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David Thomson, Ward Churchill, and Robert J. Shiller

              In Colorado this month, and elsewhere in the U.S., victims' families of 9-11 and others have been calling for the firing of a Colorado professor.  He, Ward Churchill, had written an essay on the victims of 9-11 as if not all were mere victims.

              One problem:  Ward Churchill has tenure.  Years earlier he did whatever his academic specialization required him to do to have his job for life.  To circumvent this, and to please those outraged at him, Colorado university regents agreed on a special, thirty day investigation, readying the possibilities for legal firing.

              This story made the news partly because of Churchill's opinions – he was blaming the victims of 9-11, or some of them, for what came out of the clear blue skies that morning.  It made the news, too, for the rarity that any professor in nice, staid, corporate academe would ever say anything scandalous.

              It wasn't always this way.  Tenure came into American universities, a century ago, when progressive professors joined social reformers, muckraking journalists, and trade unionists then coalescing in a movement for more rights from the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant elite who long controlled most all institutional America.  The progressives won.  Their era culminated in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation.

              Ward Churchill perhaps assumed tenure still means freedom of expression.  To some, it may mean that.  But to conservatives, tenure describes our universities as a system taken over by a hegemony of multi-cultural, relativist, secularist-humanist liberals.  Conservatives hate this class just as they do trade unions, regulatory agencies, progressive taxation, and other aspects of government that criticize or any way limit their "freedom."

              Tenure may mean what it does to liberals, and to conservatives, but it follows another script when we "follow the money."  It means some are entitled to plum positions all their lives with incremental pay increases, vacation stipends, health care benefits, sick pay, travel allowances, paid sabbaticals, conferencing subsidies, subsidized journals, and pensions.  It also means a gypsy army of tens of thousands of floating Ph.D.s doing almost half of all America's undergraduate university teaching – masses of part-timers subsidizing the full-timers.  The word tenure covers this scenario, too, of the rich-getting-richer and poor-getting-poorer – though we could separate tenure from all this entanglement of privileging and exploitation scripts.  Simply:  we could pay all university teachers equally, all pay for everyone based only on number of units taught.  Until we can agree on what makes for good teaching (which is never) we can stop pay for things outside of teaching – STOP pay based on  age – STOP pay based on longevity – STOP and benefits pay based on the nature of families and numbers of dependents – STOP pay based on outside publishing, grant-obtaining, or any other extracurricular profit-making activities.  Those who love teaching could stay for their students.

              Teaching could be freed for wide run of ideas, accountability to evidence, and the literate arts and interaction of human values – not tied to the safe, the orthodox, and the specialized compartments that our corporate textbooks in their hierarchies, modular divisions, and bullet-point sub-divisions now label, chart, graph, and mini-narrate.

              As it is, teachers play to formulaic specialization, Robert J. Shiller guesses in an early-February New York Times op-ed piece, because in academia that's the game everywhere.  In "How Wall Street Learns to Look the Other Way," Shiller says academic ethics could be different – academics could model enlarged human contexts, rather than further sink in their narrow, bloodless holes.

              It sounds possible – academics could connect even the most specialized material to actual people actually around us – Essaying Differences says so, too.  Academics could relate course concerns to those in themselves.  They could link their values to those in students – as if students had relevant human concerns, too.

              But maybe students don't have relevant human concerns.  Nor professors professing.  By the logic of David Thomson's new history of Hollywood, The Whole Equation, none of us come to public venues (such as classrooms) with anything so odd as human baggage.  Thomson probes how we've all become voyeurs to large extents, movies having taught us to sit in the dark as if we're somehow outside of ourselves, as if our desires parade before us even while we sit in our paid-for anonymity.

              To the degree that Thomson is right, our good professors in the classroom also model acting roles – specialists, not human beings with course-relevant issues.

              Poor Ward Churchill.  He attempted to do what Robert J. Shiller called for when he celebrated the chances possible "If more of us professors integrated [specialized] education into a broader historical and psychological context."  It seems Churchill risked and lost.

              But maybe not.  Maybe, if David Thomson is right, and we're but spectators again to the scenario unfolding in Colorado, it may only look like one more shot-himself-in-the-foot melodrama – we can sit back, enjoy scandal, and remind ourselves we're safe.  We can go on in the distancing fictions our corporate academics enact for us.  These, our highest-paid teachers, can go on modeling values and ethics as if humanity were best as reciprocally postured anonymity.  Funny:  this is what Ward Churchill was trying to say – that, even being nicely polite and dutiful, we may not be so innocent.  We may also be so deeply implicated in wider stories, human lives elsewhere, that we invite most-unexpected holocaust from out of our otherwise most serene, peaceful, empty blue skies.

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