The Ward Churchill Dismissal: “A Political Lynching”

I suspect that a few of this blog's readers know that the University of Colorado at Boulder has informed the prolific left ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill of its intent to dismiss him for "research misconduct."

Take a look at the latest write-up in academia's company newspaper The Chronicle of Higher Education, where you can learn "the University of Colorado at Boulder's interim chancellor announced last week that he has begun the process to dismiss Ward Churchill, the controversial professor who once compared some victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to Nazi bureaucrats."

"Eighteen months ago," the Chronicle continues, "politicians and conservative critics of academe began calling for Mr. Churchill to be fired from his tenured post after an essay he wrote in 2001 became more widely known. In it, he described people who worked in the financial-services industry in the World Trade Center as 'little Eichmanns.'" 

But "while plenty of people thought that was reason enough to fire the professor," the ivory tower's in-house press elaborates, "Mr. Churchill is not being dismissed for those comments. Instead, the firestorm over his essay led to increased scrutiny of his academic work and charges that he had plagiarized and fabricated material in his research. In May an investigative committee issued a 125-page report that found a pattern of research misconduct in Mr. Churchill's work and an unwillingness on his part to accept responsibility. The committee split on the recommended punishment. Philip P. DiStefano, the interim chancellor, agreed that Mr. Churchill should be dismissed. On June 26, he gave the professor a notice of intent to dismiss him. In a statement announcing his decision, Mr. DiStefano said faculty members 'enjoy the freedom of expression that is the foundation of what they do in their scholarly pursuits. But, as is true with all liberties enjoyed by all Americans, with freedom comes responsibility,' he said. 'Appropriately, we in the academy are held to high standards of integrity, competence, and accuracy, at the same time we freely engage in spirited, unimpeded discourse in the 'marketplace of ideas.'"

The Chronicle article includes an interesting comment from Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, who "praised the investigative committee's report and said it raised serious issues about Mr. Churchill's professional integrity. However, the timing of the investigation is problematic, Mr. Nelson said, comparing it to a situation in which police enter a residence with a warrant to investigate one type of crime but discover evidence of a separate crime. 'I don't think that one can just absolve him of misconduct because the investigation was triggered by his public speech,' Mr. Nelson said."

"The long-term effect of Mr. Churchill's case on academic freedom may depend on how the war in Iraq proceeds and whether more terrorist attacks occur in the United States, Mr. Nelson said. 'My worry is not that under the present conditions this will set off a series of efforts to get rid of tenured faculty,' he said. But 'it does potentially risk encouraging impatience with faculty who are among the loyal opposition.'"

The Chronicle piece gives ominously respectftul space to the frothing neo-McCarthyite nutcase David Horowitz, who is described as "a conservative activist who campaigns against what he sees as liberal bias in academe" and is quoted as saying that that administrators had no choice both to fire Churchill. Horowitz then ominously adds his hope that "Mr. Churchill's dismissal would be 'the beginning of a national effort by universities to tighten up their academic standards.' "

If you are interested, you can read the "investigative committee's" report online off U. of Colorado-Boulder's web site

Having taken an admittedly preliminary look at the detailed charges in the May report, I have the distinct impression that the Chronicle is wrong to say that "Mr. Churchill is not being dismissed for [his 9/11] comments."  I also suspect that U-Colorado would do well to try to stay out of court with this one: if his lawyer can get the case before a non-rightist judge, Churchill could probably win an academic freedom lawsuit over this "misconduct" firing. 

It appears that the seven-member committee (three members are Colorado-Boulder professors, one is a Colorado-Boulder staff-person, and one is a lawyer hired by U.Colorado-Boulder) is essentially quibbling about footnotes.   

If they are correct, there are a handful of perhaps poorly supported assertions in various parts of Churchill's often polemical work, which includes a really really big pile of richly annotated books, articles, and reviews (far beyond the normal career production of your standard American academician of any political stripe).  He has apparently done some ghostwriting in the past (in connection with his vast writing in support of first-nations/Native-American/Indigenous Peoples' causes) and sometimes cites those ghostwritten works and some other sources that would seem to contradict his argument.  And when some of his enemies in the academy (a category that apparently sometimes overlaps with his political enemies in the American Indian movement) rip him for real and/or alleged errors or unsupported arguments in various published works, he sometimes (the committee says) doesn't respond.  

To which I say, among other things: BIG DEAL. 

Colorado-Boulder brought together five academicians, one laywer, and one "research integrity" staffer to investigate Churchill and THIS is all they could come up with — four source and interpretation quibbles (over the 1887 Dawes Act, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, the actions of John Smith in New England, and the dissemination of smallpox at Fort Clark in 1837) and three source/citation quibbles over some past ghostwritten works?

They want to pretend that this is sufficient to revoke a professor's tenure and send him packing?  And that this whole exercise isn't really all about punishing Churchilll for his constitutionally protected comments (which I personally would never have made) about "Eichman's" in the WTC, and more broadly, for being a passionate and radical critic of Washington's in fact illegal racist and imperial practices and policies past and present and of the large number of "good Americans" who support and enable those practices and policies?

Of course, that's exactly what this is all about, as many of the committees academic committee members know quite well.  Their unease with the whole process and its timing is clearly evident in parts of the report.  Their discomfort wasn't enough for them to refuse participation, however.  They claiming an overriding concern with academia's troubled public reputation as a jutification for their willingness to do their rightist political masters' bidding…..thereby opening up their profession to ever-more intrusive neo-McCarthyite repression.   

They can't be serious.  At the end of the day, this is (as a friend of mine in Native American Studies says) "a political lynching," driven in part by by "Fatherland [FOX] News" media fascist Bill O'Reilly. And it's not just about Churchill, of course.  The truly bizarre ex-radical Horowotiz and his hard-right authoritarian ilk —- including noxious national thought policewoman Lynn Cheney (wife of high imperial lord Darth Cheney) of the arch-reactionary American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) —- have been smelling blood in the university waters since 9/11 and before.  They are eager to spark a new witchhunt to purge the academy of its last remaining open opponents of empire, racism, oppression, and inequality at home and abroad. The message here, aided and abetted by the Chronicle, is clear: "watch what you say, little professors. You're next. You aren't lickin the boots of power with enough enthusiasm.   Obey your master more slavishly than ever before or we will dispense with you and your modest little salaries and your summers off and your lifetime job security and your etc."  

Sometime in the not-so distant future, I will write about my own experiences dodging the university thought police as a permanent academic journeyman. 



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