Churchill verdict

by Henry on April 3, 2009

“Inside Higher Ed”:http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/04/03/churchill

More than four years after his comments on 9/11 set off a furor, and four weeks into a trial, a Colorado jury on Thursday afternoon found that the University of Colorado did not fire Ward Churchill for legitimate reasons, but for his political views. A judge will later determine whether Churchill can return to his tenured job as an ethnic studies professor at the university’s Boulder campus. The jury was responsible for awarding damages, and gave Churchill only $1.
To find in Churchill’s favor, the jury had to determine that his political views were a substantial or motivating factor in his dismissal, and that he would not have been fired but for the controversy over his opinions.

I think that this is a reasonable verdict (although it seems to be the product of a “jury split”:http://chronicle.com/news/index.php?id=6250&utm_source=pm&utm_medium=en between a majority who wanted to give him a significant sum and a holdout who wanted to give him nothing). It says that the university was wrong to fire him for his political views (which I strongly suspect it did – what evidence I am aware of suggests that tenured plagiarists “usually get an easier deal”:http://chronicle.com/free/v51/i17/17a00802.htm than you might expect), but also suggests that his academic career wasn’t worth all that much in the first place. I imagine he’ll get his job back if he really wants it, which is about what both he and the president who fired him both deserve.

{ 32 comments }

1

jj 04.03.09 at 11:00 pm

Yeah, but the rest of us at CU don’t deserve him!

Seriously … this is obviously a clusterf$%^ from every angle. He wouldn’t have been investigated if it hadn’t been for the essay. But a 20-member faculty committee did find him guilty of intentional, serious and repeated academic misconduct and recommended (with some dissension) that he be dismissed. I find this a very credible signal, as we would likely expect that group to be very wary of treading on Mr. Churchill’s academic freedom. And contrary to the assertions by Mr. Churchill’s lawyer, this committee was hardly a handpicked lynch mob doing the bidding of the administration.

I don’t give a whit about Mr. Churchill, but two things that I do care about are at stake if he should return to campus. First, I love CU and hate to see this charlatan associated with us, now especially free to act irresponsibly since he is basically untouchable. Second, and this is my bigger concern and a quite honest one, how do I tell my students that they shouldn’t engage in academic misconduct when a full professor on campus has been found to have done so with impunity? We all know how big a problem plagiarism is. I really do fear that this is going to have very negative consequences on our (faculty members’) ability to enforce standards of academic integrity vis-a-vis our students.

2

Henry 04.03.09 at 11:17 pm

jj – my understanding (am I wrong?) was that a majority of the faculty committee had recommended he be suspended without pay for a period (with disagreement on the exact period), with only one recommending that he be fired, but that a majority had said that it wouldn’t be inappropriate that he be fired if the university president felt that was the best solution, or some words to that effect. Or was that a different committee? I completely agree with you both about the disservice that this does to the university, and to the effort to maintain academic integrity – this is a pretty lousy outcome. That said, I genuinely don’t think that he would have been fired had the university not been under incredible pressure from state politicians to somehow get rid of him because of his obnoxious political views – so a decision that the university’s behavior was A-OK would have been pretty problematic in other ways. I am honestly not sure what would have been a good outcome here. And this way, while the freedom to be an obnoxious arsehole off the job is protected, Churchill can’t _credibly_ claim (although he can certainly make _incredible_ claims) to have been vindicated.

3

jj 04.03.09 at 11:32 pm

I don’t remember the exact distribution around the recommendation (suspension vs. firing, etc.) of the committee, but you could well be right. And I agree that he probably never would have been investigated, and almost certainly not fired, if it hadn’t been for the firestorm surrounding the essay.

It’s a lose-lose-lose, for sure. There is no good outcome available, either. I think I am going to just make a point of mentioning Mr. Churchill specifically as *not* providing an excuse when I give my students my periodic soapbox speeches on academic misconduct. I just gave it again in class on Wednesday, so missed the opportunity to add the new flourish this time around.

4

P O'Neill 04.03.09 at 11:42 pm

Off topic, but since you’re around —S&P and Ireland

5

larry c wilson 04.04.09 at 1:16 am

If you don’t want tobe held responsible then don’t hold anyone else responsible.

6

kid bitzer 04.04.09 at 1:29 am

the court’s finding does not tie the faculty’s hands, does it?

the firing was clearly political, and abhorrent for that reason.

however, even if he is reinstated, the faculty presumably has means of censuring a member for gross violations of scholarly standards. and if your concern is about the message that the students receive, then this seems like the thing to do.

at the very least, the faculty could pass a resolution condemning his record of serial plagiarism.

will a resolution like this keep kids from cheating? no, but then i never really thought that his getting off scot-free was going to encourage kids to cheat, either. kids cheat for reasons of their own, without thinking much one way or another about grown-ups. it’s not like they give a damn about us as ‘examples’ one way or another.

so censure him, if you feel the message must be sent, or pass resolutions, or do whatever you as a faculty think is appropriate. are those not still options?

