Thursday, July 26, 2007
Quality versus Accountability in The Ward Churchill Firing
The University of Colorado has fired Ward Churchill. The New York Sun reports:
"Three faculty committees had accused Mr. Churchill of plagiarism, falsification, and other misconduct. The research allegations stem from some of Mr. Churchill's other writings, although the investigation began after the controversy over his September 11 essay.
"The decision was really pretty basic," the university's president, Hank Brown, said, adding that the school had little choice but to fire Mr. Churchill to protect the integrity of the university's research."
In today's Wall Street Journal online Hank Brown adds that:
"While no action was taken by the university with regard to his views on 9/11, many complaints surfaced at the time about his scholarship...three separate investigative panels -- which included more than 20 of his faculty peers and which worked for over two years -- to unanimously find a pattern of serious, deliberate and repeated research misconduct.
"...But his case is about far more than academic misconduct. It is about the accountability that public universities must demonstrate. Mr. Churchill's difficulties in facing up to his academic responsibilities are in many ways emblematic of higher education's trouble with accountability. Too often, colleges and universities tend to insulate themselves in ivy-covered buildings and have not been as diligent as necessary to ensure that the academic enterprise is conducted rigorously and honestly..."
Mr. Brown is right that the granting of tenure to Ward Churchill reflects a lack of accountability in higher education. As David Horowitz blogs today in Frontpagemag:
"The firing of Ward Churchill for academic incompetence and fraud is long overdue. The fact that the chairman of the Colorado University regents said it was "not an easy decision to make" reminds us how this scandal lifts the lid on the vast corruption of the academic process that tenured radicals have accomplished in the last several decades."
Horowitz also notes that:
"The entire Ethnic Studies department at Colorado U is composed of Churchill clones and worshippers".
The problem with Colorado's response to Ward Churchill is that it views Churchill as an exception. David Horowitz is right that the problem is systemic, not the fault of Churchill alone. As Jonah Goldberg noted in National Review in 2005, Churchill holds no Ph.D. Yet, he was granted tenure and permitted to serve as departmental chair. He was not only granted these rewards by the University of Colorado, but was invited to speak at numerous other colleges, such as Hamilton College.
There are two interpretations of the idea of quality. The first is that quality is at least equal to a tolerance or a standard. If a unit's dimensions are within tolerances then it is of acceptable quality. This is the concept that Hank Brown is implicitly suggesting. Lack of accountability means that there has been failure to perform at a given standard. This is true of Ward Churchill's appointment, but it may be the wrong question if such decisions are symptomatic of systemic causes.
The second definition of quality is that quality is a target or goal that is never perfectly attained. The way to get closer to the target is to continuously improve through the removal of sources of variance. Two excellent books on this subject are Taiichi Ohno's Toyota Production System and Edward Deming's Out of the Crisis. Ohno was the production genius behind Toyota and created Toyota as the world's quality leader in manufacturing. Deming was the creator of total quality management. Ohno's emphasis on just in time inventory management likely has many points of analogy to universities, but it is his overall passion for ever-improving flexibility, responsiveness and reducing waste (his absolute passion for eliminating waste) that is most relevant. Deming argued that all waste amounts to deviation; and that the way to improve quality is to end variation. He would ask whether Churchill was appointed for special or systemic reasons.
That is, there are two kinds of variance, special and systemic. Variance due to special sources, such as failure to advertise faculty job openings, hiring of cronies, or the substitution of political ideology for education (a concern about which I write on Frontpagemag this week) are managerial problems that need to be eliminated before systemic quality issues can be addressed. Clearly, these problems characterize much of higher education. Once the special sources of variation are eliminated, then systemic sources such as poor human resource management systems (e.g., the collegial or tenure systems may result in poor quality decisions that deviate from quality targets) can be addressed.
David Horowitz is right that the Churchill firing is not the way to attain quality in Ohno's and Deming's "total quality management" sense. In fact, I would argue that by sacrificing Churchill the University of Colorado might be avoiding more important questions than Churchill, such as whether its graduates are better able to write than its freshmen; whether its graduates have attained skills; and whether the research that the faculty produces reflects an honest effort to seek the truth. These are the questions that need to be asked, and firing Churchill is not the way to ask them. In fact, firing Churchill may be a way to avoid such questions.
I would prefer to see more fundamental reform in higher education than the firing of Ward Churchill. Martyring a second-rate buffoon may be a mistake.