Ward Churchill, Free Speech, and Academic Integrity

Jul 25 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

A few of you might remember Ward Churchill. He's the University of Colorado professor who caused a stink a few years ago with an essay that compared 9/11 victims in the World Trade Center to Nazis. His remarks generated a surge of demands that he be fired. Yesterday, he finally was - but not for the 9/11 essay. And there's the rub.

Ward Churchill was dismissed for cause by the Board of Regents for academic misconduct that was unearthed when people began to examine his record more closely when the offensive essay came to light. They found repeated cases of academic misconduct, and filed a formal complaint with his university. The university investigated the charges, found that a number of them were substantiated, and that's where we academics suddenly find ourselves in a no-win situation.

There is little, if any, reason to doubt that the investigation into Mr. Churchill's conduct was entirely inspired by his decision to use his legitimate First Amendment rights in a deliberately offensive manner. There is also little, if any, reason to doubt that Churchill did deliberately commit multiple acts of academic misconduct. If Churchill is punished for the academic misconduct, it will at least in part be the result of the uproar caused by his decision to speak out as he saw fit. If Churchill is spared the consequences of his exercise in free speech, his (unrelated) academic misconduct will be pardoned.

The ACLU argues, correctly, that it is impossible to cleanly separate the investigation of Churchill's misconduct from the lynch-mob atmosphere generated by his offensive comments. The University of Colorado president argued that not firing Churchill would damage the academic integrity of the school. Both are correct. The ACLU argues that firing Churchill sends a message that "politically unpopular dissenters speak out at their peril." UC argues that "...Churchill's misconduct seriously impacts the University's reputation and the reputations of its faculty," and that, "[t]he integrity of the faculty is central to the University's academic mission." Both are correct, and we have only Ward Churchill to thank for the magnitude of this particular no-win situation.

It actually gets worse, too, because there's also the question of what level of punishment (if any, of course) he should receive. One of the committees that investigated him recommended firing. A second appeals committee recommended that he be suspended and demoted to assistant professor (which I assume would also mean a loss of tenure). The University of Colorado President disagreed with the appeals panel decision to suspend, and recommended that the regents fire Churchill. The ACLU believes that firing him under those circumstances would be an offense against his free speech rights, and would create a dangerous precedent. They're right about that. Unfortunately, not firing him would also create a dangerous precedent - because the University President is right about the appeals panel's decision. Suspending Churchill is, given the egregiousness of his crimes against reality, simply not enough.

There is no right to be believed. Trust - credibility - is a privilege that is hard to win and easy to lose. Academics are usually trusted when they talk about matters that they study not because there is some magic aura of credibility that comes with the degree, but because the academic community has demonstrated that it can be trusted in these affairs. When an academic lies about the facts, when an academic steals the work of another, when an academic writes articles under another name, then cites those articles as support for his position, it can hurt the way all academics are perceived.

Churchill did all of those things, and that's why he needs to be punished, but it's not the reason he needed to be fired. He needed to be fired because he shows absolutely no signs of understanding that he did anything wrong. Ward Churchill seems to believe that it is acceptable to manufacture facts, manufacture "outside" support for his arguments, and do or say anything else that advances the particular perspective that he advocates. In short, were his political views not so radically different, he could easily be mistaken for a "loyal Bushie." The standards of academia are - thankfully - quite different from the current standard in the Press Briefing Room.

As bad a message as firing Churchill sends - and it is a bad message - it needed to be done. There is no room in academics for someone who chronically misrepresented history, his own work, and the work of others. If Churchill does not see that, he definitely needs to find new employment.

Update:

Janet (the Scienceblogs resident expert on ethics) was writing her post on the same issue at the same time I was writing mine. It's worth a look, especially since she did a better job of explaining some of it - especially the bottom line:

Wrapping yourself in the banner of "academic freedom" doesn't work if you've already abandoned the academy's standards for honest scholarly work. If you're prepared to sacrifice the truth when it's inconvenient, you're not really part of the community.

7 responses so far

  • RyanG says:

    Instead of looking at this as a no-win situation, look at is as a win-win-win. Free speech is maintained, because he's not being fired for that. He can no longer be held up as an example by those who wish to reduce free speech. And finally, this particularly offensive hobgoblin is deprived of a source of income.

  • Mark P says:

    I put my "yes-but" comment at Janet's post.

  • dogscratcher says:

    "The ACLU argues that firing Churchill sends a message that "politically unpopular dissenters speak out at their peril.""
    I would say, "Firing Churchill sends a message that politically unpopular dissenters with "professional" skeletons in their closets speak out at their own peril."

  • coathangrrr says:

    I would say it send the message "You don't have to hew too closely to academic standards as long as you don't speak out."

  • Barry says:

    RyanG: "He can no longer be held up as an example by those who wish to reduce free speech."
    There are those on the right still bitching that Clinton was ever elected, even after six years of Far Worse George. There are those on the right still whining about Vietnam (including, perhaps especially, those who had 'other priorities'). There are already those on the right bitching that we are winning in Iraq, and it's only Those Evul Librulz preventing victory. And not a small fringe on the right; all of those are pretty much mainstream right-wing views.
    Ward Churchill will be a bogeyman for quite a while.

  • Speaking of the Clintons: Set the Wayback Machine for 23 August 1995: a hot day in the nation's capitol. But 3000 miles due west on California's Central Coast, a constellation of events was unfolding that would have a profound effect on Western civilization; plunge it into decades of war. Yet, this cataclysmic upheaval was only part of the plan. Bill Clinton picked up the telephone. It was his Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, calling from a payphone in Monterey. Bill held the receiver at arms length and gazed at the tasteful floral arrangement that adorned the Oval Office. Leon's disembodied voice filled the room. What now, asked Hillary. It's that damn college, mouthed Bill. There was, no getting out. Hillary nodded, just tell Leon he'll get whatever he needs: http://theseedsof9-11.com

  • Steve says:

    Ward Churchill is only one of many US academics who advance personal opinions as "fact" and deny established facts without meeting academic standards. H Bruce Franklin of Rutgers University was previously fired by Stanford. He advances postions which unambiguously deny or "paper over" the accepted facts of Josef Stalin's rule of the Soviet Union (1924-1953)including the engineered famine in the Ukraine in which millions starved, the Moscow purge trials of the late 1930s, and the murder of thousands of Polish soldiers in the Katyn forest, to name a few. Is this any different than denying the Holocaust from an academic perch? History according to Franklin is fiction and should not be tolerated by any educational institution deserving of accreditation.
    Steve in Nevada