Truth and Consequences

Faculty inquiry finding misconduct by Ward Churchill also faults his university -- and leaving fate uncertain, is sure to stoke more debate.
May 17, 2006

In the end, the faculty panel assigned to look into the Ward Churchill mess at the University of Colorado found plenty of guilt to go around.

It found repeated, intentional academic misconduct -- plagiarism, fabrication, falsification and more -- by Churchill, an ethnic studies professor at Colorado's Boulder campus, and documented those instances in a 124-page report released Tuesday. But the panel also faulted the university, noting that allegations about Churchill had been known for years in the scholarly world but had not been deemed worthy of inquiry at his home campus. The committee suggested that the university had hired Churchill knowing he was an outspoken activist and should not have been surprised when that's what it got. And the panel raised concerns about its own role because it was created in the aftermath of a public uproar over essays Churchill wrote about 9/11 -- essays that infuriated many but that the panel concluded were protected by academic freedom and the U.S. Constitution.

Guilt was relatively easy for the panel to determine. All of the conclusions about research misconduct were unanimous among the five members of the committee, whose work will now be reviewed by another faculty panel and will then be considered by Colorado administrators. But the question of what punishment would be appropriate divided the panel. 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 in a section of the report that could provide cover if Colorado officials want to fire Churchill and cite the faculty panel as a reason for doing so, 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. Thus Colorado can say that a majority of the investigative panel agreed that firing could be justified.

Churchill and his lawyer did not respond to messages seeking comment on the report. But he has consistently denied wrongdoing and threatened to sue the university if it fires him, saying that he is being punished for his outspoken views. Churchill told the Associated Press Tuesday that the report was "a travesty" and "transparently ridiculous," adding that "I feel, in a weird way, actually sort of validated they would put themselves through such contortions."

Language in the report itself suggests that Churchill -- in his dealings with the panel -- did not acknowledge any serious errors, although in some cases he suggested that others may have made mistakes that contributed to the writing that led to the plagiarism accusations. In some instances as well, the committee said that Churchill appeared to change his story on key points -- saying, for instance, that when he could not find written sources to back some of his points, he was relying on American Indian oral traditions. The committee, while taking care to say that American Indian oral traditions were a valid source for scholarship, questioned the legitimacy of citing such traditions after the fact.

If Colorado officials hoped that the long-awaited report would allow them to resolve the Churchill controversy and move on, they are likely to be disappointed. Even as the report was being prepared for release, new charges were being made about Churchill's scholarship. Even with a slim majority of the panel agreeing that dismissal would be appropriate, and mounds and mounds of evidence of misconduct, other parts of the report could no doubt be used by Churchill to argue that he couldn't have received a fair review. And while the report itself is written in a scholarly, reasoned tone, the passions about Churchill remain volatile. Within hours of the report's release, Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado -- while praising the report's conclusions about Churchill -- issued a statement complaining about the "lengthy process" of evaluating a professor who "besmirches the reputation" of the university, and calling for him to quit immediately.

Ward Churchill was hired by Colorado in 1991, promoted to full professor in 1997 and was serving as chair of ethnic studies last January when -- seemingly out of the blue -- he became a flashpoint in the culture wars. He had been invited to give a talk at Hamilton College, in upstate New York -- the kind of speaking invitation Churchill had accepted for years, typically delivering speeches about the racism faced by American Indians and the failings of U.S. foreign policy. Most of the time, Churchill preached to the choir, winning fans through his appearances and his essays published in leftist periodicals. His views are on the far left of the American political spectrum, and relatively few who didn't agree ever paid much attention.

The Hamilton invitation changed all that. Professors unhappy about the invitation circulated some of his writings, including the now notorious "little Eichmanns" speech in which he derided the people killed in the World Trade Center. Churchill never made it to Hamilton -- the college defended his right to appear there, but the speech was called off amid death threats. But as soon as his writings gained a broad public audience, conservative politicians and right-wing talk radio shows couldn't devote enough time to Churchill and demands that he be fired. As the controversy grew, critics came out of the woodwork, with many of them charging that he'd engaged in a pattern of research misconduct. Colorado convened a panel that determined in March 2005 that his 9/11 comments and other political writings did amount to legally protected speech, but that the research misconduct allegations -- if verified -- might justify dismissal. And that led to the panel that reported Tuesday.

