Firing Ward Churchill

Jun 26 2006 Published by under Uncategorized

Remember Ward Churchill? He's the apparenty-soon-to-be-former University of Colorado academic who stirred up controversy when he referred to 9-11 victims as "little Eichmanns" in a 2001 essay. Today, the UC Boulder Interim Chancellor announced that the university, following a very lengthy investigation, intends to fire Churchill for cause. (Hat tip: No Se Nada)
Back in 2005, when the whole Churchill affair was big news, I wrote a letter to the campus paper explaining why I disagreed with the decision a number of university groups had made to bring him out to UH as a speaker. That was in my pre-blogging days, and the letter doesn't seem to be available online, though it was published, so I'll try to find it and post it here later on. In a nutshell, though, my position was (and is) that Churchill had a right to express his opinions, but that bringing him to Hawaii as a speaker went beyond supporting his right to express controversial views, and instead served to reward him for expressing those particular views.
In the letter, I also said that if he was fired, I would contribute to his legal defense fund. I've decided not to do that. Here's why:

I've read the report of the committee that investigated the allegations of academic misconduct, and it paints a damning picture of him as a researcher. If half of their conclusions are true, Churchill should be fired. He should be completely disgraced as an academic, and permanently barred from academia. And, sadly, I can see no compelling reason to doubt the committee's findings. The university appears to have gone to appropriate lengths to ensure that the investigation was fair. The investigating committee consisted of five members, two of whom were from other institutions (and one of those two is an Ethnic Studies professor). The committee spent about a year on their investigation, and conducted numerous interviews, including several with Churchill, giving him plenty of opportunity to address the charges.
Some might argue that the investigation only took place because of the controversy surrounding the 9-11 essay. I think that is probably the case, but it excuses nothing. The investigaing committee addresses this particular argument far better than I can:

...the Committee is troubled by the origins of, and skeptical concerning the motives for, the current investigation. The Committee's disquiet regarding the timing of these allegations is exacerbated by the fact that the formal complainant in the charges before us is the Interim Chancellor of the University, despite the express provision in the Laws of the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado that faculty members' "efforts should not be subjected to direct or indirect pressures or interference from within the university, and the university will resist to the utmost such pressures or interference when exerted from without."
Nevertheless, serious claims of academic misconduct have been lodged and they require full investigation and responsible and fair treatment. The Committee has attempted to provide that investigation, keeping the background and origins of this particular dispute out of our consideration of the particular allegations. To use an analogy, a motorist who is stopped and ticketed for speeding because the police officer was offended by the contents of her bumper sticker, and who otherwise would have been sent away with a warning, is still guilty of speeding, even if the officer's motive for punishing the speeder was the offense taken to the speeder's exercise of her right to free speech. No court would consider the improper motive of the police officer to constitute a defense to speeding, however protected by legal free speech guarantees the contents of the bumper sticker might be.
Professor Churchill repeatedly suggested to the Committee that he was targeted for investigation in a discriminatory manner due in part to his controversial left-wing views, but the Committee notes that public figures who choose to speak out on controversial matters of public concern naturally attract more controversy and attention to their background and work than scholars quietly writing about more esoteric matters that are not the subject of political debate. Whether such public figures seek political appointment, like Lani Guinier (now of the Harvard Law School) or former Court of Appeals Judge Robert Bork, both of whose appointments to office were defeated in part based on their prior scholarship, or become nationally visible public speakers, like Professor Churchill, greater notoriety and attention constitute the natural consequence and cost of voluntarily becoming a public figure. ...Thus, while the Committee recognizes that Professor Churchill's national visibility as a controversial speaker and writer may have contributed to the attention given to his prior scholarship, we observe that such attention stems in part from his voluntarily becoming a national public figure. (pp. 4-5)

Put another way, people who live in glass houses might want to be careful with rocks. (In a delicious irony, the title of the article that stirred up all the fuss was, "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens")
In this particular case, the house turned out to be much more fragile than usual. The committee found numerous examples of serious academic misconduct, including (but not limited to): falsification of sources, fabrication of evidence, and plagarism.
There are also a couple of cases where his actions were so far beyond the pale that I think it's better to just quote the committee's statements:

Professor Churchill has not, however, respected those Indian traditions. He did not mention native oral sources in any of his published essays about Fort Clark. Instead he raised the possibility that he had drawn on oral material only in an attempt to produce after-the-fact justification for his claims during the course of this investigation. At that point, he purported to defend the legitimacy of his account by referencing oral tradition, but he provided no evidence that he had done any research whatsoever into the traditions of the Mandan or other relevant tribes regarding the smallpox epidemic of 1837 before publishing his essays. The Committee concludes that this behavior shows considerable disrespect for the native oral tradition by employing it as a defense against research misconduct while failing to use or acknowledge it in his published scholarship. In doing so, he engaged in a kind of falsification of evidence for his claims.(p.81)

Although Professor Churchill appeared in his submissions to our Committee to acknowledge that several of his claims are not supported by the evidence, he emphasized that he plans to re-publish with only minor changes in wording, not substantive revisions, the essay that provides the fullest--and most extreme--account of the Fort Clark situation. (p.82)

The cases where evidence was misrepresented, falsified, or outright fabricated do not, for the most part, involve trivialities. In fact, they are related to some of his strongest claims - the committee found that his claim that John Smith deliberately introduced smallpox to decimate New England populations is a fabrication in its entirety. In this case, not only was the accusation not supported by Churchill's cited sources, but they were unable to find any published sources supporting it (pp. 33-38).
Another case involved his assertion that the smallpox pandemic that decimated (actually, more than decimated in the literal sense of the term) several tribes was caused by the army deliberately distributing contaminated blankets taken from a St. Louis infirmary. This charge, too, was not supported by the sources he cited - in fact, it was specifically rejected in those sources, and the committee found that he had misrepresented the sources he cited. They also found that the portion of Churchill's accusation that involved the St. Louis infirmary was entirely fabricated. This, again, is no small accusation. (pp. 39-82) Despite changing his story during the investigation, Churchill apparently informed the committee that he intends to republish an essay containing exactly that accusation. (p.70) They found no support for his accusation that US military doctors gave the natives advice that ran counter to the medical proceedures of the day - in fact, they found no evidence that there was any doctor, military or otherwise, anywhere in the area. (p. 72) That claim, too, appears in its most extreme form in the essay that Churchill is republishing. The committee, in this case, did not attempt to conceal their distaste for his actions:

Because neither his own statements nor our investigation produced evidence to support some of his more detailed claims, we conclude that Professor Churchill has created myths under the banner of academic scholarship.

Misconduct of this type is not a minor affair. Academics depends on trust, openness, and honesty, and Churchill's conduct was an assault on all three. The committee's findings demonstrate a repeated - almost routine - disregard for the fundamental principles of academic scholarship on Churchill's part. Despite the highly questionable circumstances surrounding the referral of the accusations to the committee, Churchill's misconduct is both clear and clearly intolerable. He has no place in an academic environment.

2 responses so far

  • Qtopia says:

    Is it time to apply the same exhaustive investigative techniques against the actions, justifications and papers the current United States "Executive Branch Leadership" has relentlessly attempted to pawn off as fact? Shouldn't we as citizens demand fairness of all public officials discoursing their agenda on an unsuspecting populace? If we are to hold professionalism up to a higher plane, shouldn't the citizens of the United States fan the flames of justice against a "professional" yet seemingly corrupt establishment? Our Constitution needs you.