The Ward Churchill Wrongful Dismissal Verdict

Apr 06 2009 Published by under Education

On Thursday, a Colorado jury found that Ward Churchill had been improperly fired, and awarded him $1 in damages. Right now, I've got very mixed feelings about the verdict. That's not a surprise, of course, since I've had mixed feelings about the entire situation almost since the start.

For those of you who either aren't aware or have forgotten about the case, Churchill was a professor at the University of Colorado who stirred up a bit of controversy when an essay that he wrote about the 9/11 attacks came to national attention. In that essay, Churchill blamed the victims for the attacks, and famously referred to workers at the World Trade Center as "Little Eichmanns". When that essay, which was written shortly after the attacks, finally gained notoriety in 2005, there was a widespread cry for Churchill's head - or at least his firing. The University of Colorado correctly concluded that he could not be fired for speaking his mind. However, a number of substantial allegations about Churchill's academic conduct were also raised around that time. UC launched an investigation, found that the allegations were well-founded, and fired Churchill.

Churchill sued, claiming that he was only fired because of his political views. The jury, as I just indicated, agreed with him. I'm definitely not happy with their decision. What I can't decide is if I'd be any more happy had the decision gone the other way.

There is little doubt in my mind that the investigation of Churchill was largely motivated by the popular discontent sparked by the contents of his 9/11 essay. It's hard to argue that it wasn't a witch hunt, and I'm not going to try.

The problem that I have is that in this case the witch hunt seems to have caught a real witch. The investigation did not find some flimsy incident involving a misplaced footnote or something petty. Churchill didn't just plagiarize, misrepresent sources, manufacture sources, and make stuff up. He did all of those things multiple times, and demonstrated no understanding that any of his behavior was wrong. As Janet put it a couple of years ago, "That's not how scholars roll."

Disciplining Churchill sends the message that if you want to be controversial, you better be prepared to have people dig through your entire past to find things to use against you. Letting the misconduct go unpunished sends the message that if you want to get away with being an unethical academic, you just need to make sure that you're also enough of an ass about things to stir up political controversy. Neither of those messages is exactly healthy.

Neither situation provides for a happy outcome. Sadly, we didn't have to wind up in this situation.

The University of Colorado apparently paid little attention to what Churchill was doing over the years. He was an outspoken activist without a Ph.D when he was hired, and he remained one until he was fired. He'd attracted controversy before, although not to the same degree, and the University had been totally fine with that. They'd also been totally fine letting at least a few allegations about Churchill's misconduct slide past without investigation or even significant comment. They were fat, dumb, and happy, and willing to stay that way. And then Churchill set off a firestorm, and suddenly the powers that be were not happy any more. Politicians and the media were on their backs, and taking action against Churchill was now much more appealing than not taking action.

In retrospect, I'm not sure that it would be all bad if Churchill gets his job back. He and the University of Colorado might just deserve each other.

8 responses so far

  • WMGoBuffs says:

    BTW: It's CU, not UC.

  • Phillip IV says:

    I think this outcome is better than the opposite would have been: It sends a signal supportive of academic free speech, and stresses the importance of enforcing academic standards continuously and consistently - if CU could have proven they had subjected any of their other faculty members to similarly strict scrutiny before, Churchill's infractions by themselves would certainly have been considered sufficient grounds for dismissal.
    The only casualty is CU's reputation...but that, also, might just be deserved.

  • Ron Paul Fan says:

    Ghostwriting (the form of plagiarism that you say Churchill should have been fired over) is not illegal and there isn't any school in the nation that has a policy against it. Ghostwriting is common and widespread. Why should he have been fired for doing something that many other professors do and not get fired?

  • SouthernFriedSkeptic says:

    I often find myself of two minds about this sort of thing. My views on religion and my political views are detested almost unanimously in my local area. While employers and others may be conscious enough to avoid direct discrimination, I have been warned by friends and family to limit sharing my views.
    If I make my views public, I realize I have to make sure I am completely impeachable in all aspects of my life. I need to be by the book 100% at work. I need to follow all speed limits. You get the idea. It is an enormous burden of expectation above and beyond those who share the common local view. Yet, it is also my choice to exercise my right to speak my views that would have this result.
    Sometimes I feel that we are guaranteed the right to speak our minds- not the right to have our views well-received. So it's the price I pay if I choose to make my views known and I know this prior to making my decision. It is the cost of unpopular views.
    On the other hand, I sometimes feel that it is an unnecessary and unreasonable burden that contributes to maintaining the status quo and serves to discourage dissent and encourage conformity. Rather than just simply disagreeing with my view, it threatens other areas of my life. Not through direct discrimination, but through ostracism, suspicion, and a general antagonistic attitude by the community. Anyone who has worked under a boss who disliked them personally knows how unteneble such a situation is.

  • I think the best outcome would be for the judge to award costs (including attorney fees if available) to Churchill, but not reinstate him. That punishes the university for engaging in a witch hunt, while preserving academic integrity.

  • MikeS says:

    What Churchill did reminds me of the stories about police catching drug dealers. Not because the police knew they were drug dealers but because the dealers sped, drove with expired plates, ran red lights etc. and called attention to themselves.
    It sounded like Churchill was lying and plagiarizing. Then he called attention to himself by calling the tenants of the WTC Nazis. This was just "begging to be pulled over" by the scholar police so they could check the back seat and trunk for any bad stuff.