Criticism All Around

The new report is an unusual mix of reflections on academic freedom and Churchill's role at the University of Colorado, lawyerly analysis of specific accusations, and a mini-textbook into some aspects of American Indian history. The committee appears to be trying to give Churchill every benefit of the doubt, and takes note of instances where his critics overstated their complaints or where there is some rational way to back up a particular claim Churchill made.

But in damning example after example after example, the report documents instances in which it could not find any evidence to back Churchill's claims and in which it did find overwhelming evidence to back those who filed complaints against him. The committee noted, for example, a number of similarities in an article Churchill wrote in 1992 with an article published the previous year by Fay G. Cohen, a professor at Dalhousie University, in Nova Scotia. There can be "little doubt" that large portions of the essay are from Cohen's work, the report said.

In one instance, it found a footnote of more than 100 words that was "identical to the keystroke," except that Churchill used an acute accent over the e in one tribe's name while Cohen left the e without an accent.

In numerous other cases, the report faulted Churchill for citing sources that did not say what he said they said. Generally, the report found that Churchill claimed particular atrocities, death totals, etc., to be greater than others had found them to be. In other cases, the report found that Churchill was in effect citing himself. Throughout the controversy, Churchill has claimed that his critics are uncomfortable not only with his political views, but with his emphasis on the many documented wrongs committed by the United States against Native Americans. Many of the instances cited by the report, however, concern cases where scholars whose work was distorted were in fact writing about the terrible things done to Native Americans, but their numbers were not as high as Churchill later indicated or the motives of various players were not as clear as he suggested.

For example, a lengthy section details Churchill's writings about a smallpox epidemic that spread to the Mandan Indians, living in what is now North Dakota, in 1837. Churchill charged that the Indians were deliberately infected through blankets given to them -- something that the report noted was attempted in other cases with Native Americans. Churchill cites as a footnote to back up part of his claim a work by Russell Thornton, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles and a Cherokee who has written extensively about the horrors of U.S. treatment of Indians.

The only problem, as Thornton has said previously and as the report found, the footnote doesn't match anything Thornton wrote and Churchill could not produce any evidence to back his claim. The committee found that because Churchill repeatedly listed works that had names suggesting them as "legitimate sources," but they in fact did not back up what he said, he was falsifying sources.

The report made repeated reference to the repeated nature of Churchill's errors, the fact that he never made corrections or responded to critics, and that he brushed off suggestions that he was getting key points wrong. In several instances, the report said that such a pattern provided strong evidence that the misconduct was intentional, not the sort of honest mistake many scholars make from time to time (and correct).

In finding that Churchill produced so much "shoddy and irresponsible work," the committee also noted that it harmed his department, the reputation of the university, and of academe. The committee in particular noted the damage done to the image of ethnic studies.

While Churchill certainly fares poorly in the report, so does Colorado. The report expressed concern that this investigation started only after the controversy broke over the 9/11 essays Churchill wrote, even though some of the misconduct allegations were well known among scholars for years previously. That sequence of events was cited by the two panel members who opposed firing Churchill, saying that to do so would have "an adverse effect on other scholars' ability to conduct their research with due freedom."

To the extent that Churchill's controversial writings have made the university uncomfortable, the report suggested that Boulder has no one but itself to blame. Churchill never earned a Ph.D. and was always outspoken about his desire to be an activist and to do much of his work in non-scholarly venues. "At the time he was hired, the university was aware of the type of writing and speaking he does."

In justifying its work -- despite these concerns -- the committee noted that the charges against Churchill were "serious claims" that required a full investigation. The panel compared the situation to one in which a motorist is stopped for speeding because a police officer doesn't like the bumper sticker on her car. If she was speeding, she was speeding -- regardless of the officer's motives, the panel said.

Outsiders Weigh In

Reaction to the report varied widely -- and is just starting to pick up as people digest the report (or in some cases don't bother).

