More than two and a half years after Ward Churchill's writings on 9/11 set off a furor, and more than a year after a faculty panel at the University of Colorado at Boulder found him guilty of repeated, intentional academic misconduct, the University of Colorado Board of Regents voted 8-1 Tuesday evening to fire him.
The vote followed a special, all-day meeting of the board, in which it heard in private from Churchill, a faculty panel and from Hank Brown, president of the University of Colorado System, who in May recommended dismissing Churchill from his tenured post. The regents emerged from their private deliberations at around 5:30 p.m. Colorado time and voted to fire Churchill, but they did not discuss their views and they quickly adjourned. A small group of Churchill supporters in the audience shouted "bullshit" as the board vote was announced.
While the firing is effective immediately, Churchill is entitled under Colorado regulations to receive one year's salary, which for him is just under $100,000.
Churchill predicted prior to the meeting that he would be fired and vowed to file a suit against the university, as early as today. In a press conference after the vote, Churchill repeated his argument that the board fired him primarily because of his political views, which he said are "inconvenient and uncomfortable" to the powerful. He vowed to keep "fighting the fight" and said that the impact of the case goes "way beyond Ward Churchill" and will hinder freedom of expression generally. Churchill was upbeat during the news conference, which also featured Native American drumming and chanting by supporters.
In an interview Tuesday night after the vote, Brown, the system president, said that the evidence against Churchill for scholarly misconduct was overwhelming. "I think it was the depth of the falsification that ultimately led to the outcome," Brown said. "It wasn't just one or two or three or four, but numerous incidents of intentional falsification," such that Brown believed that in the end board members "felt like they didn't have a choice."
Brown, who was present for the board's discussions with Churchill and the faculty panel that reviewed the case, but not for the deliberations, said that board members seemed focused not on the question of Churchill's guilt, but of the punishment. Brown said that the lone regent who voted against firing did so based only on the issue of firing him, not out of any disagreement with the finding that he had committed misconduct.
The meaning of the Churchill case has been heatedly debated over the past two-plus years. To Churchill and his defenders, he is a victim of politics and of a right wing attack on freedom of thought. To Brown and others at the university, Churchill's case is not about politics at all about enforcing academic integrity and punishing those who don't live up to basic rules of research honesty. To many others in academe, the Churchill case has been less clearcut. Many academics have said that they are troubled by both the findings of research misconduct against Churchill and by the reality that his work received intense scrutiny only after his political views drew attention to him.
Churchill has been working at Boulder since 1978 and has been a tenured professor of ethnic studies since 1991. In the years before 2005, he gained a reputation at Colorado and on the college lecture circuit nationally as an impassioned speaker and writer on behalf of Native Americans. Most of his speeches were attended by supporters of his views, so he did not attract widespread criticism.
All of that changed early in 2005, however, when Churchill was scheduled to speak at Hamilton College. Some professors there, who did not feel Churchill was an ideal speaker, circulated some of his writings, including an essay with the the now notorious remark comparing World Trade Center victims on 9/11 to "little Eichmanns." Within days, the controversy spread -- with Hamilton under pressure to uninvite Churchill and Colorado under pressure to fire him. Hamilton stood by its invitation, on academic freedom grounds, but in the end called off the appearance, based on threats of violence.
As the University of Colorado considered what to do, a series of accusations against Churchill started to come in that involved his scholarly practices. While Churchill repeatedly has portrayed his critics as conservatives, a number of those who brought complaints against him share his fury at the U.S. government's treatment of Native Americans. The complaints included charges of plagiarism, of false descriptions of other scholars' work or historical evidence, and of fabrications. The university first determined that it could not fire Churchill based on his statements about 9/11, but that it could investigate the other allegations of misconduct, which it then proceeded to do. Three separate faculty panels then found Churchill guilty of multiple instances of research misconduct. The various panels had splits on whether Churchill deserved to be fired and those splits were complicated.
