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Is Ward Churchill a poster child for academic freedom?

The University of Colorado president has now set in motion a process that is widely expected to lead to Churchill's dismissal as a tenured professor before students return in the fall. As his supporters mount a last effort to protect him -- in the court of public opinion, or quite likely in the courts -- they are focused on issues of freedom of expression. Supporters at Colorado's Boulder campus, where Churchill teaches ethnic studies, and Native American scholars nationwide are calling the campaign to oust him attacks on academic freedom.

But in an interview Tuesday, the president of the university, Hank Brown, strongly defended his actions, and described questions he had considered to assure himself that academic freedom was not being violated. He characterized the Churchill argument of late as a "Paris Hilton defense" -- arguing that the professor and the socialite both blame their troubles on being famous, instead of accepting that famous people have to follow the rules just like others do.

The Churchill debate could also prove tricky for the American Association of University Professors, the national group that has traditionally set standards for academic freedom. The campus chapter is strongly backing Churchill and criticizing the conduct of the investigation. But the national AAUP is taking a measured position and in an interview Tuesday, the national group's chief official on academic freedom defended the right of a university president to take action against someone who becomes notorious for political reasons (as long as the action is related to relevant issues and not the notoriety).

In a memo last week, Brown for the first time called for Churchill's dismissal. The request awaits a review from a faculty panel and would need approval of the Board of Regents, and follows inquiries by three faculty panels, all of which found Churchill committed multiple instances of academic misconduct.

The investigations of Churchill -- who was hired and promoted at Boulder without incident -- followed widespread condemnation of his comments about 9/11, and his notorious comparison of World Trade Center victims to "little Eichmanns." While many political leaders immediately called for Churchill to be fired, the university said it would not. However, when various people came forward with charges of research misconduct, the university investigated those charges and the move to dismiss him cited findings by faculty panels that he had intentionally plagiarized and fabricated work numerous times in his writings.

Churchill has repeatedly characterized any problems with his work as minor, saying that he is being punished for his views. And that is the message his defenders are pushing as he runs out of appeals at Colorado.

Native American scholars from around the country, joined by lawyers, filed new complaints this week against the investigative committees that looked at Churchill's record. These scholars see an attempt to undercut Churchill's work and other scholars' work documenting the atrocities committed by the United States against American Indians.

Michael Yellow Bird, an associate professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies Program at the University of Kansas, said he regularly uses and trusts Churchill's work for providing "an alternative hypothesis to mainstream thought." Yellow Bird said that the criticism of Churchill is "clearly an academic freedom issue and politically motivated" because the university "had vetted his stuff" before hiring and promoting him -- and didn't find any problems until there was a national political outcry about the 9/11 writings.

"This is going to make other people think they have to go with the mainstream views," Yellow Bird said.

James Craven, a professor of economics at Clark College, in Washington State, said that Churchill was subjected to a level of scrutiny that few professors have ever faced or could withstand. "How many scholars could have their own work vetted as his was," said Craven, who also uses the Blackfoot name Omahkohkiaayo i'poyi. "By impeaching Churchill, they are trying to impeach all of his work, very serious work about the genocide against American Indians," Craven said. "This sends a message to other academics telling them not to get controversial."

Margaret LeCompte, a professor of education at Boulder and president of the AAUP chapter there, said that the move to fire Churchill is "an opening wedge in the concerted effort to curb academic freedom and tenure."

LeCompte acknowledged that faculty members evaluated Churchill's work and that Brown had relied on professors' reviews of the evidence. But she said that this left a false impression. "You can have a committee that looks like the right thing but is an absolute corruption of the process," she said. Anyone "who might have been the least bit sympathetic to Churchill" was kept out of the process, LeCompte said, while those on the panels faced "extraordinary pressure" to find justifications to get rid of Churchill.

Because Churchill wrote about history, she said, the committees should have accepted the idea that different scholars may have different interpretations. "This was not a point of fact like it might be in chemistry or biology," she said. While there is "probably a chance that there are one or two footnotes out of place" in Churchill's work, a truly dispassionate review would have found no misconduct, she said. In the "toxic environment" that prevailed at Boulder, there was no way a panel could have cleared Churchill, and that makes the investigations illegitimate, she said.

Brown, the Colorado president, scoffed at the idea that the process had a predetermined outcome. While many legislators have expressed their view that Churchill should be fired, Brown insisted that "no one put pressure on me" to decide the case in a certain way or to pressure professors to do so. Brown noted that he has already announced his intention to leave the presidency, giving him plenty of freedom. "It's not exactly like I'm worried about keeping my job," he said.

So how can he be sure that academic freedom isn't at risk? Brown offered a series of arguments. "None of the charges against Professor Churchill involve his viewpoint or what he said -- none of that is relevant to the charges brought against him," he said. "None of the evidence introduced into the hearings related to what he said [about 9/11] or his views," Brown added, saying that he had specifically looked to be sure that those political disputes were not cited in any way.

"The only party that has introduced his views into the process has been Professor Churchill," Brown said.

It is "silly" to say that the process was tainted just because many people know and dislike Churchill's views, Brown said. "The Paris Hilton defense doesn't make any sense. The fact that you are a celebrity or you are controversial does not excuse you from being responsible for misdeeds, and in this case there were repeated falsifications or plagiarisms."

Brown may have backing for that view from the national AAUP. Jonathan Knight, who heads the association's academic freedom program, said that it was too early to say how the group would end up viewing the case.

But Knight said that even if Churchill's 9/11 comments prompted scrutiny of his record, that does not negate the possibility that real wrongdoing was found. "There is always a possibility that improper motives are the real reason for dismissing a faculty member. but we've never taken the position that an improper motive bars taking a look at whether allegations of misconduct are in fact true," he said.

He said that any AAUP analysis would look at the process followed to see if Churchill received due process. And in many respects, the process Knight described as appropriate is one that Colorado appears to be following. For example, Knight said that the AAUP believes that after faculty reviews, any presidential move for dismissal should be reviewed one more time by a faculty panel, which could try to change the president's mind. Colorado is doing that right now, with Brown's recommendations going back to the last faculty panel that reviewed the case (and recommended 3-2 for suspension, not termination).

Likewise, Knight said, the AAUP did not view it as necessarily a violation of academic freedom if a president doesn't end up agreeing with a faculty panel -- provided the president's analysis is shared and is "consistent with the standards of the academic profession." To judge that, he said that the AAUP would need to examine the analysis, the transcript of the hearings involving Churchill, and the evidence -- not with the idea of necessarily arriving at a different verdict, but at making sure that the process was fair and the conclusions were an appropriate outcome. In addition, the AAUP would seek to be sure that there was not a "taint" in the very questions asked about Churchill such that he wouldn't have had a fair shot at defending himself. "The procedure melds with substance in these cases," Knight said, and may do so even if reasonable people don't agree.

"The academic profession places important reliance on peer judgment," Knight said. "But at the same time, the academic profession does not hold that the judgments of faculty committees are absolute. There is in fact a connection between the responsibilities of the faculty and of the administration."

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