C.U. finally fires Ward Churchill

July 25, 2007

Do you remember 2 years ago there was a big to-do about C.U. Ethnic Studies Chair and Professor Ward Churchill? He wrote a rant on 9/11/2001, calling the “technocrat” victims of the 9/11 attacks “little Eichmanns”, after the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. The essay was discovered by the rest of the country in 2005 when Churchill was invited to speak at Hamilton College in New York. Shortly thereafter an inquiry was begun at C.U. looking into Churchill’s scholarship. The lack of explicit motivation for this has caused suspicion by some in the community, given the timing, that it was a witch hunt. A possible motivation might have been that the historical reference was so off the mark, it indicated sloppiness in scholarship.

The investigation took 2-1/2 years, went through various committees, survived the resignation of one of C.U.’s presidents, and ended late on July 24, with a vote of the regents: 8-1. Cindy Carlisle, Regent from Boulder, being the one dissenting vote. She didn’t like dismissal. She preferred the punishment of one year suspension and demotion in rank, as was recommended earlier this year by the Privilege and Tenure Committee. Carlisle claims she’s worked with C.U. to create faculty governance, and that since this committee is run by faculty, C.U. should follow its lead. The Standing Committee on Research Misconduct is also a committee run by faculty, and a majority of them recommended dismissal. So it sounds to me like she’s spinning.

This should surprise nobody. I think it’s shameful that we Boulderites tolerate academic incompetence on the part of those who massage our political egos. One might assume it’s because we’re a community of poorly educated ninnies, but that would be false. We are a highly educated community. We have more Ph.D.’s here than you can shake a stick at. We’ve got some who don’t even work at C.U. I’ve heard stories about people with Ph.D.’s working cash registers here at local stores.

The dirty little secret at C.U., and I’m sure at many other universities, is that the faculty cares a great deal about professors’ political views. I saw an interview with a former C.U. history professor 2 years ago who was effectively isolated by his fellow faculty members, because they didn’t like his personal views. He said he didn’t get into his personal views in his classes. He just taught straight history, but that didn’t matter. He ended up leaving of his own accord, just because the atmosphere had become so hostile. The whole argument about “academic freedom” on the part of some faculty at C.U. is a red herring. This may depend on the college within the university. When it comes right down to it, some faculty only care about academic freedom within certain parameters, and those parameters may not even be academic.

Anyway, back to the story. A report by the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct was disclosed in May 2006. It found that Churchill had falsified certain historical events in his books, using the conventions of academia to make it look legitimate. He put citations to other people’s work in his own, as any academic would. The problem was the citations he used didn’t agree with what he said at all. In other words, he was putting words in other people’s mouths. It would be like if I said that President Lincoln said during the Civil War, “This country is a piece of crap!”, and I used the Gettysburg Address as a supporting citation for it. Hey, it’s a citation that pertains to Lincoln. But Lincoln didn’t say that in his speech. Churchill and his supporters argued that while the citations were not accurate, the history Churchill told was true, just based on different sources, which could not be produced, as best I could tell. That’d be like me saying, “Okay, I know Lincoln didn’t say that in the Gettysburg Address, but he said it at some point in his life,” without giving firm evidence.

Secondly, Churchill was charged with plagiarism, passing off other people’s work as his own.

These were not isolated incidents either. The faculty committee found so many examples of these kinds of violations that they had to conclude that these were not mere mistakes, which can happen in legitimate academic work. They were deliberate. They were reticent to say that it was even indicative of extreme sloppiness. The recommendation of the majority of the committee was for dismissal, though a few recommended suspension.

A few more steps had to be taken before the coup de grace was delivered. The Privilege and Tenure Committee recommended suspension instead of dismissal earlier this year.

After doing further review yesterday, the Regents had a brief public meeting where they voted for dismissal 8-1, and then left. A press conference was held by a representative for the Regents, and a separate one was held by some Churchill supporters.

