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Punishing Academics for Speaking out Harms Us All
by Kenneth Westhues - The Record, March 3, 2005
The names of Ward Churchill, Mohamed Elmasry and Lawrence Summers are not usually spoken in the same breath. There is a good reason why they should be.
It is not that these three professors stand for similar ideas. They do not.
Churchill, of aboriginal origin, is a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, and author of books on the plight of Indians in America. He was scheduled to speak at Waterloo on Sept. 13, 2001, but the lecture was cancelled because of the chaos in air travel following the attacks of 9/11.
Elmasry is an Egyptian-born Canadian, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Waterloo and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He is also president of the Canadian Islamic Congress and a prolific social commentator. The Record has published 70 opinion pieces by him over the past 10 years.
Summers, of elite Jewish-American parentage, is a former chief economist of the World Bank and treasury secretary under former U.S. president Bill Clinton. He has been president of Harvard University since 2001.
What joins these three disparate intellectuals together is that each has recently been pilloried in public media and threatened with loss of his job for saying things contrary to the conventional wisdom.
The storm over Churchill blew up in January, a delayed reaction to a metaphor in an essay he wrote after the 9/11 attacks. The essay argued that the U.S. got what it deserved, that the stockbrokers who died in the World Trade Center were legitimate terrorist targets. Churchill called them "little Eichmanns," functionaries of a Nazi-like regime.
Pundits across America denounced the Colorado professor, the state legislature condemned his views, and the state governor said he should resign his faculty position. In early February, the university's governing board announced a 30-day review of Churchill's work, to determine whether he should be fired.
The Elmasry imbroglio began last October, after he said on a television talk show that Israeli civilians are not totally innocent, and are all valid targets of Palestinian terrorists.
In the next two weeks, Canadian newspapers devoted more than a hundred news and opinion pieces to Elmasry's comments, nearly all of them condemnatory. All the major Ontario dailies published editorials denouncing his remarks. Elmasry apologized. Even so, UW president David Johnston appointed science dean George Dixon to study the matter and decide whether Elmasry should be fired. Dixon concluded that no formal discipline would be imposed. He quoted Elmasry's further unconditional apology.
The words that got Summers into trouble were in a speech on Jan. 14 at a Harvard conference on women and minorities in science and engineering. Summers speculated that one of several factors that might account for women's under-representation in these fields is that women are also under- represented in the highest percentiles of innate aptitude for science and math.
As one commentator put it, an "intellectual tsunami" then washed over the Harvard president, as academics across the continent lambasted him for sexism. Summers apologized several times, and appointed two task forces to work on increasing the number of women on the faculty at his university. Even so, many professors called for his resignation, or for a vote of non- confidence in his leadership.
It is vital to academic life, maybe even to our civilization, that the similarities among these three different uproars be recognized. We need to get past our sympathy for one's professor's viewpoint and our loathing for another's.
The important commonality among them is that each expressed himself honestly and got in deep trouble for doing so.
Part of that trouble is healthy and constructive. In a free society, nobody is immune from criticism. Only through discussion and debate do we learn new and better ideas. Those who disagreed with Churchill did an important public service by writing reasoned rebuttals to his argument. The same goes for those who objected to what Elmasry or Summers said.
But another part of the trouble these professors got into is unhealthy and destructive. Much of the condemnation in each case focused on a few words lifted out of context. Had Churchill's denouncers read his books, or even the essay from which that single provocative metaphor was drawn? Did Elmasry's denouncers study his remarks on TV against the background of those 70 earlier opinion pieces in this newspaper, which collectively document his abhorrence of violence? Now that the full transcript of Summers' speech has been released, it is clear that most of the condemnations of what he said were based on exaggerated second-hand reports.
A good word for what happened to all three professors is firestorm, because it implies an out-of-control conflagration feeding on itself. In each case, commentators, columnists and editorial writers piled on, one after another. The sober, independent voices were too few, and the groupthink of a crowd too much in evidence.
What was worse, disagreement with what each professor said got mixed with calls for dismissal from his job and official proceedings for this purpose. Such mixing spells disaster for academic life, because it scares professors out of saying anything, least of all a counterargument to some group's claim to total innocence and victimhood.
On all the issues of our day -- aboriginal rights, international terrorism, Middle Eastern politics, sex differences in academe and whatever else -- we need reasoned debate on the basis of evidence. We do not need knee-jerk reactions, calls for "off with his head," or a herd mentality. The three uproars reviewed here are worth pondering as examples of both what we need and what we don't.
(Kenneth Westhues is a professor of sociology
at the University of Waterloo.)