Professors of questionable expertise: The Capitol breach and '1619'

Professors of questionable expertise: The Capitol breach and '1619'

In January a prominent law professor participated in events leading up to the Capitol attack. In spring, a prestigious university hired the lead author of the controversial New York Times collection, The 1619 Project, which frames racism as the defining characteristic of U.S. history.  

Each instance involved tradeoffs between two crucial academic values that sometimes exist in tension: free inquiry and expertise. Both professors made inexpert claims with enormous implications, one from the left and one from the right. They did not suffer the same fate. 

Using his status as a law professor to argue for what an overwhelming majority of constitutional lawyers consider an inaccurate interpretation of the 12th Amendment, Chapman University Professor John Eastman advised President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE that Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence to deliver address on 'educational freedom' in Virginia Obama looks to give new momentum to McAuliffe The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Manchin, Sanders in budget feud; Biden still upbeat MORE should halt the Electoral College vote before it would select Democrat Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Methane fee faces negotiations White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege The No Surprises Act:  a bill long overdue MORE

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An attorney and scholar, Eastman should have known that his legal theory was questionable, yet he advocated it forcefully. Luckily, Pence rebuffed Eastman and Trump. Had Eastman succeeded, he would have created a precedent for future incumbents to freeze the Electoral College any time their party was losing, ending the peaceful transfer of power guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and over two centuries of tradition. 

Many professors demanded that Chapman University separate itself from the former dean of its law school and tenured professor. Within days Chapman did so

More recently, the University of North Carolina's Board of Trustees approved the decision of its journalism school to hire 1619 Project lead author Nikole Hannah-Jones for a professorship but blocked her tenure. Many academics criticized this as racist, so last week UNC caved, offering Hannah-Jones lifetime employment on arrival. Hannah-Jones on Tuesday announced she has declined the tenured position and will join the faculty at Howard University instead.

Hannah-Jones promoted The 1619 Project as a factual reinterpretation of history with slavery as a prime cause of the American Revolution, and racial oppression as uniquely American and thus defining our country. Her view is now being taught in some schools across the country. Hannah-Jones tweeted her approval of the notion that the 2020 civil unrest that killed roughly 20 people and cost well over $1 billion in damages be called the “1619 riots.” She later deleted the tweet.  

The 1619 Project is powerfully written. Yet many of its central claims have been refuted by expert historians. Only four of the project’s 31 authors are historians; none is an expert on the founding. Leading historians who are experts, such as Brown University’s Gordon Wood and Princeton’s Sean Wilentz have debunked the key assertion that preserving slavery motivated the American Revolution. Even a 1619 Project fact-checker and Northwestern history professor who supported her goals complained that Hannah-Jones refused to accept facts that contradicted her ideology. 

The Eastman and Hannah-Jones cases are not equivalent, in at least two ways. First, Eastman was seemingly terminated, and Hannah-Jones merely had the terms of a job offer changed (and then changed back). On the other hand, Eastman is more culpable: His erroneous legal advice apparently had immediate consequences, whereas in her most noted journalistic work, Hannah-Jones apparently showed negligence by selectively ignoring facts.  

Each case pits academic free inquiry against academic expertise. As Princeton professor Keith Whittington writes in “Speak Freely: Why universities must defend free speech,” free inquiry in the academy is largely a means to an end, enabling scholarly debates to find objective truths. This works only if professors believe in such truths. When “scholars” repeatedly get verifiable facts wrong, such as a biologist backing creation science, or a Marxist insisting that East Germany enjoyed more popular legitimacy than West Germany despite enormous empirical evidence to the contrary, then if expertise has any meaning, at some point the professors have to go. 

The tradeoffs between expertise and free inquiry are complicated since we can only know if today’s experts are wrong by allowing critiques from intellectual dissenters. That makes for tough calls to maintain expertise, keeping in mind that professors’ livelihoods and reputations are at stake.  

Eastman’s vigorous promotion of questionable legal theories may have helped precipitate a national crisis, behavior that in my view was sufficiently unprofessional to justify dismissal. But Eastman should have had the opportunity to defend himself. Perhaps he could prove detractors like me wrong, or at least create reasonable doubts. 

Likewise, if the goal of journalism, in contrast to marketing, is to accurately report facts, then Hannah-Jones does not merit the tenured professorship she received — at least not yet, because she has not answered her critics with facts, rather than invective. 

The Eastman and Hannah-Jones cases should have been models for demonstrating academia’s respect for evidence and facts, and thereby winning back public trust in an ideologically diverse, often untrusting host nation. Unfortunately, higher education failed to rise to the occasion.  

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.