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The Ward Churchill Endgame

May 29, 2007

When a faculty panel at the University of Colorado at Boulder last year found Ward Churchill guilty of repeated and intentional instances of research misconduct, the committee included in its report a metaphor for the way many people view the Churchill case:

If a police officer doesn't like the bumper sticker on a driver's car and so stops the driver for speeding, is a ticket justified as long as the driver was really speeding?

Hank Brown, president of the University of Colorado System, gave his answer on Friday and it's clear that to Brown, speeding is speeding. He formally recommended that Churchill, who has tenure as an ethnic studies professor at Boulder, be fired. In a detailed letter to the Board of Regents, Brown said that Churchill's violations of academic research norms were too serious and too numerous to ignore -- regardless of the circumstances that led to all the scrutiny.

Brown emphatically rejected the idea that First Amendment issues were raised because the inquiries into Churchill started after his comments about 9/11. Brown noted that more than 25 faculty members were involved in formal reviews of a series of research misconduct charges against Churchill, that none of the charges had anything to do with Churchill's views, and that "each faculty member, without exception, determined that Professor Churchill engaged in deliberate and repeated research misconduct."

In this context, Brown said it would be wrong to give Churchill a pass because the 9/11 remarks led people to file complaints against him. "The university cannot disregard allegations of serious research misconduct simply because the allegations were made against a professor whose comments have attracted a high degree of public attention," Brown wrote to the regents. "The prohibition against research misconduct extends to all faculty members, irrespective of their academic disciplines or political views. Were it otherwise, the university could not maintain the integrity of the scholarly enterprise."

Brown concluded his letter to the regents by saying that Churchill deserved to be fired because the research misconduct charges on which he was found guilty were "severe," "deliberate" and that "Professor Churchill's misconduct seriously impacts the university's academic reputation and the reputations of its faculty."

Churchill, who has threatened to sue the university if he is fired, issued a statement Monday in which he said that the central issue in the case was his politics. He noted that he had been hired, tenured and promoted based on the scholarly record that could now cost him his job. "Everyone agrees that this 'investigation' would not have occurred but for my First Amendment-protected speech," he said. "To use minor factual disagreements, citation of ghostwritten material, and editors' errors as the pretext for firing me simply illustrates that the administrators of the University of Colorado take political and financial pressures far more seriously than academic freedom or the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech, equal protection and due process."

David Lane, Churchill's lawyer, issued his own statement in which he said that due process had been denied to his client in a "witch hunt."

While it has taken multiple committee reviews for Brown to have the right under the University of Colorado rules to seek Churchill's dismissal, the process still has more steps. First, a systemwide faculty committee will take a look at Brown's analysis and respond within 15 days. Brown is bound to give that panel a chance at persuading him to change his mind, but he can go ahead without that committee's blessing. Brown could unilaterally impose punishments that fall short of dismissal, but to fire, he would have to make another recommendation to the Board of Regents, at which point Churchill would be entitled to a private hearing with the board, which would then take a public vote on whether to fire him. Churchill is widely expected to lose that vote, which, given various timing issues, would probably take place in July.

Churchill has been an outspoken writer and lecturer for decades, focusing primarily on Native American issues. But until early in 2005, he was not widely known outside the political circles that generally applauded his views. But when he accepted an invitation to speak at Hamilton College, some at the college started to circulate some of his writings, in particular an essay he wrote after 9/11 comparing those who died in the World Trade Center to "little Eichmanns."

The response was fast and furious. Hamilton called off the lecture when it received threats of violence. Almost immediately, politicians in Colorado called for Churchill to be fired -- and complaints started to arrive suggesting that some of Churchill's writings were plagiarized and that some writings cited other scholars' work in ways that distorted their findings. In March of 2005, a panel at Boulder determined that the Constitution and traditions of academic freedom protect Churchill such that he could not lose his tenure for his 9/11 writings. But Boulder also announced that there were enough serious allegations of research misconduct -- some of which were serious enough to justify dismissal if they were accurate -- that a new inquiry was needed.

That led to last year's report, which found instances of plagiarism, fabrication and falsifications. Churchill has repeatedly said that political issues motivate his critics, and he repeated that charge Monday, charging that Brown and other Colorado officials are supporters of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group that pushes for more traditional curriculum and which was founded, Churchill noted, by Lynne Cheney. In many instances, however, the scholars who brought the research misconduct charges against Churchill and said that he distorted or copied their work were people who share his critique of American treatment of Indians and who work in ethnic studies -- hardly a hotbed of ACTA members.

The five faculty members on the panel last year were unanimous in finding Churchill guilty of most of the charges against him, but they split on the issue of punishment. One member suggested that Churchill be fired, despite his status as a tenured professor. Two recommended that he be suspended for five years without pay. And two recommended that he be suspended for two years without pay. But the two panel members who would prefer a five-year suspension said that they — like the panel member who favors firing — would find revocation of tenure and dismissal to be “not an improper sanction” for Churchill, given the seriousness of the findings.

From there, the issue went to a systemwide faculty committee, which voted 3-2 to recommend that Brown seek to suspend and demote Churchill, but not to fire him. With Brown's decision pending, Churchill support groups have been trying to make the debate one of academic freedom issues, not misconduct, and they have attracted some well known scholars to the cause. They have also filed their own misconduct charges against the faculty panel that considered the allegations against Churchill.

Throughout the debates over Churchill, Colorado administrators have taken care to stress the faculty role in the reviews of his work. Administrators also want to avoid any characterization of Brown's recommendations as going against the faculty's views. In a discussion with Brown's spokeswoman Monday about the systemwide faculty panel's recommendation, when this reporter said that the panel had recommended against dismissal, the spokeswoman said that it would be correct to say only that the faculty panel "was divided."

She added that Brown valued the faculty input on the case. "I think he's taking it very seriously, and reviewed all of the findings from the investigative reports, and the bottom line is that we need to hold our faculty to standards, and if a professor falls below the standards, there needs to be sanctions." In fact, the only disagreements Brown noted with the committees are that he considered as serious misconduct two charges on which the committee cleared Churchill.

Even as the Churchill review winds down (or prepares to shift from the university to the courts), at least one legacy is clear: It will change the way misconduct allegations are reviewed. The earliest Churchill could be fired would be about two and a half years after the allegations were brought. Panels appointed by Brown have come up with new procedures (not used in the Churchill case) that would streamline the process to about six months.

 

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