Ever since our conception as a nation, Americans have struggled to establish clearly drawn lines regarding social liberties and ethics and, with an equal zeal, we have just as often worked to blur those boundaries. It is a dilemma now facing various members of the collegiate ranks as the academic freedom of college professors is being attacked. Important decisions on both national and local levels concerning this issue are being made and, in these times of heightened political atmosphere, dangerous precedents are in danger of being set.
The most high profile case at the moment took place at the University of Colorado. Professor Ward Churchill was the chairman of the department of ethics studies until he had the audacity to express an opinion that did not align with the fire-breathing jingoism of the post-9/11 America. Churchill took an objective approach in analyzing what transpired that day, drawing parallels between the nature of the attacks in relation to America’s similar methods of warfare instead of simply labeling terrorists as “evil-doers.”
One example comes from an excerpt in his book, “On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” “It is not disputed that the Pentagon was a military target, or that a CIA office was situated in the World Trade Center. Following the logic by which U.S. Defense Department spokespersons have consistently sought to justify target selection in places like Baghdad, this placement of an element of the American ‘command and control infrastructure’ in an ostensibly civilian facility converted the Trade Center itself into a ‘legitimate’ target.”
It was after the subsequent national reaction to his thoughts that Churchill stepped down from his chairmanship.
And now Francisco Gil-White, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has found himself in a similar situation. He was recently placed under review by the psychology department at Penn for what his superiors claim to be unsatisfactory research and teaching but for what Gil-White feels is a reaction to his political views. Gil-White, since he was hired five years back, has expressed radical ideas veering left, having asserted, among other things, that America is the secret enemy of Israel and that Sept. 11, 2001 was an “inside job” in that the government could have stopped the attacks.
All this leads us back to that controversial line in the sand. Where should boundaries be marked on college campuses? It’s worth noting how conservative professors rarely catch the same heat with their rhetoric as do their liberal counterparts. Take for instance Temple’s own Rev. Clarence James, who proclaimed so boldly last year that gay rights were not equivocal with civil rights since homosexuality is an immoral choice.
I never heard a work from anybody in reaction to such staggering social ignorance. Yet liberal professors who voice strong criticisms of their government are automatically targeted instead?
What scares me the most on this issue is the effect that drawing limits on a professor’s beliefs and thoughts could have on an institution of learning. It was always my understanding that the purpose of a university was to promote critical thinking in its students, to release unto the world intellectual giants capable of thinking on their own without a textbook for life support. Yet that same privilege of free thought is obviously not being extended to certain professors. Regardless of any personal beliefs, as long as these outspoken professors keep their rhetoric outside of the classroom, they should be allowed the same rights as anybody else.
I simply do not accept this looming censorship of professors. It is ridiculous to expect those who teach us the importance of critical thinking and educated opinions should not be allowed the same. Granted, their beliefs – liberal or conservative – have no place in the classroom, but their opinions hold just as much validity as any other’s and to deprive them of their First Amendment rights is nothing short of immoral.
Noah Potvin can be reached at npotvin@Gmail.com.