Authors Ward Churchill, Alice Dreger featured speakers at Academic Freedom Symposium, CU-Boulder

BY DON ERON

Guest blogger Don Eron is a retired University of Colorado Boulder writing instructor and a member of the national AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

As higher education budgets shrink, partisanship increases, and social media magnify and distort messages, the state of academic freedom in Colorado and across the country will be discussed at the Academic Freedom Symposium, Sat., April 29 at CU-Boulder. The event is sponsored by the Colorado Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

Keynote speakers are authors and public intellectuals Ward Churchill and Alice Dreger. Churchill was the most frequently cited scholar in the field of Ethnic Studies when he was fired in 2007 from CU-Boulder in reaction to his characterization of some victims of the 9/11 attacks as “little Eichmanns.” Dreger, whose explorations of contentious aspects of science and medicine have received immense media attention, argues that the non-dogmatic pursuit of evidence is the most important ethical imperative of our time.

Churchill’s dismissal a decade ago from the University of Colorado punctuated the most notorious academic freedom controversy in a generation. Under intense pressure from the media, the legislature, the governor, and CU regents to fire Churchill for his opinions, the CU administration found that Churchill’s speech was constitutionally protected, but charged him with numerous, unrelated allegations of academic misconduct. A faculty committee appointed by the administration convicted Churchill, who was subsequently fired by CU’s Board of Regents. Even today, the findings of the CU faculty committee—that Churchill is a serial plagiarist and fraud—remain uncritically accepted by many in the general public.

However, in 2012 an exhaustive, 136-page report issued by the Colorado Conference of the AAUP and published in the Journal of Academic Freedom, found that the CU faculty committee’s investigation played out as a clash of disciplinary methodologies with only one side represented on the committee—thus the CU panel repeatedly convicted Churchill of academic crimes that he did not commit. Based on a meticulous study of over 17,000 pages of documentation, the AAUP report concludes that the CU investigation into Churchill’s scholarship was a sham. Numerous other scholars and experts—as well as the District Court jury who heard Churchill’s lawsuit—have reached the same conclusion. As the eminent higher education authority Stanley Fish declared in the New York Times, “If the standards for dismissal adopted by the Churchill Committee were generally in force, hardly any of us professors would have jobs.”

While the animating source of Churchill’s termination was the political right, historian, bioethicist, and activist Alice Dreger engagingly argues in Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science, that the greatest threat to academic freedom today comes from the ideological left. Dreger’s TEDx lecture, “Is Anatomy Destiny?” has been viewed more than one million times. She has appeared as a guest expert on Oprah, Savage Love, and Good Morning America, and other programs on NPR, A&E, Discovery, ABC, PBS and HBO. Recently Dreger was again in the media spotlight—for resigning her position at Northwestern to protest the administration’s censorship of Atrium, a bioethics journal she edited, which had published an article about consensual oral sex between a nurse and a patient.

The Academic Freedom Symposium also boasts a powerhouse panel on “Contingency and the Profession,” featuring Caprice Lawless, an adjunct instructor at Front Range Community College and Second Vice President of the national AAUP, who is the first “perma-temped” adjunct to be elected as a national officer in the hundred year history of the AAUP; Maria Maisto, Executive Director of the New Faculty Majority, a national advocacy organization for adjunct and contingent faculty; Joe Berry, renowned activist and author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjunct to Change Higher Education, the seminal text on contingent faculty organizing, and Nathaniel Bork, adjunct faculty member whose dismissal from the Community College of Aurora is the focus of an unprecedented national AAUP investigation.

Other panels will address diversity and technology and the future of higher education. Panelists include: Peter Bonilla of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE); Jonathan Poritz, authority on technology and the future of higher education; Christopher Kopff, classics professor and the founding director of CU’s Center for Western Civilization; Margaret LeCompte, Professor Emerita in CU’s School of Education and president of CU’s AAUP chapter; Claude D’estree, Director of the International Human Rights Program at Denver University, and Don Eron, retired CU writing instructor and member of the national AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

The Academic Freedom Symposium will take place 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Sat., April 29, at the Kittredge Central Multipurpose Room, CU Boulder campus. The event is free, open to the public, and the AAUP welcomes attendees to attend all or part of the day-long program.

For the symposium’s complete schedule: https://aaupcolorado.org

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