The Right Coast

February 15, 2005
The Affirmative Action Scandal
By Maimon Schwarzschild

Paul Campos, law professor at the University of Colorado, is eloquent about the Ward Churchill scandal at Colorado, and about the academic cult of affirmative action that makes Ward Churchill and his like inevitable:
Academics claim to despise censorship, but the truth is we do a remarkably good job of censoring ourselves. This is especially true in regard to affirmative action. Who among us can claim to have spoken up every time a job candidate almost as preposterous as Churchill was submitted for our consideration? Things like the Churchill fiasco are made possible by a web of lies kept intact by a conspiracy of silence.

The University of Colorado hired Churchill onto its faculty because he claimed to be an American Indian. Anyone who has the slightest familiarity with research universities can glance at his résumé and state this with something close to complete confidence.

Churchill thus represents the reductio ad absurdum of the contemporary university's willingness to subordinate all other values to affirmative action. When such a grotesque fraud - a white man pretending to be an Indian, an intellectual charlatan spewing polemical garbage festooned with phony footnotes, a shameless demagogue fabricating imaginary historical incidents to justify his pathological hatreds, an apparent plagiarist who steals and distorts the work of real scholars - manages to scam his way into a full professorship at what is still a serious research university, we know the practice of affirmative action has hit rock bottom. Or at least we can hope so.

As someone of generally liberal political inclinations, I support affirmative action in principle. And I have surely benefited from it in practice: My parents came to this country from Mexico in the year of my birth, and I spoke no English when I started school. In theory, the argument that aggressively seeking out persons of diverse backgrounds can enrich the intellectual life of the university has great force.

Affirmative action is based, in part, on the idea that it will help us understand the viewpoints of the conquered as well as those of the conqueror, of the weak as well as the strong, of those far from power as well as those who wield it.

Too often, these sentiments are abused by those who sacrifice intellectual integrity while engaging in the most extreme forms of preferential hiring. Ward Churchill's career provides a lurid illustration of what can happen - indeed, of what we know will happen - when academic standards are prostituted in the name of increasing diversity.
Read the whole thing. And a quiet "banzai" to Paul Campos. His moral honesty ought to be the norm in the academy. If it were, the American academy would be a very different, and a very much better, place.

UPDATE: On one point, Campos may even understate the problem on a lot of campuses. "The University of Colorado hired Churchill onto its faculty because he claimed to be an American Indian", writes Campos. Well, yes. But being an American Indian -- or in Churchill's case, falsely claiming to be one -- wouldn't in itself have been sufficient. There was also Churchill's paranoid leftist extremism, "which was his merit", as Dean Swift devastatingly wrote about a corrupt eighteenth century appointment; or as we might say a little geekily, Churchill's political lunacy wasn't a bug, it was a feature.

It is all too common at faculty hiring meetings for the fervent advocates of affirmative action to turn round and denounce -- and to vote down -- women or minority candidates who diverge in any way from leftist orthodoxy. The usual formula is "She isn't a real woman" or "he isn't a real minority". Affirmative action comes to mean favouritism, or in truth a complete suspension of all reasonable standards, not for "women and minorities" but for people with the extremist rhetorical stance that is de rigeur.

It is another, and bigger topic, how a similar sort of rhetorical extremism may now be "cascading" beyond the academy into other American institutions with cultural or demographic affinities to the academy, including mainstream journalism (cf. the likes of Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, Frank Rich and others on the New York Times op-ed pages; Bill Moyers; and their many epigones), and including important elements of the national Democratic Party (exhibit A is the recent "reception history" of Michael Moore, but there are many more exhibits down the alphabet). If the Democratic Party is growing to resemble the American academy in its taste for leftist sectarianism, it may be good electoral news for Republicans. It is not good news otherwise.