Recently, former University of Colorado ethnic studies professor and documented academic fraud Ward Churchill spoke to a crowd of 500 at UC Davis. Preceded by protests, Churchill delivered a talk comparing nineteenth-century American westward expansion to the Holocaust. He then took questions from audience members who challenged his credentials and his version of history.
The student newspaper’s coverage included a staff editorial that underscored the importance of inviting controversial speakers to campus. “It impinges on academic freedom when the university rejects or creates an uncomfortable environment for dialogue on differing opinions, positive or negative,” the Aggie opined. “Students have a right to hear different viewpoints and decide for themselves.”
The Aggie editors are right. It’s too bad that Davis’ faculty and the UC Regents don’t share their grasp of free speech.
A quick review of UC’s recent history is in order here.
Last September, UC Irvine chancellor Michael Drake withdrew a job offer to outspoken Duke law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, indicating that he was too “politically controversial” to serve as the first dean of Irvine’s new law school. Drake’s decision raised questions about Irvine’s commitment to academic freedom, and it set a terrible precedent for the fledgling law school, suggesting that administrators and faculty could face punitive and chilling ideological litmus tests. When principled people cried foul, Irvine rethought its position, reaffirmed academic freedom, and renewed its offer to Chemerinsky, who accepted.
ACTA defended Chemerinsky and, in a letter to the UC Regents, ACTA urged the Regents to clarify their commitment to intellectual diversity and to ensure the integrity of its hiring process.
The Regents ignored ACTA’s letter. And, even as Irvine was correcting its error, the Regents were making an analogous mistake. Within days of the Irvine debacle, the Regents withdrew an invitation to former Harvard president Lawrence Summers to speak at a board meeting on the UC Davis campus. Responding to Davis faculty who declared that Summers “symbolize[s] gender and racial prejudice in academia,” the Regents yielded to political pressure in a manner that demonstrated just how deep UC’s confusion about free inquiry is.
Davis’ resident censors welcomed the Regents’ pandering. But some saw it as an ominous sign. “The Regents have suddenly made life much more difficult for those of us in the business of presenting controversial, if relevant, ideas and guest speakers on UC campuses,” wrote UC Davis professor Eric Rauchway. “Casting someone as utterly outside the university’s conversation is the severest penalty we as scholars can impose… the Regents suggest an impossibly low tolerance for controversy at the University of California.”
Now, more than two months later, Ward Churchill gives a controversial talk at Davis, one that students rightly declare he should have been allowed to give.
But the broader picture here is disturbing. When the Regents give in to heckler’s vetoes, it’s an indication that the University of California has lost touch with a foundational academic value.
As ACTA president Anne D. Neal said in a recent statement, “College campuses should play host to a broad and vigorous exchange of ideas. That doesn’t appear to be happening at UC, and not only are the Regents apparently not doing anything – they seem to be part of the problem. UC’s students and faculty – as well as the California taxpayers who support the university so generously – deserve better.”