Divisive college professors are nothing new in academia. Every so
often, though, they catch the public's attention and stir up
The latest case in point: University of Colorado Prof. Ward
Churchill, whose controversial essay likening 9/11 victims to Nazis
has reignited the long-simmering debate over tenure and academic
freedom in higher education.
With the university now reviewing whether he deserves to keep his
tenured post, the case is unique in its details yet symbolic of
larger concerns about the quality and content of American academia.
Public outrage over Mr. Churchill's treatise naturally led to
calls for his job - the loudest among them coming from Colorado's
Republican Gov. Bill Owens and conservative state lawmakers.
"Ward Churchill is a wake-up call and is going to be a cause
celebre for the right and for reform," Governor Owens said.
Churchill is a fully tenured professor in CU's Department of
Ethnic Studies. That protected status - granted by academic peers
for achievement in a body of scholarship - means it's incredibly
difficult oust him from his $92,000-a-year job at Colorado's largest
and most respected research university.
But, faced with tremendous public pressure, university officials
may be moving toward firing Mr. Churchill anyway. The grounds would
not be his unpopular essay. Recently, administrators ordered the
school's Standing Committee on Research Misconduct to delve into
allegations of plagiarism and whether Mr. Churchill - who claims
Native American lineage - lied about his heritage to gain
credibility as an American Indian activist and scholar.
The aim of tenure
The tenure system - originally designed to foster academic
freedom and protect professors from the constantly shifting winds of
politics - is used at almost all of the nation's universities.
Approximately 500,000 professors have been granted tenure, said
Richard Chait, a professor of education at Harvard's Graduate School
"These stories come and go," Chait said. "They're volcanic at the
moment, but when all the lava, ashes and heat dies down, life
becomes fairly normal again. I don't think isolated instances of
controversial speech actually create much traction in tenure
Still, in an era of rising tuition costs, questions about the
current tenure system do crop up. The University of Nevada, Las
Vegas, for example, fired a tenured professor on the basis of a
university rule allowing administrators to remove instructors after
two bad performance reviews. But the professor prevailed and won his
job back after a decade-long legal battle.
Now, in Colorado, politicians charge that tenure is a system has
become damaged to the point that reform is needed.
"Over the years individual schools, administrations, and faculty
senates have made their own rules regarding tenure," Owens said.
"We've created a situation that serves the interest of the tenured
faculty very well, but it doesn't serve the interest of the larger
community. Lost in all of this, has been the relatively rare case
where a tenured professor richly deserves to be fired." Churchill,
he said, is just one of those professors.
Most tenure experts and scholars agree, the now infamous essay is
not grounds for firing because it is protected as free speech by the
First Amendment of the US Constitution and the school's tenure
system, which contractually bars firing a professor simply for
saying something controversial.
"Clearly, these types of analysis and critiques are often
unpopular, sometimes they are ill-founded, sometimes they are proven
to be wrong, but unless we create a haven where such types of
expression can be set forth, subject to the countercriticism by
peers and others, then we handicap ourselves as a society in a
severe way," says Jack Schuster, a professor of education and public
policy at California's Claremont Graduate University. …