Churchill Survives -- For Now
Ward Churchill's controversial essay about "little Eichmanns" won't cost the University of Colorado professor his tenured position -- at least not directly. The chancellor of the Boulder campus, where Churchill teaches ethnic studies, said Thursday that Churchill's comments were protected by the U.S. Constitution and that there was no evidence that his views interfered with his teaching duties.
But the speech could still result in Churchill's dismissal -- many months from now. That's because the outrage over Churchill's comments on the victims of 9/11 led to scrutiny of his record and numerous charges of misconduct -- primarily plagiarism -- against him. Phil DiStefano, the chancellor, said that some of those allegations were serious enough to warrant a faculty investigation. That review could lead to a loss of tenure and dismissal.
Churchill was unavailable for comment Thursday, but he told a Denver television reporter that the chancellor's finding about his speech was "validating to the idea that there was not a basis to being an investigation in the first place." And he said that the remaining charges are "politically motivated" and "an attempt to backfill baseless charges."
The essay that set off a nationwide furor was written shortly after 9/11, but it only became widely discussed this year, when Churchill was scheduled to give a talk at Hamilton College. Critics said Hamilton should not have invited Churchill and started reviewing his record. Hamilton -- while defending the invitation -- called off the speech, citing threats of violence. Churchill never backed away from his essay, but issued a statement saying that his words and ideas were being distorted.
The university ordered a review of Churchill's record amid growing calls by Colorado politicians -- including the governor -- to fire him.
In a detailed report issued Thursday, the university review -- by DiStefano and two deans -- discussed a range of charges against Churchill, starting with those raised by his 9/11 remarks.
The review noted that in addition to his 9/11 remarks, Churchill had made many controversial statements over the years. But the emphasis of this part of the report was on legal issues. The review noted repeated rulings by federal courts that public employees cannot be fired for exercising their right to free speech.
Churchill was chairman of the ethnic studies department at the time the controversy broke -- and he quit that post (but not his tenured position) shortly after the criticism started. The university's review said that had he not given up the chairmanship, there would have been legal precedent to strip him of that title, because of the assumption that a department chair speaks in some ways for the university.
But the review concluded that there was no basis under which speech could lead to firing Churchill. "Professor Churchill appears to have continued in his faculty responsibilities and the content of his speech has not disrupted the university's provision of services to its students or the ability of other faculty members to perform their responsibilities. His political expression is, therefore, constitutionally protected against government sanction on the grounds of disruption, in spite of the damage it may have caused," the review said.
Where Churchill may face difficulty is in allegations of research misconduct. The report notes six allegations of either plagiarism or distortion of scholarly materials. In one of the cases, the report notes, a lawyer at Dalhousie University, in Nova Scotia, concluded that one of its professors had been plagiarized by Churchill. The Dalhousie professor also charges that Churchill made a threatening phone call to her -- a charge he has denied.
The review did not attempt to determine if the misconduct charges were true. However, it did review them to determine if they were serious enough to warrant a faculty investigation. The review concluded that all of the allegations except one -- brought by the sister of Churchill's late wife -- met that "minimum standard" to merit an investigation by a faculty committee, which DiStefano authorized.
"If the committee determines that Professor Churchill engaged in research misconduct, the committee is to make recommendations regarding possible disciplinary action ranging from warning to dismissal. Consistent with university policy, the committee's process will afford Professor Churchill all due opportunity to respond to the allegations," the report said.
The report also examined an unusual allegation that has been raised: That Churchill is not an American Indian, as he has claimed. According to the report, Churchill has always identified himself to the university as an American Indian, and the university received complaints from Indian leaders 10 years ago that Churchill was being untruthful. At the time, the university concluded that self-identification was an appropriate way for Churchill to declare himself an Indian, so the matter was dropped.
Since the university ruled on the matter a decade ago, the review concluded that it could not investigate questions with regard to Churchill's hiring. But, it did say that if Churchill is misrepresenting himself as an Indian, that could constitute research misconduct.
"A remaining question is whether Professor Churchill has attempted to gain a scholarly voice, credibility, and an audience for his scholarship by wrongfully asserting that he is an Indian. There is evidence that Professor Churchill's assertion of his Indian status is material to his scholarship, yet there is serious doubt about his Indian identity," the review said. "The evidence is sufficient to warrant referral of this question to the Committee on Research Misconduct for inquiry and, if appropriate, investigation to determine whether Professor Churchill relies on his Indian identity in his scholarship and, if so, whether he has fabricated that identity."
A spokesman for Colorado's governor, Bill Owens, said last night that the governor still wants Churchill fired, and that he is pleased that the university has set in motion an investigation of alleged misconduct that could end with Churchill "off the state payroll."
On the same day that Boulder officials released their study of Churchill, the Colorado system's Board of Regents created a new panel to study the tenure system. The Rocky Mountain News reported that the panel -- four faculty members, three regents, an administror and a student -- would review how professors earn and keep tenure.