Columnists > Voices

Free radicals

Some types of speech are freer than others on U.S. campuses

Issue: "Schiavo’s fight for life," April 2, 2005

Some 200 faculty members of the University of Colorado signed a full-page newspaper ad in defense of their colleague Ward Churchill, the ethnic studies professor who argues that the 9/11 victims got what they deserved (see WORLD, March 12). The ad claims that the university's current investigations into Mr. Churchill- articularly his false claim on affirmative action forms to be an American Indian, the plagiarism in his publications, his grading down students who disagree with him, and his public advocacy of violence and law-breaking-could have a "chilling effect" on free speech and academic freedom.

Strangely, none of these advocates of free speech and academic freedom have taken out an ad in support of another of their University of Colorado colleagues, history teacher Phil Mitchell. He was informed that his contract would not be renewed, despite 20 years of teaching there and his 1998 winning of the SOAR teaching award, chosen by students as the best teacher on campus.

What was Mr. Mitchell's fireable offense? In a class discussion, he quoted the words of Thomas Sowell and other black critics of affirmative action. That is not allowed at the University of Colorado. Notice that the outlawed ideas were not even Mr. Mitchell's, but from someone else. But that was enough to draw charges of "racism," even though Mr. Mitchell is the adopted father of two black children. Earlier Mr. Mitchell, an evangelical Christian, got into hot water for using a book on liberal Protestantism in an American history class, which offended some people for mentioning "God."

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Mr. Mitchell has an earned doctorate, unlike Mr. Churchill. He has not been charged with scholarly plagiarism, as Mr. Churchill had. Nor did Mr. Mitchell falsely claim to be black, as Mr. Churchill falsely claimed to be Indian. And doesn't the utterance of a particular policy position qualify for free speech and academic freedom protection, at least as much as Mr. Churchill's defense of terrorism?

A big difference in the cases, though, is that Mr. Churchill has tenure, but Mr. Mitchell does not. Mr. Churchill was rushed through the tenure process despite his lack of a doctorate and the questionable quality of his scholarship because the university thought it important to increase the diversity of tenured faculty. Mr. Churchill counted, even though he only claimed to be 1/16th Cherokee and tribal records dispute even that amount.

Tenure-the guarantee of lifetime employment-is designed to protect professors who advocate unpopular opinions. But whose opinions are unpopular at the University of Colorado?

Mr. Mitchell teaches by contract in a variety of academic programs, a nontenured professor who can be dismissed with impunity. Opportunities to get tenure-which include broad-based approval from the department-are less for a teacher like Mr. Mitchell than for a fashionable leftist. So whose opinions are in most need of being defended and protected?

Even a tenured faculty member is under investigation at CU's sister school Colorado State-Pueblo. Anthropology professor Dan Forsyth said something that a student took as disapproval of illegal aliens. So now he is under administrative review, just as Mr. Churchill is, though without the benefit of full-page faculty ads in his support.

Mr. Churchill is not being investigated for his speech. Professors and all Americans have the right to say whatever they think. There are many other reasons to look into Mr. Churchill and his academic career. But Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Forsyth are being persecuted for their speech.

The president of the University of Colorado, pressured by the governor and state legislature to do something about Mr. Churchill-as well as a football-team sex scandal-resigned instead. In a farewell speech, she warned about a growing climate of "McCarthyism."

She is right, but it is McCarthyism of the hardcore left, devoted to ferreting out not only conservatives but fellow travelers who are moderate or even liberal. The president of Harvard, Laurence Summers, was Bill Clinton's secretary of the treasury. But he dared to say that among various explanations for why women as a group do not do as well as men in mathematics is the possibility of some innate differences between the sexes.

Despite his fulsome apologies and promises to start new diversity programs, the School of Arts and Sciences passed a no-confidence vote in the president. Even the president of Harvard has no academic freedom or freedom of speech.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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