A Disavowal of Absolutely No Value
February 19, 2006
by Gary Tobin
Northwestern University President Henry Bienen has upbraided tenured engineering professor Arthur Butz for his repugnant embrace of Holocaust denial. For that, the academic community and the American public should be grateful. Leadership in America's universities on basic moral issues is sometimes slow and sometimes absent, especially when it comes to calling anti-Semitic speech by its real name.
Yet Northwestern's public disavowal of Butz may have too limited value. Butz has been an active purveyor of Holocaust denial for decades. He uses his university-sponsored Web site to further the goal of saying that the Nazis did not actually murder millions of Jews. Northwestern says it can take no further action against Butz because he has tenure and because he confines his teaching and curriculum work to his work in electrical engineering, his actual academic responsibility.
Is that really so?
Do universities such as Northwestern really have no power when faced with such morally repugnant employees?
The answer clearly is no. Were Butz a gay-baiter, or if he said slavery was a moral and economic good, or if he doubted the intellectual capacities of women, he would certainly face more than a tersely worded press release.
Professor Butz denies what is true, invents what is not, and does so in order to vilify an entire group. Yet at Northwestern, such blatant level of ignorance and racism is protected under the banner of "the vital principle of intellectual freedom that all academic institutions serve to protect."
Let us examine that defense.
No other industry would use its basic principles to undermine the purpose for which it is pledged. Put another way, if another industry, say, medicine, played host to a quack who killed his patients, his license would be pulled. If a lawyer put his clients in constant legal jeopardy, he would be disbarred.
And so on a university campus, if somebody deliberately distorts the truth for the sheer purpose of destroying the truth, he should be fired.
For those who would hide behind the mantle of academic freedom and hold up their tenure as a shield, I remind them that tenure was designed to protect the honest pursuit of truth, unencumbered by political coercion. It is not a pass to promulgate bigotry and historical falsehoods. Tenured faculty can be fired for sexual misconduct or for failing to execute their teaching responsibilities; Butz's transgressions are no less a violation of his contract with the university, and therefore his contract should be terminated.
Northwestern has gone to great pains to distance itself from professor Butz. The university has been solicitous of Jewish donors, asking them to counter his hateful rhetoric by funding special programs and faculty positions for Holocaust studies. This they have done, in multiples of millions of dollars.
And yet Butz continues to draw his paycheck, teach his class, and tell the world that the gas chambers of Auschwitz were a lie, that the mass graves at Babi Yar were a lie and that Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka were all lies.
Northwestern's motto is "Quaecumque Sunt Vera"--Whatsoever things are true. It is derived from St. Paul, who said: "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."
Think on these things, Northwestern. Think not of the souls whose memory and murder your professor Butz denies.