It's possible that Ward Churchill may never again teach a class at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The interim chancellor at Boulder on Monday issued a "notice of intent to dismiss" the controversial professor, citing findings of serious and repeated research misconduct. Churchill still has appeal rights -- and has 10 days to take his case to a faculty review committee. After any appeal, a final decision rests with the president of the University of Colorado System and the Board of Regents. And Churchill has vowed to sue the university to block any firing.
But Monday's action is significant -- even with all the additional maneuvering expected. The decision by Phil DiStefano, the interim chancellor, marked the first time that the administration at Colorado has formally pushed to fire Churchill. And while Churchill will remain on Colorado's payroll pending any final action against him, DiStefano said at a news conference that Churchill had been relieved of all teaching and research duties.
When the case moves to the top governance levels of the university, Churchill is expected to be fired, and Colorado's board faces intense pressure to dismiss him. Gov. Bill Owens told Colorado reporters Monday that he hoped the latest developments would speed the day when "we can soon say good riddance to Ward Churchill once and for all."
David Lane, Churchill's lawyer, said that he would file an appeal with the faculty panel. But Lane said he assumed Churchill would lose that round. "Once we lose there we'll file in court," he said.
In his statement, DiStefano stressed that he was acting on the recommendation of two faculty panels that found Churchill to have engaged in misconduct. In May, a special panel found that Churchill had engaged in repeated, intentional academic misconduct -- plagiarism, fabrication, falsification and more. The panel had spent months investigating allegations against Churchill and considering what an appropriate response would be to findings of wrongdoing.
This month, Boulder's Standing Committee on Research Misconduct affirmed that finding, setting the stage for DiStefano's action. (Churchill, who has consistently denied wrongdoing and said he was being punished for his political views, hasn't answered all of the charges against him, but did recently issue this statement about them.)
Members of the two panels had differing views on whether Churchill should be fired, although a majority backed the statement that the findings of wrongdoing were serious enough to justify dismissal. Generally, those at Colorado raising questions about dismissal have not been defending Churchill's conduct, but instead have noted the process by which he came to be investigated. Many of the writings now being subject to scrutiny have been around for years -- as have some of the allegations against him.
But Colorado only investigated them after the huge public furor last year over Churchill's writings, and especially over his statements about 9/11 -- writings that also were not particularly new. Colorado officials have acknowledged that it would be wrong to fire Churchill because of those statements, leading some to question the legitimacy of firing him after an inquiry that was started because of those statements.
University officials -- and the faculty members who investigated Churchill -- have said that what matters the most is whether Churchill committed research misconduct, not why that misconduct came to light.
DiStefano said that he came to the conclusion that Churchill should be fired after reviewing the two faculty committees' reports, conferring with other Colorado administrators, and meeting with Churchill and his lawyer. He also said that the actions he was proposing were consistent with the values of academic freedom.
"A university is a market place of ideas -- a place where controversy is no stranger and opinionated discourse is applauded," he said. But he added that "with freedom comes responsibility."
"Appropriately, we in the academy are held to high standards of integrity, competence and accuracy, at the same time we freely engage in spirited, unimpeded discourse in the 'market place of ideas,' " he said.
DiStefano did not directly respond to those who have criticized the idea of firing a professor after starting an investigation prompted by public comments that could not warrant firing. But DiStefano did comment on statements many conservative commentators have made linking Churchill's conduct to the field of ethnic studies. Churchill's writings focus on the treatment of American Indians and he is a member of Colorado's ethnic studies department.
The faculty committees that examined Churchill both said that their concerns about him did not extend to his department or discipline, DiStefano noted. Rather, he said, their findings were about "the research misconduct of one faculty member only." DiStefano said that Boulder officials would be working in the months ahead to correct any misconceptions that the Churchill controversy has created about ethnic studies.
Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said he had mixed feelings about the announcement Monday. Colorado's faculty committees and interim chancellor appear to have taken numerous steps to assure due process for Churchill and to express support for academic freedom, Bowen said. "If there is reason for concern, it stems from the political rancor that prompted the inquiry and the hostile intervention by political figures, including the governor," he added.