Phi Beta Cons

Just A Footnote?

After reading Charles’s post below, I read John K. Wilson’s defense of Ward Churchill with great interest.  I knew the academic Left would begin a pro-Churchill counteroffensive in short order, but I was curious as to what the spin would be.  Now I know: “It’s just a bunch of footnotes!”
I have to give Wilson credit (full disclosure: I have met John at several conferences and find him to be a very smart and fair ideological opponent), this is a great angle.  ”It was just a bunch of footnotes!” is not just a great PR theme, it also immediately puts the university in the unenviable position of explaining how important accurate citations are to the academic process.  Not only is this argument eye-glazingly dull, it also inadvertently makes Wilson’s point for him.  

 How could that be?  Aren’t accurate citations and support in many ways the backbone of scholarly research?  Well, if Churchill’s case is going to fit into the leftist line that the academy is under a “hard right” counteroffensive that threatens basic constitutional rights, they will have to “constitutionalize” Churchill’s case.  And the only way to do that is to claim that he received worse treatment than other professors who committed the same (or even worse) offenses.  John does this quite effectively when (in the comments section under his article) he trots out the example of a Chicago professor who published a graduate student’s book review word for word under his own name . . . and kept his job.

 Tenure has been so abused for so long that it won’t be hard for the Left to bring up five, ten, or thirty examples of horrific misconduct (sometimes involving even physical assault) that went unpunished by termination or suspension.  Yet even if these examples help preserve Churchill’s job, conservative critics need to keep their eyes on the bigger picture.  Every example of unpunished misconduct further proves ACTA’s (and many others’) point that persistent bad behavior will lead to a response that will strip faculties of their cherished self-governance and independence.  It is simply a fact that professors are not the only ones with academic freedom.  Institutions — like state universities and their governing boards – have academic freedom as well.  In fact, as a matter of law, institutional claims of academic freedom are far stronger than individual claims.  And state universities may begin to exercise their academic freedom to do something radical — like impose high standards for their professors.
And, given the silly and unsupported ideological advocacy that passes for scholarship in hundreds of academic departments, perhaps rigorous standards could have more real-world impact than anything else we can do.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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