Truth Does Matter

This is absolutely fascinating.

When the University of Colorado moved last month to fire Ward Churchill, there was not much of an organized defense among professors – even among those in the academic left. That may be changing, although some believe it shouldn’t change and risks devaluing what the academic left stands for.

Sound belief. Because if the academic left turns out to stand for left more than for academic, then it does indeed risk devaluing what the academic left stands for. If you’re an academic (as opposed to an advertiser, or a public relations expert, or a movie-maker, or a novelist) you’ve undertaken a commitment not to let your leftism or rightism trump your academic responsibility, which is first of all to get at the truth as best you can. It is certainly not to claim that fraud and plagiarism should be overlooked if they are detected under unfortunate circumstances.

The debate might be summed up in an analogy offered by one of the faculty panels that reviewed Churchill and found that he committed, intentionally, all kinds of research misconduct. Committee members said that they were uncomfortable with the fact that Colorado ignored serious allegations against Churchill for years, and took them seriously only when his politics attracted attention. The panel compared the situation to one in which a motorist is stopped for speeding because a police officer doesn’t like the bumper sticker on her car. If she was speeding, she was speeding — regardless of the officer’s motives, the panel said. A group of professors…have joined forces to say that the officer’s motives do matter, and may matter more than the speeding. And they are organizing a petition drive, drawing support from some big-name academics, against Churchill’s dismissal.

Very few big-name academics, though. At least so far. But there is one big name that got my attention: Andrew Ross. Ross makes a cameo appearance in Why Truth Matters, saying some – hmm – provocative things about the truth-value of science.

Others on the left disagree. Campus Progress, published to provide a liberal take on issues for college students, came out against Churchill last week, releasing an article that said: “Progressive advocates of academic freedom should not rally to Churchill’s side. They should oppose the targeting of professors for their beliefs, even vile ones like Churchill’s. But the charges against Churchill justify his termination because fraud and plagiarism, as much as censorship, threaten academic integrity.”

Just so. And having scholars get up a petition that makes fraud and plagiarism a matter of academic freedom does not do much to protect academic integrity.

“I support his right to academic freedom, but not his right to plagiarize, not his right to create a fraudulent identity, nor his right to do faulty research,” said Oneida Meranto, a professor of political science and director of Native American studies…[S]he is also among a number of Native American scholars who for years have been complaining about the quality of Churchill’s scholarship. But the left, and specifically the white left in academe, didn’t much care about all of these problems until some saw him as an academic freedom case, Meranto said. There are academic freedom issues in his case, she said, and she’s not entirely comfortable with the way it has been handled. But she added that she would “not support Ward Churchill – the man or the myth” and that it was unfair for “academic freedom absolutists” to portray Churchill as a cause around which others should rally.

There you go. She doesn’t support his right to plagiarize, nor his right to do faulty research. Nor should she, nor should the rest of the left.

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