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Academic controversies merit discussion

| Monday, February 28, 2005

An important, revealing and highly entertaining pair of controversies has recently erupted in the world of academia recently, and from what I can tell, there has been little mention of either so far in these pages, so I would like to take the honor myself.

The first involves a professor at the University of Colorado, a man named Ward Churchill. He teaches in one of the “studies” departments, home of all that is serious, intellectually rigorous and objective. It turns out he lied to get his job and is quite unqualified even to teach in a “studies” department, but that is not the story. Churchill made some comments likening the victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to “little Eichmanns,” as well as some other quite noxious and hurtful remarks. He did not quite say “God bless those terrorists” – no good liberal would say “God bless” in regard to anyone, even terrorists. But he made it clear that between the terrorists who hijacked the planes and the people who died at their jobs that terrible morning, the bad guys were the folks in the towers, not the ones in the cockpits.

Meanwhile, one Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, was participating in a discussion about women in the sciences. He suggested some possible reasons why the very highest level in the fields of math, science and engineering are so male-dominated. He dared to cite innate differences of aptitude as one of the possible reasons. He did not say women are dumber, less stable or inferior in any way, though the hysterical reaction of feminists to his comments might make one think they are.

What I find so amusing and so telling is not either of these controversies alone (though watching Summers grovel and abase himself is sort of fun), but rather the contrast in reactions to them within academia. Around Churchill, the faculty wagons have circled. Some schools have actually invited him to come speak. Professors warn of a “chilling effect” if Churchill is disciplined at all for his hateful rhetoric. Meanwhile, Summers is being torn to pieces, not only at Harvard, but in the New York Times and other liberal outlets. He will probably lose his job. So the lesson seems to be: praise terrorists and insult their dead victims, fine – academic freedom, after all; suggest there may be some natural differences between men and women, and you are unspeakably evil and ignorant. So what if there is ample scientific evidence validating the idea that while women are in general better at verbal skills (somehow nobody throws a temper tantrum at this suggestion), men tend to be better at the sort of abstract reasoning central to fields like math and physics. Never mind – the modern American university is no longer a place where the truth is sought, but where agendas are forwarded. I noticed that this paper did a recent series of excellent reports on faculty bias. I encountered too many examples of such bias as an undergraduate to remember, certainly too many to list here. This bias is also one issue conservatives have been whining about for years. This parallel set of controversies could not have been dreamed up any better by any arch-conservative to reveal the depth of that bias. It is certainly relevant to anyone considering an academic career, and it should be of interest to anyone in college.

David Morse

Class of ’99

Feb. 27