Pedro — U. of Colorado Set To Fire Ward Churchill

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University of Colorado Set To Fire Ward Churchill
by Ira Chernus
Published on Friday, July 20, 2007
by CommonDreams.org
On Tuesday, July 24, the University of Colorado Board
of Regents will decide whether to accept the
recommendation of CU President (and former Republican
senator) Hank Brown, and fire CU Professor Ward
Churchill. It’s not likely that Brown, one of the
shrewdest (and most conservative) politicians Colorado
has produced, would recommend the firing unless he was
already sure the Regents would back him up. So it’s a
very good bet that the Regents will indeed give
Churchill the axe. The only thing that might change
their minds is an outpouring of public opinion
supporting a professor’s right to voice unpopular
The Regents’ decision is not merely a local affair. It
has enormous impact on the whole country. That gives
you the right — and the responsibility — to let
them know what you think. The chair of the University
of Colorado Board of Regents is Patricia Hayes. You can
write to her at: Patricia.Hayes@cu.edu.
Why should you bother? It’s still a rare occasion when
a tenured professor is fired because he is an outspoken
leftist. But every time a witchhunt is successful, it
encourages other right-wingers to go after their
favorite target. It brings the next witchhunt closer
and increases the odds that it will succeed.
I’m an outspoken leftie professor at the University of
Colorado too, so I’ve got a personal stake in this.
Someone once asked me to wear a big button that said,
“I am Ward Churchill.” I said I’d prefer a button
reading, “I am Next.” But you never know who will be
next. There is nothing very special about Colorado. It
can happen anywhere. The witchhunters may be coming to
a campus near you. That’s one reason the fate of Ward
Churchill matters to you.
The visible fallout from the Churchill case — the
future attacks on leftist academics — is only the
tip of the iceberg. The bigger effect is one we’ll
never see or hear: the silence of all those, on and off
campuses, who start censoring themselves, not speaking
their minds completely and directly, avoiding
controversial topics in their teaching and research,
because they see which way the political wind blows.
Right after the 9/11 attack, White House spokesman Ari
Fleischer said that people had better “watch what they
say.” That’s the same message the CU Regents will send
across the country by firing Churchill. The impact of
this chilling effect is invisible and incalculable, but
it is very real. And it will directly affect your
freedom to hear the diversity of opinions, including
the most radical opinions, that our ailing democracy
needs so badly. That’s another reason the fate of Ward
Churchill matters to you, no matter where you live.
Of course the chilling wind would blow coldest across
our college campuses. The quality of education in this
country would take a blow. The efforts we profs make to
engage students in critical thinking would be
compromised as faculty avoid potentially damaging
conflicts. The long-term trend toward turning colleges
into vocational job training centers would get a boost.
So would the powerful forces promoting what they call
“politically neutral” indoctrination in Western culture
and values.
Do we want our universities to graduate incurious and
obedient functionaries rather than creative and bold
You may hesitate to weigh in on the case of the right
wingers vs. Ward Churchill because you don’t know the
facts. After all, the faculty’s Research Misconduct
Committee produced a voluminous report detailing his
supposed misconduct. It’s the basis for firing
Was the committee fair and accurate in its assessment?
To be honest, I don’t know. How could I? I’m not an
expert in Native American Studies. I don’t have the
knowledge or experience to make an informed judgment.
But neither did the committee, nor anyone else in the
University bureacracy who has brought Churchill to the
academic gallows. There were two experts in Native
American Studies on the committee for a while, but they
quit (some say they were hounded off) because they were
trying to give the matter a fair hearing, and it seemed
to them that was not what the committee had in mind.
So a professor is about to be axed for research
misconduct even though no one with any expertise in his
field has substantiated the charges. In fact a number
of experts in Native American Studies who examined the
committee’s report found that it had numerous flaws and
seemed to reflect the selective use of evidence to
advance a predetermined objective. They found no
evidence of gross errors, which is what “research
misconduct” means, in Churchill’s work.
To be sure, Churchill has his critics in his academic
field. So do I. That’s what academia is all about. But
as Eric Cheyfitz of Cornell University, who closely
studied the committee’s report, wrote, it “turns what
is a debate about controversial issues of identity and
genocide in Indian studies into an indictment of one
position in that debate.” If you start firing
professors because some of their colleagues don’t like
their research, most all of us would have to go. And if
you take apart the work of a productive scholar,
looking for every little flaw you can find (a misplaced
citation here, a small misquote there), most all of us
would have to go. But that’s not research misconduct.
Churchill’s scholarship as well as his politics has
always been controversial. Critics charged for many
years that he wasn’t adhering strictly to all the
academic rules. But CU officials ignored those charges
for most of those years. (In fact they granted him
tenure even though he did not have a Ph.D and his work
was somewhat unconventional, because they wanted a star
to show their commitment to diversity. Now they are
using the same unconventionality to hound Churchill out
— and raise grave questions about their concern for
CU officials only became concerned about the quality of
Churchill’s work after right-wingers discovered his
now-famous essay that called corporate functionaries
working in the World Trade Center on 9/11 “little
Eichmanns.” That triggered an avalanche of conservative
pressure on CU to fire Churchill. Of course the
University administrators could not come out and say
they were investigating him for unpopular political
opinions in the post-9/11 era. So they got the Research
Misconduct Committee to go through his writings with a
fine-tooth comb. Lo and behold, they found the
“evidence” they were looking for.
There’s a lot more to the case. Charges of plagiarism
rest on weak evidence and strained interpretations that
don’t withstand serious scrutiny. The University
administrators broke their own system’s rules in a
number of ways. Most importantly, they let a massive
campaign by outsiders — conservatives from across
the country — influence what should be strictly an
internal decision-making process.
It looks like President Hank Brown is catering to those
outsiders. He has rejected his own faculty advisory
committee’s recommendation to discipline and suspend
Churchill, opting instead to go for out-and-out firing.
The irony is that once the Regents do give Churchill
the axe, he will go to court and argue that his
contractual rights were violated. Both sides will trot
out their experts. In the end, some judges who know
nothing at all about Native American Studies will have
to decide whether there is compelling evidence of
research misconduct here. Since the whole case of the
right wingers vs. Churchill rests on political animus,
the outcome will probably depend on how conservative
those judges are. If it ever reaches Supreme Court, we
can unfortunately pretty well predict how it will go.
The last chance to stop that slide down the slippery
legal slope is to convince the Regents that it’s not in
their best interests to fire Churchill. They need to
know that the whole world is watching. They need to
hear from you. Again, the chair of the Board of Regents
is Patricia Hayes. You can write to her at:
Patricia.Hayes@cu.edu. If you want email addresses for
the other Regents, go to
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the
University of Colorado at Boulder and author of
Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror
and Sin. Email: chernus@colorado.edu