, how intellectually nuanced must this thing be?"

    My apologies to Brendan that the insult appeared on this site, and to Cappy since now the first part of his comment doesn't make sense.

  7. Anonymous9:35 PM

    Well. Apparently I've learned a new four-letter word that, when used in the academic theater, can be as scathing as anything else. I'll put it right up there with "tomfoolery" and "knave."

  8. Anonymous7:09 AM

    Professor Nokes, thanks for your apology but there's no need for it at all (quite embarassing actually).

    Anyway, I missed Cagey1's comments, but I'll take being called a 'conceited dandy', as a
    compliment (I may even get myself a bowtie.....!)

    As an aside, I find his comments lack a sense of proportion: I'm sure Ward Churchill's dog won't bite him when he comes in the door, and that his friends still like him etc., even though he did a bad thing.

    As for your own remarks, I'd like to point out that I didn't try to 'defend' or 'support' Ward Churchill; I just observed that a faulty hiring process is what distinguishes him from the average polemicist (and I wasn't trying to 'get anywhere' by saying so).

    I take your point on the Orwell and 'Politics and the English Language' thing (a great essay I hadn't read before).

    I agree that the committee should just have used 'a proper sanction', rather than 'not an improper sanction', but that's committee-speak (unspeak) for you.

    I still think the phrase is best understood in the context of the whole passage, particularly re: 'most appropriate sanction'/'not an improper sanction' distinction.

  9. Well, as one of the wonderers linked to above, let me say that, as per my usual, I take a pragmatic approach to this. Obviously, there's no defending Churchill's scholarship; but what if the situation were different, and instead of a plagiarist, the scholar in question was a climatologist who made a statement about global warming not to the liking of Horowitz and his ilk? Even if his scholarship is sparkling, the precedent this decision sets could lead to him wasting endless time defending his research to people unfamiliar with its standards, &c. It could foreseeably create incredible gridlock, both in his life and in his field. Politicians could stymie the development of unpopular research via an endless bureaucracy in which it could involve scholars. It'd de facto accomplish what it can't legislate from without.

    Increasingly, I think the solution must be a more robust internal system of evaluating the quality of scholarship. But I'm genuinely thinking pragmatically about this, and could, as always, be grossly mistaken.

  10. Scott,

    I guess I find it mystifying that we're in disagreement, since we seem to agree on almost every element except the final conclusion. You wrote, "I think the solution must be a more robust internal system of evaluating the quality of scholarship," and I agree, both because it keeps the evaluative process in academic hands, and (more importantly), just because it is professionally responsible.

    But your example of the climatologist is of someone whose research is unpopular, not dishonest. Presumably, said climatologist would not have plagiarized, and would be exhonorated. Is it a shame he had to defend himself against baseless charges? Of course -- but we have similar interruptions every time we have to defend our careers in the tenure & promotion process.

    One last point -- what if the shoe were on the other foot? What if you found a student who had plagiarized in your class, and you discovered that the student had been cheating his way through his entire education? Would you suggest that if the student is unpopular, he should be given a pass because professors of ill will might start looking for plagiarism in the papers of other unpopular students? Of course not. You would justly note that both popular and unpopular students need to be held to account for dishonesty.

    I guess I'm thinking that the practical outcome of your conclusions would be that only people doing popular scholarship that was widely-accepted in the academic world would be held to an ethical standard. To me, that seems unpragmatic.

  11. I think we're fundamentally in agreement about the "quality" of Churchill's work and the desire to defend it, but that we differ on this point:

    But your example of the climatologist is of someone whose research is unpopular, not dishonest.

    That's why I chose it. I've no desire to defend Churchill, but I can easily imagine an unpopular scholar being attacked despite the quality of his scholarship because it's politically inconvenient. If we cave to political pressure in this instance, do we open the door to endless future inquiries? Given the resources someone like Horowitz has vs. those the average academic does, I can imagine some people would shy away from certain fields, or departments from potential hires, because they fear the sensitivity of the topic overwhelms the quality of the scholarship. All of which would be in addition to the interruptions of the tenure and promotion process. (And, of course, they could hinder those efforts and enter into the tenure decision, too.)

    All I'm saying, then, is that I hope this is a singular instance of outside pressure creates a more assiduous internal self-policing mechanism and a little more transparency in tenure and promotion.

  12. Scott,

    What you call "cav[ing] to political pressure in this instance," I call application of ethical standards. If Churchill were publishing POPULAR tripe and was found to have committed the same sins, the same standard should be applied to him in that case as well.

    I'm really not clear on why people are concerned about "endless future inquiries" (you obviously aren't the only one with that concern). Isn't that what the whole peer review process of published work is about?

    I won't belabor the point any further, except to say this: a committee of faculty, examining the published (not private) works of a colleague, found many examples of blatant academic dishonesty. Whether it be a popular academic (like Hwang Woo-Suk), or an unpopular academic (like Ward Churchill), academics should not tolerate such behavior.

  13. Anonymous11:11 PM

    Dr. Nokes, Brendan, Cappy, et al:

    I was rushed & glib in using the adjective I used. I will own to being normally insouciant, but I'm not (given an adequate time frame) glib. I meant no insult to anyone.

    Let me try (being the most trying person I know) this: as an underling, watching an over-lord escape censure for breaking a law underlings perforce must obey, I was and contunue to be a bit ticked. Ezra Pound once said "Petty larceny, under a regime founded on grand larceny, might be deemed conformity."

    I, personally, don't want to conform to such a standard as Churchill sets.

    That's all I meant.

    Brendan, if you want me to send you one of my bowties (or a new one or your choosing), let's find a way for it to happen.

  14. Anonymous7:15 AM

    Cagey1 - I think I'll try to build up to wearing a bowtie (I've just turned 25, so I'm not sure that I can pull off the look just yet?).

    Thanks for the offer though.

    While I'm here (as such), this seems to me to be imporant to the debate at large:

    Dr. Nokes said:

    "In the great majority of cases, non-academics are not competent to make that judgment, because they don't understand how knowledge is created."

    I think this underestimates the non-specialist; theory is not something which occurs at a remove from the 'real' world.

    Academia has created a language which makes theory esoteric (oh, the irony.

    I think in many ways theory, our way of knowing the world, is innate - but it can be difficult to articulate.

    I think every person has their own ideas on the great philosophical / epistemological questions.

    Anyway, I think the point I'm trying to make is kind of clear - although I haven't articulated it as well as I'd like.

    Theory is innate 'natural', not special or requiring of particular skill, or 'everyone has theory' (although they may not articulate it in academic language).

    I've found the above pretty hard to articulate myself! I hope the point I'm trying to make is in there somewhere.

    Finally, I've enjoyed following this exchange - well done to the Wordhoard.

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