Ellis broke golden rule of teaching
Update at 8/18/2001
The WP goes inside with news that Joseph J. Ellis, a Pulitzer
Prize-winning history professor who last June was exposed by
the Boston Globe for lying about being a Vietnam combat
veteran, has been suspended from Mount Holyoke College for
one year without pay, and will also give up his endowed chair.
The college's president explained that Ellis would return to
campus next year after a time of "reflection and repair."
statement released yesterday, Ellis apologized for his actions,
which he called "both stupid and wrong," and said he would
use the year off to reflect and start work on a new book. Ellis
has not yet announced whether the book will be non-fiction or
fiction, but he has demonstrated a considerable knack for both.
By David J. Garrow, 6/20/2001
PULITZER PRIZE-winning Mount Holyoke College history professor
Joseph J. Ellis's confession that he has larded his classes about the
Vietnam War with fraudulent falsehoods about his own utterly spurious
military service there ought to preclude Ellis from ever again taking the
podium in a college classroom.
If Ellis does not have the personal good judgment to remove himself from
teaching, then the administration and trustees of Mount Holyoke owe it to
their students to protect the honesty and integrity of the classroom.
Whatever sympathy we may feel for someone who has publicly self-destructed
just two months after winning the highest possible professional honor must be
counterbalanced and outweighed by a cold-eyed realization that knowingly
false teaching is a professional and ethical offense of the highest order.
But Ellis's personal tragedy has been sadly and inexplicably compounded by
the reactions that Mount Holyoke's president, Joanne V. Creighton, and some
of Ellis's faculty colleagues have voiced to this tragic event. Rather than
express outrage at the professional misconduct which Ellis has repeatedly
committed before scores and scores of Mount Holyoke students or
acknowledge embarrassment at how Ellis in print has also falsely cited ''my
''military experience during the Vietnam War'' as grounds for professional
insight, they have instead criticized The Boston Globe for exposing Ellis's
fraudulent professional behavior.
Creighton's claim that ''We at the college do not know what public interest the
Globe is trying to serve through a story of this nature'' is in its own way an
even greater academic disgrace than Ellis's fictions. Creighton's blissful
assertion that Mount Holyoke is ''proud'' to have Ellis on its faculty represents
a willfully blind refusal to acknowledge a horrible scandal that requires
remedial action on the part of the college or its trustees, not denial.
But Creighton's inability to appreciate the seriousness of Ellis's offense
apparently is shared by at least some Mount Holyoke faculty. ''What's the story
in this?'' sociology professor Richard Moran asked when called by the
Springfield Union-News. ''If it had to do with his research, and with the
Pulitzer and all, it's a real story.''
Moran and Creighton appear to be saying that they have a dramatically lower
standard for truth-in-teaching at Mount Holyoke College than what is imposed
upon professors' published writings. But think about how intellectually
offensive that diminution of the importance and obligations of teaching
When I tell students about comments that were made to me in years past by
now-deceased historical figures such as Stokely Carmichael, Bayard Rustin, or
Justice Harry Blackmun, it's because I was there when Carmichael, Rustin, and
Blackmun said what they did. And were I to ever start telling students about
personal conversations I had with Martin Luther King Jr., J. Edgar Hoover, or
Earl Warren (all of whom I encountered to exactly the same extent that Joe
Ellis served in Vietnam), I or anyone else who did the same ought to be
immediately barred from the classroom.
Declarations that knowingly dishonest teaching merits no critical comment or
professional banishment falsely presuppose a nonexistent separation between
the import of what a professor says in print and what one says in class. But
that's wrong, as any serious academic can tell you.
''For me, the teaching side of my life and the writing side of my life are part of
the same collective whole,'' a now-famous historian told the Globe last
November. That's correct, and for at least once in his life, Joe Ellis was telling
the truth. One's obligation to be honest and truthful in the classroom is in no
way less constant and demanding than one's obligation to be honest and
truthful with every sentence or footnote one puts into print.
No academic whom Mount Holyoke or any other college or university is
''proud'' to have on its faculty ought to disagree, and any college president who
fails to understand the importance of the intellectual integrity of the classroom
ought to find a different job as quickly as Joe Ellis is barred from ever again
David J. Garrow, presidential distinguished professor at Emory University
School of Law in Atlanta, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for ''Bearing the
Cross,'' a biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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