A Step Toward Dismissal

February 4, 2005

The University of Colorado has started a review that could lead to the termination of Ward Churchill, a tenured professor whose comments on 9/11 have created a huge controversy.

Phil DiStefano, interim chancellor of the university's Boulder campus, announced the review at a special meeting of the University's Board of Regents called to discuss Churchill.

Within 30 days, DiStefano said, his office would "launch and oversee a thorough examination of Professor Churchill's writings, speeches, tape recordings and other works" to "determine whether Professor Churchill may have overstepped his bounds as a faculty member, showing cause for dismissal."

DiStefano said that the review would focus on two questions: "(1) Does Professor Churchill's conduct, including his speech, provide any grounds for dismissal for cause, as described in the regents' laws? And (2) if so, is this conduct or speech protected by the First Amendment against university action?" DiStefano will conduct the review along with the deans of Colorado's Colleges of Law and of Arts and Sciences.

While DeStefano did not provide details on what would happen if the review does find cause for dismissal, professors in Colorado said that they had been told that a faculty review would then take place, preserving a faculty role in due process for Churchill.

Churchill, who teaches ethnic studies at Boulder, has been the focal point of debate for more than a week now, ever since a controversy broke out over his plans to give a talk at Hamilton College. Copies of a Churchill essay written shortly after 9/11 started to circulate, and students and professors at Hamilton were outraged by his reference to people who were killed in the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns."

The speech at Hamilton was called off amid death threats against Churchill and others, but by that time, Colorado politicians -- who hadn't paid much attention to Churchill's views on 9/11 up until then -- started to notice him. Quickly, many people demanded that he be fired, and the regents scheduled a special meeting for Thursday.

The regents declined to hear public comments at the meeting, setting off protests that led to at least one arrest, according to the Associated Press. Students carried signs that said "protect academic freedom" and one shouted "Please understand you're going to start a new era of McCarthyism if you allow this," according to the AP.

Rodney Muth, chairman of the University of Colorado Faculty Council, said in an interview Thursday night that he was relieved that the board did not dismiss Churchill, but agreed on a process that involves due process.

"Faculty are clearly going to be heavily engaged in the process" if the administrators recommend dismissal, Muth said.

Some national faculty leaders were not comforted by the planned role for professors. Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said there was "something Orwellian about this whole process."

Churchill has "been teaching and writing for years," he said, "and now they are looking for poorly chosen or inflammatory words that weren't noticed in the past."

While he acknowledged that final tenure and dismissal decisions are made by boards, Bowen said Colorado had the process backwards. "Only academics should be making these judgments," he said, so the faculty should be involved first, with administrators following only if the faculty believes action is appropriate.

The Board of Regents meeting took place amid growing pressure on Churchill, who has said that his comments are protected by the First Amendment and that politicians and reporters have distorted them. In the last 48 hours, vandals have painted swastikas on his truck, Gov. Bill Owens has repeatedly called for him to be fired, and press reports in Colorado have questioned whether he is really a Native American.

 Also Thursday, the Board of Regents adopted a resolution that said Churchill's writings "have brought dishonor to the university," and stating that the board "apologizes to all Americans, especially those targeted in the 9/11 attacks and those serving in our armed forces, for the disgraceful comments of Professor Churchill."

Bowen said that this resolution "chills" the review of Churchill because it draws official conclusions on his work before the review has started. He added, "This assumes that regents can speak on and evaluate faculty academic work, and they can't."

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