The case of Professor Ward Churchill has received considerable national attention over its two-plus year run. With the next act to be played out in the courtroom, the talk shows will soon be on to other things.
But the ripple effects for higher education will be much longer lasting. The University of Colorado Board of Regents on Tuesday accepted my recommendation that Professor Churchill be dismissed from the faculty for engaging in serious, deliberate and repeated research misconduct. The reaction to the regents’ decision from the university’s constituents has been overwhelmingly positive. Yet in the higher education community across the country, things are a bit more unsettled.
There are those on one end of the spectrum who believe Churchill is free speech martyr who was persecuted because of statements that flew in the face of prevailing winds. On the other end of the spectrum are those who think he is a charlatan, selling snake oil while disguised as an academic. Perhaps the largest group is the one in the middle, which recognizes that his academic misconduct sins were egregious, but remain decidedly uncomfortable that those sins came to light after he engaged in controversial speech.
The case’s implications for academic freedom are also compelling. The term being employed, particularly by those who either support Churchill or are concerned for his free speech rights, is that the decision to fire Churchill may have a “chilling” effect on academic freedom. That’s understandable, but holding Ward Churchill up as the poster child for academic freedom runs counter to the facts.
His own writing shows us why. His essay, "About that Bering Strait Land Bridge ... Let’s Turn Those Footprints Around," which takes archaeologists to task for holding to a migration theory, he writes, "Tailoring the facts to fit one’s theory constitutes neither good science nor good journalism. Rather, it is intellectually dishonest and, when published for consumption by a mass audience, adds up to propaganda."
Three separate panels of more than 20 tenured faculty, from the University of Colorado and other universities, unanimously found that important pieces of Professor Churchill’s research and writing met his own criteria for intellectual dishonesty. The faculty members, to a person, agreed that he engaged in research misconduct and that it required serious sanction. The faculty found a pattern of serious, repeated and deliberate research misconduct that included fabrication, falsification, improper citation and plagiarism.
The tenured faculty who reached these conclusions, like all faculty, have a significant stake in academic freedom. The bedrock of any university, particularly public research universities, is academic freedom. The scholars and researchers who investigated Professor Churchill’s work understood this relation to the work they did. They have the same stake in this bedrock principle that all academicians have.
If there is any real chilling effect in this matter, it is the threat posed to academic freedom by the types of serious academic misconduct in which Churchill engaged. Academic freedom exists only because tenured faculty can be trusted to act responsibly. When Churchill breached the obligations of trust imposed upon him, responsible scholars had no choice but to act.
Still, there are those willing to give his shoddy work a free pass because his intellectual dishonesty came to light after complaints about his controversial speech. There is no doubt that Churchill drew attention to himself when writing and speaking about 9/11 victims. It is also clear that allegations of research misconduct, unrelated to his 9/11 comments, were brought to the attention of the university.
Indeed, Professor Churchill invited his readers to challenge his work. In the introduction of his 1997 collection of essays, A Little Matter of Genocide, he writes, “I do believe that when making many of the points I’ve sought to make, and with the bluntness which typically marks my work, one is well-advised to be thorough in revealing the basis on which they rest. I also believe it is a matter not just of courtesy, but of ethics, to make proper attribution to those upon whose ideas and research one relies. Most importantly, I want those who read this book to be able to interrogate what I’ve said, to challenge it and consequently to build on it.”
The ethics of proper attribution and the basis on which his work rests were what the University of Colorado investigated after learning of potential research misconduct. His courting of public controversy on one occasion does not immunize him from adhering to professional standards in all his professional work. The university had an obligation to investigate serious allegations of research misconduct. Our policy statement on research misconduct prohibits us from turning our back on such allegations. Hiding behind the First Amendment is a smokescreen aimed at distracting people from the real issue: academic integrity.
In the final analysis, the Board of Regents of the university had little choice but to dismiss him. His acts of academic fraud were numerous, serious and intentional. Professor Churchill refused to apologize or correct his errors. He did nothing to indicate he would refrain from fraudulent research in the future.
Fraudulent scholarship violates the public trust and damages the profession. Faculty integrity is the cornerstone of any great university. The quality of the faculty’s work is at the heart of everything we in higher education do. To excuse the kind of academic fraud Professor Churchill engaged in would do irreparable damage to all universities.
Hank Brown is president of the University of Colorado.
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