Phi Beta Cons

Fact Checking 101, Part 2

The most disturbing moment of Wilson’s article is when he blatantly misrepresents the report’s own words for an audience who, he seems to expect, will not be checking his sources. He writes that “ACTA threatens that academic freedom will be revoked from colleges unless they start censoring their professors and ban such courses.” But nowhere in the report does ACTA call for anything like censoring professors or banning courses. What the report does do is urge academic officials to address–voluntarily, and in their own institutionally appropriate way–the question of intellectual diversity and professors’ obligation to respect students’ academic freedom to learn about all sides of controversial issues. The report recommends such measures as institutional self-study, the hiring of administrators committed to intellectual diversity, the careful vetting of job candidates’ work to ensure its integrity, the vetting of personnel practices to ensure their integrity, post-tenure review, and–most importantly–the fostering of robust debate on campus.


Here are the concluding paragraphs of the study, which follow directly from the sentence Wilson quoted to support his claim that ACTA is endorsing censorship:


Ultimately, greater accountability means more responsible decision-making on the part of academic administrators, more judicious hiring on the part of departments, and more balanced, genuinely tolerant teaching on the part of faculties. It also means acknowledging–openly and unapologetically–that education and advocacy are not one and the same, that the invaluable work of opening minds and honing critical thinking skills cannot be done when professors are more interested in seeing their own beliefs put into political practice.

Finally, it means defending the academic freedom of even the most militantly radical academics. Our aim should not be to fire the Ward Churchills for their views, but to insist that they do their job–regardless of their ideological commitments. We must insist that, in their classrooms, they teach fairly, fostering an open and robust exchange of ideas and refusing to succumb to a proselytizing or otherwise biased pedagogy. Only then will their ideas be subject to debate; only then will they and their students learn to defend their positions in the marketplace of ideas. Only then will other views challenge, complicate, and even displace theirs. Only then can we hope to create a truly diverse academy.


Far from advocating censorship or the banning of classes, ACTA is advocating transparency about what professors teach; far from trying to silence politically engaged professors, ACTA is defending their academic freedom while at the same time reminding us all that 1) academic freedom does not mean freedom from criticism or freedom from accountability; and 2) students have academic freedom too. It’s worth noting that when the Ward Churchill scandal first broke in the winter of 2005, ACTA defended Churchill from those who sought to fire him for his speech.


No wonder Wilson is wary of definitions of research misconduct that include egregiously misleading citation. His own argument, at least in this instance, depends on it.

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