  • Nullifidian says:

    The investigation did not find some flimsy incident involving a misplaced footnote or something petty. Churchill didn't just plagiarize, misrepresent sources, manufacture sources, and make stuff up. He did all of those things multiple times, and demonstrated no understanding that any of his behavior was wrong.
    You're right, but unintentionally. The investigation didn't even rise to the level of flimsy.
    Did you expect them to come right out and admit that they had no basis for revoking his tenure and that they were doing it for political reasons? Of course they couldn't do that. So they tried another tack, and one popular with a large segment of America: make adherence to the "party line" on the genocide of Native Americans the standard for judgment. That not only appeared to 'deal' with the subjects Ward Churchill was writing about, but was also calculated to win the support of the far-right who had been hounding Churchill for "On the Justice of Roosting Chickens".
    Unfortunately, the investigative committee contained no experts in indigenous studies, and therefore claimed that they were going to remain mute on the subject of the accuracy of Churchill's claims. They violated this self-imposed restriction numerous times, particularly with respect to the Mandan smallpox epidemic and the Dawes Severalty Act. Their own report, using their uncharitable readings and standards, would have been grounds for firing everyone involved.
    For example: “The evidence indicates that during the allotment period, for a brief three-year window from 1917 to 1920, a half-blood quantum test was employed, albeit not for the purpose that Professor Churchill claims.”
    The 1917 date was the date when the quantum test was specifically written into the law via an amendment. The last clause shows them going beyond their stated scope in order to determine the purpose of the blood quantum test, which clearly demonstrates the kangaroo court approach of this committee. As a committee with no experts in indigenous studies, they should not have been opining on the purpose of the Dawes Severalty Act.
    However, it seems to be a basic issue of fact that the blood quantum test didn’t exist as part and parcel of the implementation of the Dawes Act. Is that accurate?
    Not quite.
    At that link, you’ll see that the card is marked as being a card used in the Dawes’ Roll, which was used to implement the Dawes Severalty Act (“The rolls were needed to assign the allotments and to provide an equitable division of all monies obtained.”), that it dates from 1903, fourteen years before the date claimed by the committee, and that it has a blood quantum test as part of its form. The man is a 1/4 Cherokee, his wife is “I.W.”–intermarried white–and the three children are therefore 1/8 Cherokee.
    Documentary evidence like this would have caused honest scholars to say that Churchill was brilliantly vindicated, or caused a more abashed scholar to simply shut up and slink away, but they ignored this readily available data and lied instead because they had an agenda to serve. It only took me fifteen minutes of poking around some online indigenous heritage sites to find this. If I found it, they certainly could have.
    This is why the jury ruled in favor of Churchill—because once you strip away all the lies and all the spin and all the bullshit, what you're left with is a few ghostwritten essays—which Churchill never denied writing. Ghostwriting is not in violation of any academic standards I'm aware of, and citing it requires citing the author(s) of record, not the ghostwriter. I've never heard of a special form of MLA citation (the standard in the humanities) for citing ghostwritten works and I don't think the MLA has either.

  • Nullifidian says:

    What Churchill did reminds me of the stories about police catching drug dealers. Not because the police knew they were drug dealers but because the dealers sped, drove with expired plates, ran red lights etc. and called attention to themselves.
    It sounded like Churchill was lying and plagiarizing. Then he called attention to himself by calling the tenants of the WTC Nazis. This was just "begging to be pulled over" by the scholar police so they could check the back seat and trunk for any bad stuff.
    Statements like this are extremely worrying.
    First off, you're still willing to accept what the university said about Churchill's work despite the fact that all their allegations just got a definitive smackdown in court.
    Secondly, if you take your analogy to its logical conclusion, one has to conclude that you consider exercising one's free speech to be equivalent to being a criminal.
    Lastly, Churchill did not call the WTC tenants “Nazis”. He used the phrase “little Eichmanns”. By this, he was referencing John Zerzan (who coined the term) who was referencing Hannah Arendt. Doesn't anybody know her classic work Eichmann in Jerusalem any more? Suffice it to say that the point being made is that the WTC was part of the “technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire” and, like the bureaucrat Eichmann, was responsible for implementing a deadly system that was larger than any of them. We can't reduce the Nazi killing machine to Eichmann any more than we can reduce the forces of globalization backed by military force to the WTC, but nonetheless it is not surprising that people would want to strike back at these symbols of those forces.
    However, let's assume that he called everyone who perished in the WTC collapse “Nazis”. What difference would it make?!?! Going after him because you don't like his political statements, even if you've invented yourself some academic ‘cover’ by which you can oust him, is an assault on the free speech rights of every academic. Do you think that any academic's work can survive the one-sided, hostile, uncharitable scrutiny given to Churchill's work? I certainly don't. I'd love to see what a similarly disposed committee could do with Bernard Lewis' work (who liked to tell racist jokes in his classes about how the Arabs' idea of a revolution was to go have an orgy). Or Heath Lowry, that toady of the Turkish government, or Guenter Lewy, who wrote an entire book downplaying the Nazi genocide of the Roma/Sinti people. I'll never find out because these people are the acceptable face of academia.
    What that says about academia I leave as an exercise for you.