A Lesson From the Churchill Inquiry

A Lesson From the Churchill Inquiry
June 30, 2006

Ward Churchill should be fired for academic misconduct -- that’s the decision made by the interim chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, after receiving a report from a faculty committee concluding that Churchill is guilty of falsification, fabrication and plagiarism. That report shows that, even under difficult political conditions, it’s possible to do a good job dealing with charges of research misconduct. The Colorado report on Churchill provides a striking contrast to the flawed 2002 Emory University report on Michael Bellesiles, the historian of gun culture in America, who was found guilty of “falsification” in one table. The contrast says a lot about the ways universities deal with outside pressure demanding that particular professors be fired.

Churchill is the Native American activist and professor of ethnic studies at Colorado who famously declared that some of the people killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11 were “little Eichmanns.” In the furor that followed, the governor of Colorado demanded that the university fire Churchill; the president of the university defended his right to free speech, but then -- facing a series of controversies -- resigned. Churchill’s critics then raised charges that his writings were full of fabrications and plagiarism, and the university appointed a committee of faculty members to evaluate seven charges of specific instances of research misconduct. Their 124-page report, released on May 16, concluded that Churchill’s misconduct was serious and was not limited to a few isolated cases, but was part of a pattern. The panel divided on an appropriate penalty: one recommended revoking his tenure and dismissing him, two recommended suspension without pay for five years, while two others recommended that he be suspended without pay for two years.

One key instance of “falsification and fabrication” was Churchill’s writing about the Mandan, an Indian tribe living in what is now North Dakota, who were decimated by a smallpox epidemic in 1837. The Mandan, Churchill argues, provide one example of how American Indians were the victims of genocide. In an essay titled “An American Holocaust?," he wrote that the U.S. Army infected the Mandan with smallpox by giving them contaminated blankets in a deliberate effort to “eliminate” them. Churchill footnotes several sources as providing evidence for this claim, including UCLA anthropologist Russell Thornton’s book American Indian Holocaust and Survival. But Thornton’s book says the opposite: the Army did not intentionally give infected blankets to the Mandan. None of Churchill’s other sources provide support for his claim. Nevertheless Churchill repeated his argument in six publications over a period of ten years, during which his claims about official U.S. policy toward the Mandan “generally became more extreme.” He refused to admit to the committee that his claims were not supported by the evidence he cited. Therefore, the committee concluded, Churchill was guilty of “a pattern of deliberate academic misconduct involving falsification [and] fabrication.” The panel members came to similar conclusions regarding five other charges.

The five-member Colorado committee worked under a cloud: The only reason they were asked to look at his academic writing was that powerful political voices outside the university wanted Churchill fired for his statement about 9/11. After the university refused to fire him for statements protected by the First Amendment, his critics raised charges of research misconduct, hoping to achieve their original goal. What are the responsibilities of an investigating committee in such a highly-charged political situation?

In this respect the Ward Churchill case has some striking similarities to the case Michael Bellesiles, who was an Emory University historian when he wrote Arming America, a book that won considerable scholarly praise when it first appeared -- and that aroused a storm of outrage because of its argument that our current gun culture was not created by the Founding Fathers. Pro-gun activists demanded that Emory fire Bellesiles, raising charges of research misconduct. Historians too sharply criticized some of his research. Emory responded by appointing a committee that found “evidence of falsification;" Bellesiles then resigned his tenured position.

Although the cases have some striking similarities, starting with the political pressures that gave rise to the investigations and concluding with findings of “falsification,” the differences are significant and revealing. The Emory committee concluded that Bellesiles’ research into probate records was “unprofessional and misleading” as well as “superficial and thesis-driven,” and that his earlier explanations of errors “raise doubts about his veracity." But the panel found “evidence of falsification” only on one page: Table 1, “Percentage of probate inventories listing firearms.” They did not find that he had “fabricated data.” The “falsification” occurred when Bellesiles omitted two years from the table, which covered almost a century -- 1765 to 1859. The two years, 1774 and 1775, would have shown more guns, evidence against his thesis that Americans had few guns before the Civil War.

But the Emory committee failed to consider how significant this omission was for the book as a whole. In fact the probate research criticized by the committee was referred to in only a handful of paragraphs in Bellesiles’s 400 page book, and he cited the problematic Table 1 only a couple of times. If Bellesiles had omitted all of the probate data that the committee (and others) criticized, the book’s argument would still have been supported by a wide variety of other relevant evidence that the committee did not find to be fraudulent.

The Colorado committee, in contrast, made it a point to go beyond the narrow charges they were asked to adjudicate. They acknowledged that the misconduct they found concerned “no more than a few paragraphs” in an “extensive body of academic work.”  They explicitly raised the question of “why so much weight is being assigned to these particular pieces.” They went on to evaluate the place of the misconduct they found in Churchill’s “broader interpretive stance,” and presented evidence of  “patterns of academic misconduct” that were intentional and widespread.

The two committees also took dramatically different approaches to the all-important question of  sanctions. At Emory the committee members never said what they considered an appropriate penalty for omitting 1774 and 1775 from his Table 1. They did not indicate whether any action by Emory was justified -- or whether the harsh criticism Bellesiles received from within the profession was penalty enough.

The Colorado committee members, in contrast, devoted four single-spaced pages to “The Question of Sanctions.”  They insisted that the university “resist outside interference and pressures” when a final decision on Churchill was made. Those favoring the smallest penalty, suspension without pay for two years, declared they were “troubled by the circumstances under which these allegations have been made,” and concerned that dismissal “would have an adverse effect on the ability of other scholars to conduct their research with due freedom.” These important issues needed to be raised, and they were.

Finally, the Colorado committee explicitly discussed the political context of their work, while the Emory committee failed to do so. The Colorado report opened with a section titled simply “Context.” It said “The committee is troubled by the origins of, and skeptical concerning the motives for, the current investigation.” The key, they said, was that their investigation “was only commenced after, and perhaps in some response to, the public attack on Professor Churchill for his controversial publications.” But, they said, because the claims of academic misconduct were serious, they needed to be investigated fully and fairly.

The basic problem with the Emory report was that it accepted the terms of debate set by others, and thereby abdicated responsibility to work independently and to consider the significance of the findings. Their inquiry should have been as sweeping as the stakes were high; instead they limited their examination to a few pages in a great big book.  Colorado shows how to avoid the kind of tunnel vision that marred the Emory report. The report on Ward Churchill demonstrates that charges of research misconduct that arise in a heated political environment can be addressed with intelligence and fairness.


Jon Wiener is professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, and author of Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics in the Ivory Tower (The New Press, 2005).



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