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]