Peter Charles Hoffer, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is an expert (in the good sense of the word) on many of the forms of misconduct that the Colorado panel found Churchill committed. The author of Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud in American History From Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin was reading the report online when reached Tuesday afternoon.

He said he was impressed by the rigor of the report and the sense of fairness that was evident in the way it sorted through the various accusations. The evidence against Churchill was "convincing," as was the evidence that the misconduct was intentional, Hoffer said. Many of the prominent scholars and authors caught plagiarizing in recent years have said that too much was being made of minor errors, Hoffer said, but Churchill was unique in his unwillingness to acknowledge any real mistakes at all. "He never admitted anything, and to correct error, you have to admit things," Hoffer said.

Churchill's failure to make such an admission, he said, raised real questions about his competence as a scholar. "The whole project of scholarship is critical thinking," Hoffer said. "Although he sort of bills himself as a polemicist, that doesn't mean he's not subject to the same standards of critical thinking as the rest of us."

At the same time, however, Hoffer said that he didn't think Churchill should be fired -- although a demotion would be appropriate. Hoffer said he was bothered by some of the issues raised by the panel -- the way Churchill's misdeeds were never investigated until the 9/11 comments made him politically toxic. Hoffer also noted that Churchill "performed his duties" in the classroom and played the sort of public role Colorado at least at one time wanted from him.

"They hired him as a public voice. They got that voice," Hoffer said.

Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said he was generally impressed with the way the committee conducted its work. He noted that the make-up of the committee (it included scholars of ethnic studies) was "quite credible," that Churchill was permitted to witness testimony and to pose questions, and that Churchill was permitted to have a lawyer present. He called these "safe procedural safeguards."

Bowen also praised the authors of the report for raising the issue of fairness in Churchill's treatment -- whatever misconduct he may have committed. Colorado "knowingly hired a controversial 'public intellectual,' not for his academic credentials but for his public persona. To then fire him for the same reasons they hired him -- his ability to stir controversy -- raises issues that are reflected, I believe, in the divisions within the committee over appropriate sanctions," Bowen said.

Others said that the only relevant issue is the misconduct.

"How this came to light is immaterial. If one takes honestly seriously, it needs to be enforced," said Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, a group that pushes for a more traditional curriculum and opposes what it sees as political correctness. He said that there is "not another line of work" outside academe where violations of this magnitude would "not be cause for termination."

Balch said that academic freedom could be threatened if Colorado doesn't take a tough stand and fire Churchill. Faculty members say that they must be the judges of their colleagues, Balch noted. "But academic freedom doesn't mean professors have carte blanche to do as they please. Academic freedom depends on the willingness of faculty to enforce standards," he said.

As the Colorado committee noted, some of those most hurt by Churchill have been people who work in the same field, which has been mocked by many who are angry at Churchill. A perfect example -- as well as a story very similar to those detailed in the report -- can be found in the scholarship of Brenda Child, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Child was in the Denver papers this week because people had heard about a new allegation against Churchill (not covered by Tuesday's report): Child never wanted to be part of the Churchill mess but people heard about how she saw Churchill's 2004 book, Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools, and noticed a photograph in the book that she had taken and never given permission to Churchill to use. The photo was from Child's 1998 book, Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940.

Both books covered some of the same ground, looking at the schools many American Indians were forced to attend. Child said that not only did Churchill use her photograph -- of a cemetery outside of a one-time Indian boarding school in Kansas -- but he added a caption saying that half of those who attended such schools suffered a similar fate as the occupant of the grave shown. Child said that while many did die, there is no definitive number and it is a "tremendous exaggeration" to say that half died.

Child does work that reflects one of Churchill's stated goals: giving voice to Native Americans. Her book and her current research draw on correspondence between Native American students and their families to document the experience of the boarding schools -- much of it terrible. "We don't need to exaggerate. The facts speak for themselves," she said.

"There is wonderful scholarship going on in American Indian studies, and other African American studies and other ethnic studies," Child said. A member of the Red Lake Ojibwe tribe, Child said she is particularly heartened to see more Native American studying and writing their own history. "I don't think Ward Churchill is representative," she said.


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