Showdown in Colorado

As regents gather to discuss Ward Churchill, politicians rush to denounce him and faculty groups offer support.
February 3, 2005

The University of Colorado Board of Regents meets today to discuss Ward Churchill, the controversial professor whose statements about September 11 have set off a nationwide debate.

On Wednesday, Colorado's governor, Bill Owens, said that he had spoken with university leaders, telling them that he believes that they have grounds to fire Churchill, according to the Associated Press. The Colorado House of Representatives also passed a resolution saying that Churchill's 9/11 essay "strikes an evil and inflammatory blow against America's healing process." According to the AP, some lawmakers also called for cutting state financial support for the ethnic studies department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Churchill works.

Churchill's essay called those who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11 "little Eichmanns." He wrote the essay shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, but it received little notice until this month, when it was circulated at Hamilton College, where Churchill had been invited to give a talk today. That talk was called off after the college received death threats against Churchill and others.

Faculty leaders in Colorado and nationally are angry that Churchill's position is being threatened, and they are particularly angry about the role of the governor.

Rodney Muth, chairman of the University of Colorado Faculty Council, said in an interview Wednesday that he was "genuinely concerned" that the Board of Regents could decide today to try to fire Churchill, which Muth said would amount to a major violation of academic freedom. He said he still had hope that the regents would not take such an action. (One board member told The Denver Post in an article published today that the regents would not dismiss Churchill today because they would not fire any tenured professor without first providing due process required under university rules.)

Muth said it was "absolutely reprehensible" for Governor Owens to be telling the regents what to do.

He also said that regents were under "enormous pressure" to get rid of Churchill, and that one board member he has spoken with had received hundreds of e-mail messages in recent days urging Churchill's dismissal.

The National Association for Ethnic Studies wrote to the Colorado regents Wednesday, backing Churchill. Larry J. Estrada, president of the association and a professor of American cultural studies at Western Washington University, said that "Churchill is really getting a bad rap for what he was trying to do, which was to explain why events like 9/11 transpired."

Estrada said that the attacks on Churchill were McCarthyism. "The far right media are trying to create a domestic scare," said Estrada. "If we can't find terrorists, we'll create terrorists in our midst."

Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said that Governor Owens had done significant damage to Colorado's universities by speaking out as he did. "With all due respect to the governor, he's entitled to his opinion, but it's a terrible mistake for him to confuse political power with academic authority."

Bowen said that numerous court rulings have barred public universities from dismissing faculty members for their political beliefs. "Professor Churchill has not only rights of academic freedom, but also First Amendment rights." Bowen said that Churchill has not asked the AAUP for assistance, but that concerned faculty members have been in constant touch with AAUP on the case this week.

Another group of scholars -- those in Native American studies -- has also been watching the case closely all week. Churchill teaches in the field and is active in Native American political issues.

Churchill has many fans in the field, but some are skeptical of him as a scholar.

Clara Sue Kidwell, director of Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma, said that she has never met Churchill, but that she hasn't been impressed with his scholarship. She said she had an argument with a student earlier this year when the student cited analysis from a Churchill book that Kidwell didn't think was credible.
"He's a polemicist," Kidwell said. "He is one of the gadflies of the profession. His field of activity is Native American activism, and he practices what he preaches."

But even scholars whose approaches differ from Churchill's say that they are angry about what is happening to him. David E. Wilkins, interim chair of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said, "Anybody who believes in the First Amendment should be scared as hell. If the Board of Regents decides to fire him, that would be devastating to what tenure means."

Wilkins and others noted that Churchill has been a popular speaker on campuses for some time, without the kind of controversy that emerged over his planned appearance at Hamilton. Churchill has at least one scheduled appearance coming up: He will be talking about "Racism Against the American Indian" on March 1 at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. The lecture is part of Native Pride Week there.


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