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Fallout at Hamilton

Fallout at Hamilton
July 5, 2005

Ward Churchill never made it to Hamilton College. But the liberal arts college that invited him -- only to have his controversial comments about 9/11 set off a nationwide controversy -- continues to grapple with the issues raised by the furor. Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, meanwhile continues to anger more people -- most recently with comments that, critics say, suggested that soldiers kill their officers (an interpretation Churchill disputes).

Hamilton's president, Joan Hinde Stewart, recently announced a series of policy changes at Hamilton, largely directed at the Kirkland Project, the academic unit at the college that invited Churchill. The project has been directed to review its mission and programs -- and it has been given an unspecified (but significant) budget cut for the coming academic year. In addition, Stewart announced new rules about campus speakers that will require all invitations that are paid for in part through a central fund to be reported to a dean.

Stewart's memo to students and faculty members did not mention Churchill by name, and referred only to "difficult situations we encountered." Churchill has been speaking on campuses for years, usually without media attention, about radical politics and Native American issues. But prior to a speech scheduled for February at Hamilton, Churchill's writing on 9/11 -- in which he compared the people who died in the World Trade Center to "little Eichmanns" -- started to receive attention. In the uproar that followed, Hamilton defended the invitation, but called off the speech amid threats of violence.

The Kirkland Project is an interdisciplinary center that promotes scholarship and teaching on social justice, "focusing on issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, as well as other facets of human diversity." The Churchill controversy came just after another dispute involving the Kirkland Project. It had invited Susan Rosenberg to the campus as a short-term teacher. Rosenberg, at one time a leading activist against the Vietnam War, was indicted but never tried for a 1981 armored car robbery that left a guard and two police officers dead. She was sentenced for 58 years on charges of weapons possession, but President Clinton granted her clemency in 2001. Amid criticism of her Hamilton appointment, Rosenberg withdrew from plans to teach a half-credit course on memoir writing.

After both controversies, the director of the Kirkland Project resigned and Stewart announced a review of the center, with a faculty panel charged with giving her recommendations.

In her announcement of the changes, Stewart said that "no one at Hamilton wants to see the events of the past year repeated" and said that the steps she was taking were designed to "protect the integrity of the academic program and to ensure reasonable oversight of the invitations we extend."

Hamilton has "no intention of shunning speakers merely because they are controversial, and it remains possible, of course, that despite the changes we are instituting, we may find ourselves in a difficult situation at some future point. I can assure you that, whatever the circumstances, we will act morally, ethically and in a manner consistent with our liberal arts mission and in the best interests of the college we serve and love," Stewart said.

Margaret Thickstun, an English professor who is chair of the faculty at Hamilton, was on the faculty committee that reviewed Kirkland and gave recommendations to Stewart. She noted that Stewart's decision was "more restrictive" than what faculty members recommended. The faculty panel saw no need to cut Kirkland's budget, Thickstun said.

"I think that the faculty as a whole felt that the Kirkland Project wasn't the issue. The media coverage was the issue," she said.

Thickstun said that she saw the new reporting policy on most invitations as an attempt "to be more savvy about what kinds of controversy a speaker might draw," not a way to limit invitations. "It's certainly not our intention that the kinds of speakers and variety of speakers would change at all," she said.

Asked if professors were being sent a message about inviting Churchill-like speakers when the center that invited Churchill is having its budget cut -- against faculty wishes -- Thickstun said, "That may be what the message is attempting to communicate. People are free to send messages."

Jinnie Garrett, a biology professor who is director of the Kirkland Project, said that professors were "very disappointed" in the budget cuts, which she described as "fairly significant." Given the limited funds and the president's request that the center review its mission, Garrett said that it was unlikely that the Kirkland Project would be inviting anyone to campus in the next year.

She added, however, that she was pleased that the project was not being disbanded, and that she had been assured by college leaders that future growth was possible.

Garrett said that, despite all of the controversy, she saw nothing wrong with the Churchill or Rosenberg invitations. Churchill, she said, is "a perfectly legitimate person who had spoken at many colleges and universities -- not somebody who it would be obvious that questions would be raised about."

If controversial speakers are invited again, Garrett said, she thought the Churchill experience would lead Hamilton professors to be "aware and prepared" for possible scrutiny in a way that they haven't been previously. "We have to be ready to talk about why students should hear these people," she said.

Other Hamilton professors praise the college's president for putting limits on the Kirkland Project. Theodore J. Eismeier, a professor of government who has been critical of the invitations to Rosenberg and Churchill, called the president's actions "measured and prudent." Eismeier said that these are "long overdue changes" that "serve the interests of students, faculty and alumni."

Churchill, meanwhile, continues to be on the speakers' circuit and continues to offend. The latest flare-up came in a talk he gave last week in Portland, Ore., to an antiwar group. In his comments, he appeared to endorse "fragging." The Denver Post reported that he said, "Conscientious objection removes a given piece of the cannon fodder from the fray. Fragging an officer has a much more impactful effect."

The newspaper also quoted Churchill as asking the audience: "Would you render the same support to someone who hadn't conscientiously objected, but rather instead rolled a grenade under their line officer in order to neutralize the combat capacity of their unit?"

In an interview with Denver paper, Churchill said that his remarks were taken out of context, and that he never intended to encourage anyone to engage in fragging.

In the wake of the Hamilton controversy, a panel of Colorado administrators studied whether Churchill, a tenured professor, could be fired for his comments, and determined that he could not be dismissed for them. But the panel also reported numerous allegations of research misconduct by Churchill, and referred those charges to a faculty panel that could recommend that Churchill be dismissed. Many faculty leaders who were appalled by the idea that Churchill might lose his job over his statements about 9/11 have said that they consider the research misconduct charges serious.

Churchill has denied any wrongdoing and has said that critics of his political views are just coming up with charges to attempt to discredit him.

In an apparent attempt to mock his critics, Churchill also recently filed a complaint against himself. The Associated Press reported that Churchill has demanded that the university look into charges that he failed to credit his graduate research assistants in his work -- even though he never had any graduate research assistants.

 

 

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