Saturday, February 19, 2005

Is Ward Churchill a poster child for the state of higher education

Kessler's Cycle
Kessler's Cycle,
originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.
Yesterday I got an email from a young professor who, after he worked as an intern in my office, went on to do a PhD and is now on the Princeton campus and beginning his career. He expressed concern about attempts to discredit academia.

I thought back to when I was a freshman in college and was also the county youth chairman for the Goldwater campaign. As was common then each student had to take a year of what was then called Western Civ. About October, the time of the Sumerians in this class, the professor stopped his lectures on Sumerians and did what most people would call a rant today suggesting that Goldwater and Fascism were the same thing. I was reasonably polite in the first of these sessions but in the second I began to debate him. I pointed out that Goldwater was running on a platform of reducing the influence of government in our lives and that the fascists (National Socialists) were not into that at all - so he was historically inaccurate as well as silly. We spent the next two weeks debating his thesis. Later in that period - to suggest what a jumbled undergraduate career I had - our university (University of the Pacific) did the first teach in on Vietnam. We closed the campus down for a day and had a really fascinating set of discussions that stretched from strong supporters of the policy we were pursuing at the time - to strong dissenters. It was a wonderful experience - actually both experiences were wonderful. Exactly what a university should be - a locus for thought and care.

But higher education has a problem - which my young friend pointed out. He is worried that a local talk show host (and lots of others in the new and old media) seem to spend a lot of time trying to discredit the enterprise. I replied that indeed universities should be places of diverse ideas - but that unfortunately many were not. Churchill seems to have been granted tenure because he claimed a heritage which seems on even cursory examination seems to be phony. He made outrageous remarks that most Americans find offensive. But how does academia deal with an issue so seemingly corrupt as a Churchill - whose scholarship is non-existent, whose qualifications are equal to his scholarship and who seems to have been hired not for either scholarship or qualifications but to fill a box on the form.

Many institutions in society have gone through fundamental change in recent years. They have adapted to new conditions - they have outsourced that which they do not do well and have (in the best of cases) refocused there energies on their core missions. Higher education has been slow to adapt - it is by its nature a conservative institution (despite the propensity for liberal faculty members - about five years ago I had a faculty representative comment to me he thought the role of the faculty was to impede change).

A couple of conclusions can be reached. First, some of the most interesting adaptations in higher education are happening at the periphery. The net actually becomes an equalizer for those institutions that care to use its power. Second, Kessler's cycle seems to apply here - at some point for those of you who do not know his idea, I will explain it in greater detail but David Kessler came up with a notion a few years ago to explain changes brought about by technology and the adaptive responses of existing providers which I believe is very powerful. The media and academia are beginning to feel the pinch and intrusion of new technologies - many in both sectors are suggesting "woe is us" rather than thinking creatively about how to adapt to the new conditions.

My young friend, and now colleague, is not taking that tack. There is hope for academe.

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