MAXWELL:  It’s not a question of academic freedom

11/20/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When U.S. Supreme Court justices recently vacated an appeals court decision upholding the reappointment of Dr. Leonard Jeffries as chairman of the black studies program at City College of New York, they needlessly prolonged a scandal involving the most egregious sin in academia: intellectual incompetence.

Some background: CCNY dismissed Jeffries as chairman in 1991, after he gave a speech at the Empire State Black Arts Festival vilifying “rich Jews” for having joined the Mafia in bankrolling the slave trade and for having made Hollywood films intended for “the destruction of black people.” Jeffries demanded reinstatement, but the administration refused. He was, however, permitted to remain on staff as a tenured professor with no reduction in salary or loss of benefits. Last year, the Manhattan appeals court ordered the college to reappoint Jeffries as chairman and to pay $360,000 in damages on grounds that his right of academic freedom had been violated.

City College officials took the case to the Supreme Court. The New York state attorney general prepared the college’s brief, relying on a precedent established in another Supreme Court case, Waters vs. Churchill, that asks “whether the First Amendment compels a university to retain, in a position of leadership, a person who has engaged in hate speech.” The implication, of course, is the practical notion that public employees who speak for their institutions have the awesome responsibility of watching their words.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals court, giving CCNY a second chance to go after the radical chairman. As a result of the court’s indecisiveness, many of Jeffries’ longtime detractors now see him as a victim of double jeopardy. These old enemies support his claim that he has been denied academic freedom, a legitimate principle on which most professors will not back down.

CCNY officials erred from the outset when they demoted Jeffries for daring to utter the repugnant. He, like all American citizens, has the constitutional right to speak language that is offensive to the majority or to those in authority.

Officials never should have questioned this right. Instead, they should have fired Jeffries 20 years earlier, not because of a single, stupid speech denigrating Jews, but because his research _ the bedrock of academia _ is fraudulent and because his lectures are riddled with lies. In other words, the bulk of Jeffries’ professional work has greatly harmed the institution he represents.

As a master provocateur, he has built a national following among disaffected black students and Afrocentrists by camouflaging quackery as truth _ an intolerable sin for a professor, especially one heading a major department. But Jeffries’ entire career is propped up by pseudo-scientific theories that attempt to demostrate that blacks are superior to whites. Obviously, positive portrayals of their culture benefit blacks in ways too numerous to count. And, just as obviously, white scholars, in general, have failed to depict blacks accurately.

But such omissions do not justify Jeffries’ bizarre inventions. He teaches, for example, that melanin is “the phenomenon which helps us establish that there’s only one human race, and that race is African. Melanin is that phenomenon that comes about as a result of the sun factor.” Melanin makes blacks, the “sun people,” superior to whites, the “ice people.”

Although this nonsense creates solidarity in some black ranks, it is self-defeating in the long run. Such comic book scholarship would be cause to fire a white professor. Jeffries and other blacks (me, too, if I return to college teaching) must be held to the same rigorous research standards to which their white counterparts are held if blacks are to enjoy equal respectability. CCNY apparently held Jeffries to a lesser standard of scholarship, letting him run roughshod over a national system whose ethos is “publish or perish.”

Many other colleges and universities, because officials are afraid of being accused of racism, sometimes keep marginally competent blacks on their faculties. For that reason, CCNY may never be able to get rid of Jeffries.

That is a shame. His very presence on the national scene taints the work of many excellent black scholars, such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., John Hope Franklin, E. Franklin Frazier, Jerry Gafio Watts, C. Eric Lincoln, Lani Guinier, Cornel West.

But few highly regarded black scholars, for fear of being seen as traitors, are willing to publicly denounce Jeffries. In effect, their silence perpetuates the myth of a double standard in research. Their silence makes the future more difficult for hundreds of young black scholars in the formative stages of their careers.

Such silence, moreover, causes institutions to grasp for the wrong reasons to fire or demote blacks. CCNY is a case in point: The Leonard Jeffries morass never should have gotten to the point of being a matter of academic freedom. The U.S. Constitution has nothing to do with this case. Clearly, it has always been, long before Jeffries’ infamous speech, one of intellectual incompetence. That is a legitimate cause for getting rid of any professor _ white or African-American.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.

PREVIOUS                    NEXT