David Lane, Churchill’s attorney, was expected to file a lawsuit in Denver District court today, on First Amendment grounds, charging that one motivation for the investigation into Churchill’s scholarship was due to his controversial statements, and that his statements are not grounds for such a “witch hunt”. I listened to the Caplis & Silverman show yesterday on KHOW, and they made a good argument, basically asking the question, “Okay, well when would have been a good time to conduct the investigation?” Churchill had a history of making controversial statements in all sorts of forums. When would have been a good time to conduct it, if not within proximity of any one of his controversial utterances? There were at least a couple grounds for the investigation, all of which had apparently been ignored when they first came to light years ago. Two professors had written articles about Churchill’s academic misconduct. One covered Churchill’s allegation that the Mandan Sioux were poisoned with smallpox-laced blankets by the U.S. Army. The other was from John LaVelle, a law professor at a university in New Mexico–I can’t find his article now, though I did read it. It had to do with Churchill’s notions about an Indian lands law that he said was based on “blood quantum”.

Personally I think that C.U. should’ve acted a long time ago when these issues came to light, at least when there was no rebuttal from Churchill, clarifying them when the charges of falsifying scholarship had been made.

Heck, C.U. should never have given him tenure in the first place, since he lacked a credential that’s a requirement for most anyone else, namely a Ph.D. He doesn’t have one. The highest degree he attained was a Masters degree in art from a small college in Illinois.

A lot of people make an issue of the fact that Churchill can’t definitively prove his Indian heritage, though interestingly, even his brother, when interviewed by the Rocky Mountain News, said that they believed within the family that they had Indian ancestors. So I can’t blame him for that, though once the very Indian organizations he claimed to be a part of did not back up his claims, I think that should’ve given one pause.

The second strike against him in my mind, though this was never an issue that was pursued by C.U., was the fact that Ward Churchill had bullied and threatened other people throughout his career at C.U. Caplis & Silverman recounted a number of stories on their radio show about his physical intimidation and threats on those who criticized him, or called him on the carpet for breaking a rule.

A third strike against him in my mind, though again this was never pursued, were his speeches before anarchist groups, particularly those that called for the overthrow of the U.S. government (all C.U. professors, being state employees, are sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution as a condition of their employment), and advocating violence against the U.S. government and corporations (which inevitably involves employees), like that carried out by radical Islamists on 9/11. C.U. considered these rants speech protected by the First Amendment, and indeed they are, but according to the legal history, the oath to uphold the Constitution is supposed to prevent professors like Churchill from advocating the overthrow of the government, and it seemed that C.U. arguably would’ve had the right to discipline Churchill for that alone. Interestingly, until the investigation happened, it never occurred to anyone to check for the oath. It turned out C.U. never required him to take it as they were supposed to.

In one case Churchill really went up to the “crying fire in a crowded theater” line, when at one anarchist meeting an audience member asked him about carrying out a terrorist attack and how to go about it, Churchill told the man, “Without putting too fine a point on it, you carry the weapon.” He told him that he would be a good choice for such an operation, because he was white, and he wouldn’t arouse suspicion. Had a violent act followed that meeting, carried out by the audience member, Churchill could’ve been held legally liable for the damage.

At another event he told some folks something to the effect of, “We’re all going to die someday. The question is will you make your death mean something,” basically calling them to action, to push for violent change in this country.

Apparently C.U. doesn’t have any rules about “professors behaving badly” when it comes to speech like this. I wouldn’t even call it academic freedom. What Churchill engaged in at these meetings was more like giving general advice to potential terrorists. It isn’t speech that one should be put in jail for, just on its own. The First Amendment does protect it up to a point. That point being if his speech results in someone actually taking violent action, and it had that potential in at least one documented case.

Churchill was a professor making over $100,000 a year though. As best anyone could tell he only made these sorts of speeches on his own time, but he had a tendency to make general overtures to violent action “for the cause” in his books, which students were required to read. He used his title as “C.U. Professor” wherever he went, whether he was talking to anarchists or not. Personally I think C.U. should have a rule about that: Say what you want on your own time, but if your speech falls outside these broad guidelines, you cannot use the title of C.U. professor. What he said reflected directly on C.U. as a school.

As far as the investigation is concerned, that’s over, but this sad saga will go on in a lawsuit against C.U., which I assume was filed today.