Thursday, March 31, 2005

Columbia University has just released a report on the results of its investigation into the conduct of certain of its professors of Middle Eastern Studies. The investigating committee consisted largely of faculty conspicuously sympathetic to the professors in question. And, indeed, the report they produced largely exonerates the professors of wrongdoing, and even criticizes the accusers, who have themselves been accused of trying to undermine the professors' "academic freedom".

Let's take for granted (I certainly do) that the accusations against these professors--all of them virulent, even militant critics of the state of Israel--have more to do with the politicized nature of their scholarship than with any real or alleged misconduct. If one were a believer in "academic freedom", then any discussion of the legitimacy of these accusations would end there. But as I've explained before, I consider "academic freedom" to be primarily a cover for eviscerating academic standards, and allowing political propagandists, purveyors of pseudo-scholarly nonsense, or just plain useless deadwood to keep their cushy academic sinecures. There remains the question, though: how is a university supposed to defend academic standards against "academic freedom"?

University administrators are often confronted with this question when an embarrassing faculty member--or sometimes an entire department--is noticed to be producing and teaching propaganda, or nonsense, or nothing at all, instead of serious scholarship. The standard approaches are (1) allowing (or quietly encouraging) more competent scholars to develop somewhere else on campus, whence they can marginalize and overshadow the cranks until the latter retire or leave of their own volition; or (2) giving the offending cranks a push, by digging up "offenses" on their part to justify active measures against them. Ward Churchill's treatment was an example of the latter approach--after the politically incendiary nature of his scholarship became embarrassing to the university, numerous incidents of plagiarism and poor scholarship that were previously papered over suddenly came to light, allowing the university administration to justify taking action. In another case, a professor who openly espoused Nazism was turfed out for excessive absenteeism.

Likewise, the Columbia professors' accusers were clearly trying to give the university an excuse to clean house in the Middle Eastern Studies department. Unfortunately, the university administration refused to take the hint, and instead threw its weight behind the professors' "academic freedom". The result will be more garbage pseudo-scholarship emanating from the Columbia Middle Eastern Studies faculty.

Defenders of "academic freedom" will no doubt argue that it can protect outstanding scholars with controversial political views. (Indeed, some of them will make that very argument in this case.) But in practice, those who are more interested in, say, political conformity than in good scholarship are perfectly willing to denigrate good scholarship in the name of political conformity--while using "academic freedom" to protect politically conformist bad scholarship. "Academic freedom" is thus a much more powerful weapon in the hands of the defenders of bad scholarship than for the defenders of good scholarship. It's bad for academia, and deserves to be discredited.

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