A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library. ~Shelby Foote

Monday, March 07, 2005

Oh THAT Ivory Tower: Churchill vs. Summers, part III-- Reaction and Results

Results first. They're pretty clear cut, and rather discouraging. 33 people, mostly faculty, were willing to put their signature on a letter of support for Ward Churchill that not only opposed his termination, it also called for his reinstatement as chair of his department at UC-Boulder. This despite a well-written opposition letter from another faculty member that notes Churchill's inadequate scholarship, and in light of continued revelations regarding Churchill's character and credibility.

And for my letter to Summers, I got only 8 signatures total, and only three from faculty members. I did get two students to sign on to my letter, which I think is cool. But eight is a pretty under-whelming total, given that my email was out there for a few days more than the Churchill letter, and that there was a lively email discussion on both sides of the issue (more of that in later posts).

Reactions/reasons. To their credit, several faculty did email me privately to indicate that while they supported Summers' right to speak, they could not sign a letter endorsing his presidency at Harvard for other reasons. Fair enough-- that's the bottom line for me on Churchill-- he has the right to say whatever he wants, but his scholarship, unapologetic vitriol, and possible plagiarism make him someone I will not endorse in any way, shape or form.

More than one faculty member also indicated that the two cases weren't comparable because Churchill as faculty, and Summers as adminstrator, are not in comparable positions. The basic argument here is that Summers has greater responsibility since he helps mold Harvard's positions on hiring, firing, building, curriculum changes and so forth. Because of this, he must be more aware of the effect his words have. My problem with that argument is two-fold.

Firstly, I find it uncovincing since although Summers' does have influence on Harvard's environment and approaches, he does not have a direct impact on the students-- who are, in theory, why we're all here at universities in the first place, right? Right? Well, they should be. Churchill, on the other hand, has a very direct impact on the students at UC-Boulder and, now that he is speaking all across the nation, elsewhere. Where is his responsibility to present balanced perspectives on controversial issues, and why does he get a free pass on the "responsibility" issue, while Summers is taken to task for far less inflammatory and offensive rhetoric? I made this same argument in an email discussion (to be posted later) and no one really ever responded to it, in my opinion.

My second reason for discounting the "responsibility" arugment is that part of being responsible is admitting when you are wrong. When a leader makes a mistake, you hope he admits it, and promises to work hard to avoid such mistakes in the future. This is one of my biggest complaints in regards to President Bush, and for once why I agree with G.B. Trudeau (doesn't happen very often any more). At any rate-- Summers has admitted his error, while Churchill has refused to apologize and has taken to ridiculing anyone who criticizes him. Even if it is true that Summers has more responsibility than Churchill, I don't see how you can possibly say that Summers is handling that responsibility worse than Churchill.

Still, I respect the faculty that at least have a reason for not supporting Summers after signing on to the Churchill letter. The majority, eighteen if I counted correctly, were willing to endorse Churchill's right to his repugnant statements, but were unwilling to offer the same support to Summers' far less obnoxious, better considered, and subsequently apologized for, statements on gender discrimination in the sciences. I find that sad, discouraging, and somewhat pathetic.

But wait! There's more... or at least there will be. There are some comments and exchanges from the email discussion that Ill be highlighting in future posts.


Howdy! This blog of yours is cool. For some reason, Marcus, I always imagined you to be a screaming liberal, so as a frothing conservative, your self-identification as 'right of center' warms the cockles of my heart.

I'm enjoying your Churchill versus Summers dialog. One thing I'd add; why not consider Summers to be a modern Galileo? The faculty of Harvard makes a wonderful Spanish Inquisition, the parallels are eerie. Like Galileo, just for posing an objectionable theory, Summers is beaten with many stripes and forced to recant.

Churchill, on the other hand, is simply an oaf. He physically strikes reporters who pose questions to him, plagiarizes artwork and writings, has no PhD, lied about his racial origins, and is plain old goofy looking with his unwashed hair and his goggle-glasses. Honestly, it takes a narrow-minded ideologue to defend this man.

Well, it's great to see your presence on the web, MtR. I'll check back in.

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