For example, the Boulder faculty panel that first found Churchill guilty of misconduct had five members. One member suggested that Churchill be fired. Two recommended that he be suspended for five years without pay. And two recommended that he be suspended for two years without pay. But the two panel members who preferred a five-year suspension said that they -- like the panel member who favored dismissal -- would find revocation of tenure and firing to be “not an improper sanction” for Churchill, given the seriousness of the findings. Thus Churchill's defenders were able to say that the panel didn't want him fired and his critics were able to say that the panel's majority saw firing as appropriate.
Ultimately, the university's Board of Regents alone had the authority to fire. Board members have widely been expected to dismiss Churchill, but they have been circumspect about the case for months. With Churchill threatening to sue, regents were sensitive to any suggestion that they were doing anything except follow standard procedures for allegations of misconduct serious enough to merit firing a tenured professor.
Patricia Hayes, chair of the board, said in a post-vote press conference that "we were very careful not to discuss this among ourselves" and said that she did not know -- coming into the meeting -- how her colleagues would vote. She also said that board members had been "very diligent" about going through all the materials in the case, including statements directly from Churchill. Asked why the board took so long on Tuesday -- regents didn't appear until an hour and a half after they were expected -- she said that "we wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing for the university."
Brown, at the press conference, said Churchill had tried to "falsify history," something Brown said conflicts with the university's "fundamental role" in producing research. Several questions at the press conference concerned Churchill's allegation that academic freedom was being hurt by the vote. Brown said that was not the case.
"The message this sends is that the university faces up to problems. It deals with them," he said.
As to Churchill's charges that the review of allegations was rigged against him, Brown called it an "extraordinarily long process" with "countless hearings" and said that "there isn't anybody who can look you in the eye ... and say that this case hasn't had due process."
Churchill and his lawyer have rejected some of the specific charges of misconduct against him, but they have stressed the view -- backed by the American Civil Liberties Union -- that Colorado politicians and the public were so outraged by Churchill's 9/11 statements that there was no way his scholarship could be fairly evaluated.
David Lane, Churchill's lawyer, told reporters that the hearings and Tuesday's vote were all part of a "scripted performance" and that the expected 4 p.m. vote by the regents was just a part of that script. "The scripted performance calls for the body to be brought out at 4 o'clock, laid in front ... for media purposes," he said.
Advocates who have been watching the Churchill case from afar continued to differ on what it means. Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and a frequent critic of Churchill, praised the Colorado regents. "Academic freedom has to be based on integrity" and "that's what this case was about," she said.
Peter N. Kirstein, a professor of history at Saint Xavier University and a blogger who writes frequently about academic freedom, said he was dismayed by the vote, which he called "an egregious violation of academic freedom" that "may transform higher education into a stultifying pall of conformity." Kirstein said that the bottom line is that Churchill's "dismissal would not have happened had there not been negative reaction to his writings on the causes and meaning of the September 11 attacks. That point is irrefutable. This situation would never have occurred had he not defied conventional wisdom in his depiction of American casualties in a negative manner. That was his right and our duty to defend it."
Writing on the Free Exchange on Campus blog before the vote to fire Churchill, Aaron Barlow wrote that it was time to look at the case beyond Churchill himself and raised possible criticisms both of Churchill's adversaries and defenders. "If nothing else, the Churchill case points out the fact that we need to seriously consider the question of whether we academics are doing enough to police ourselves. The next time those attacking academia come up with a particular person to attack, will we be confident that our defense of that person will not open us up to further accusations of protecting the unqualified or dishonest?" asked Barlow, who teaches English at the New York City College of Technology.
"Should the fact of a witch-hunt be enough to bring academia to the defense of one of its own? The knee-jerk answer is 'Yes.' But what if it turns out that the person in question (the details of the Churchill case aside) really wasn’t qualified for the position, by background or by scholarship? What if it turns out that there certainly was dishonesty going on? Should the defense be continued?" Barlow wrote. "The results of the Churchill case will not answer these questions. But, as we move forward with or without Churchill in our midst, everyone concerned with academic freedom needs to consider how best to react next time. The argument, in other words, will not be over on Tuesday."