Should Academic Left Defend Churchill?

Some professors organize petition drive to help embattled Colorado professor, but others question whether he deserves help.
July 24, 2006

When the University of Colorado moved last month to fire Ward Churchill, there was not much of an organized defense among professors -- even among those in the academic left. That may be changing, although some believe it shouldn't change and risks devaluing what the academic left stands for.

The debate might be summed up in an analogy offered by one of the faculty panels that reviewed Churchill and found that he committed, intentionally, all kinds of research misconduct. Committee members said that they were uncomfortable with the fact that Colorado ignored serious allegations against Churchill for years, and took them seriously only when his politics attracted attention. 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.

A group of professors -- many of them brought together somewhat ironically by David Horowitz -- have joined forces to say that the officer's motives do matter, and may matter more than the speeding. And they are organizing a petition drive, drawing support from some big-name academics, against Churchill's dismissal. The group is called Teachers for a Democratic Society and its original members were all among those included in Horowitz's The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.

The group (now only a subset of those Horowitz attacked and joined by many other professors) states in its petition that there are numerous problems with the way Churchill has been evaluated, including "an unreasonably broad and elastic definition of 'research misconduct,' a near-obsessive interest in dissecting a small number of paragraphs and footnotes from an otherwise 'impressive' and 'unusually high volume' of academic work, an analysis that virtually guaranteed the discovery of errors, misrepresentations, and inconsistencies even as it reaffirmed the validity of several 'general points' and a core of 'historical truth'; and a failure to fully appreciate the 'scholar activist' and 'public intellectual' roles" Churchill played.

As a result, the petition states that "the actions of the University of Colorado in this case constitute a serious threat to academic freedom" and suggest that "public controversy is dangerous and potentially lethal to the careers of those who engage it." The petition concludes by saying that "for a variety of reasons that go well beyond the scholarship and politics of a particular individual, we urge the University of Colorado to reverse its decision to fire Professor Ward Churchill."

Signatories include a mix of big name scholars (CUNY's Stanley Aronowitz, Stanford's Joel Beinin, NYU's Andrew Ross); people who have been touched by the Churchill furor (Nancy Rabinowitz, who lost control of a center at Hamilton College when the center invited Churchill to speak); and others who have been involved in academic freedom disputes (Nicholas De Genova of Columbia who famously wished for "a million Mogadishus" and Timothy Shortell, who lost a chairmanship at Brooklyn College over his comments about religion).

Organizers said that there were issues of principle in the Churchill case that required professors to speak out. Dean J. Saitta, professor of anthropology and president of the Faculty Senate at the University of Denver, said that all of the problems with Churchill's scholarship were known or at least rumored for years. "When they did nothing about it for years, I think people see that this is happening in response to his constitutionally protected free speech, and that's wrong, as vile as his speech was," Saitta said.

If Churchill is fired, then other professors whose speech offends administrators will be threatened, Saitta said, because administrators can conduct "fine dissections of their work," adding "other professors could get ensnared in this Web."

Saitta said that many of those signing the petition "have no love for Churchill" and believe that he did engage in misconduct. Some punishment short of dismissal would be appropriate, Saitta said, adding that those signing the petition were not taking a stand on what that punishment should be.

Others on the left disagree. Campus Progress, published to provide a liberal take on issues for college students, came out against Churchill last week, releasing an article that said: "Progressive advocates of academic freedom should not rally to Churchill’s side. They should oppose the targeting of professors for their beliefs, even vile ones like Churchill’s. But the charges against Churchill justify his termination because fraud and plagiarism, as much as censorship, threaten academic integrity."

Not all of those approached about signing the petition have done so. And with scholars of the right praising Colorado for moving to fire Churchill, some left-leaning professors don't want to be defined as his defenders.

"I support his right to academic freedom, but not his right to plagiarize, not his right to create a fraudulent identity, nor his right to do faulty research," said Oneida Meranto, a professor of political science and director of Native American studies at Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Meranto -- whose mother is Navajo and whose scholarship explores Native American activism -- has written extensively about some of the same topics Churchill explores. Like Churchill (and many Native American activists), she is deeply critical of the way the United States has treated Indians. But she is also among a number of Native American scholars who for years have been complaining about the quality of Churchill's scholarship. But the left, and specifically the white left in academe, didn't much care about all of these problems until some saw him as an academic freedom case, Meranto said.

There are academic freedom issues in his case, she said, and she's not entirely comfortable with the way it has been handled. But she added that she would "not support Ward Churchill -- the man or the myth" and that it was unfair for "academic freedom absolutists" to portray Churchill as a cause around which others should rally.

Meranto has also been a target of conservatives and she noted that when she was attacked, and when other scholars were attacked by the right,  "you didn't hear a peep from Ward Churchill."


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