Churchill Fallout: It's About Academic Freedom

May 26, 2006

Last week the University of Colorado panel investigating Ward Churchill found that the controversial professor of Native American studies committed serious acts of research misconduct and plagiarism. It’s now up to the university to decide on an appropriate punishment for the tenured professor, who could be fired or suspended without pay. I don’t know enough about the situation to support or challenge the panel’s unanimous findings, or to suggest what the university should do about them, but one aspect of the committee’s 125-page report signals a chilling warning to academics: If you want to stay below the radar, keep your politics and your scholarship to yourself.

The Colorado investigation was prompted by the strong public reaction against an inflammatory essay in which Churchill called the people who died in the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 “little Eichmanns.” Prior to that, the university had ignored complaints about Churchill’s scholarship, and it had already concluded that his 9/11 essay was protected political speech. But the committee, which includes two law professors, justified proceeding with the politically-motivated investigation into allegations of research misconduct with this legal analogy: “A motorist who is stopped and ticketed for speeding because the police officer was offended by the contents of her bumper sticker ... is still guilty of speeding, even if the officer’s motive for punishing the speeder was the offense taken to the speeder’s exercise of her right to free speech.”

Maybe. But the courts have questioned selective enforcement of the law in First Amendment cases, and the motivation behind prosecution is hardly irrelevant in the case of racial profiling, an all too common cause of traffic stops. But even if the speeding-ticket analogy holds, how is this any different from Richard Nixon ordering the IRS to audit the tax returns or people on his enemies list, or J. Edgar Hoover shoring up his own power by compiling files on persons of interest?

The committee went on to suggest that Churchill might have been fine if he had just kept his head down: “Public figures who choose to speak out on controversial matters of public concern naturally attract more controversy and attention to their background and work than scholars quietly writing about more esoteric matters that are not the subject of political debate.”

Ward Churchill certainly never kept his head down. He’s the kind of person that everyone has an opinion about, and that can be a good thing for drawing attention to issues, or a bad thing when the attention backfires. The University of Colorado hired Churchill as a strong political voice who would shake things up, and the investigative panel is right when it concludes that the university shouldn't be surprised to get what they paid for.

Perhaps Churchill shouldn’t be surprised at the scrutiny he’s received either. Every academic field has research standards, and we are always reviewing and evaluating one another’s résumés. That’s how we find the flaws in our arguments, and how we uncover the occasional fraud. I’m sure that the University of Colorado, like my own institution, wants faculty members to explain their work to the public. Sometimes that public doesn’t like what it hears. When I write about language and literacy in the press, topics that would seem to be pretty tame, I occasionally get angry letters, even threats. But now a select university investigative committee reminds professors: If you stray from the library, you’re fair game not just for the anonymous crazoids, but for the governor and yes, for your colleagues as well.

The University of Colorado investigation is not just about professional malpractice. It’s also about academic freedom. We’re experiencing a new wave of McCarthyism in this country, and academics who take unpopular political positions can expect to have their scholarship as well as their politics scrutinized. Two members of the Colorado select committee came out against firing Churchill because it would discourage other academics from conducting their research “with due freedom.” Whatever one thinks of the Churchill case, these concerns are well placed. Ideologues everywhere are trying to shape curriculum to match their particular orthodoxies. State legislatures are being encouraged to rein in liberal faculty (Pennsylvania has already established a Select Committee for that purpose). Now the distinguished members of the Colorado panel warn us not to step out of line or they’ll take yet another look at our résumés.  


Dennis Baron is professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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