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.