7

Ben Alpers 04.04.09 at 1:43 am

I’m perfectly comfortable having universities censure faculty who plagiarize or otherwise violate scholarly standards, so long as they make an honest effort to punish all guilty parties. But selective enforcement on the basis of a particular guilty party’s political views is appalling, whether the punishment is firing or merely censure and however serious the scholarly violation.

8

Joe S. 04.04.09 at 1:46 am

I do remember the very similar Leonard Jeffries case, the charmer who ranted about “sun people” and “ice people.” The judge ruled for the defendant (somehow I think it was a bench trial), but wrote his opinion as a “how-to-fire-the-guy-correctly” manual. Jeffries returned to CUNY, but I believe has behaved ever since, although Wikipedia disagrees with me.

9

John Protevi 04.04.09 at 1:48 am

It wasn’t so much the case of a split committee, but of a split among committees. While one (or two, I can’t recall) other ad hoc (administration-selected) committees recommended dismissal, the CU Faculty Senate Privilege and Tenure Committee, the final oversight committee and one composed of elected faculty representatives, recommended demotion and a one-year suspension without pay. There are links in this blog post of mine from 2007: http://tinyurl.com/d29d57.

10

Louis Proyect 04.04.09 at 11:58 am

I see that you liberals still are obsessed with Ward Churchill. You got on his case when the war on terror was boiling hot. One would think that you might have woken up to the reality that this was all about his 9/11 essay and not his performance on the job in the class room. I guess the jury had more sense than you professors.

11

novakant 04.04.09 at 2:23 pm

Why is it abhorrent to fire a professor for his/her political views?

What should a university do if a history professor starts praising Hitler or denying the Holocaust, a cultural studies prof preaches misogyny or racism, a philosophy prof writes papers justifying genocide etc. ?

12

Matt L 04.04.09 at 2:54 pm

novakant: or like advocating torture like John Yoo?

13

Righteous Bubba 04.04.09 at 2:59 pm

Or Dershowitz. The difference with Yoo was his help with making torture happen.

14

Steve LaBonne 04.04.09 at 2:59 pm

What should a university do if a history professor starts praising Hitler or denying the Holocaust, a cultural studies prof preaches misogyny or racism, a philosophy prof writes papers justifying genocide etc. ?

In an ideal world? Suck it up and realize that academic freedom means nothing if it’s only about protecting attractive views. Of course, given the dependence of universities in the real world on politicians and/or moneybags donors, the upshot will usually be a demonstration that academic freedom really isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, as with Churchill.

Though why pointing out the blindingly obvious fact that subject peoples don’t like their imperial masters, and may sometimes be move to attack them, is supposed to have been on a par with the kinds of positions you list, is quite beyond me.

15

Steve LaBonne 04.04.09 at 3:01 pm

P.S. I wouldn’t be in favor of firing Yoo either (unless he’s actually convicted of a crime), but nor would I let him teach Constitutional law since he clearly knows nothing about the subject.

16

Paul 04.04.09 at 3:21 pm

Ward Churchill , in many people’s opinion, is a charlatan. He certainly does no credit to academicians !!

17

CJColucci 04.04.09 at 3:45 pm

This just goes to show that you can’t defend a witch-hunt by producing an actual witch.

Incidentally, on the Leonard Jeffries case, which was mine, the trial court decision (it was a jury trial, but the judge decides issues concerning reinstatement) was eventually overturned, but too late. The Black Studies Department, which had been dying for lack of competent leadership, was eventually wound up and the members who could keep their jobs sent to join their colleagues in their original disciplines.

18

Henry 04.04.09 at 4:46 pm

Louis – last I heard from you, you were getting hissier and hissier, and jumping up and down, and _swearing_ that you would never deign to grace my comments threads again. What a surprise to see you!

19

novakant 04.04.09 at 5:18 pm

I simply don’t think academic freedom (or freedom of speech for that matter) is an absolute value.

20

Perezoso 04.04.09 at 5:38 pm

I’m perfectly comfortable having universities censure faculty who plagiarize or otherwise violate scholarly standards, so long as they make an honest effort to punish all guilty parties. But selective enforcement on the basis of a particular guilty party’s political views is appalling, whether the punishment is firing or merely censure and however serious the scholarly violation.

That about sums it up. And let’s not forget who runs the CU Board of Regents: good ol’ Colorady WASPs, cronies of CoorsCo, the USAF, the Boulder development-boomtown, IBM, etc.

21

Jacob T. Levy 04.04.09 at 6:28 pm

It is, hwoever, tough to be enthused about the incentives created by telling professors who have committed violations of academic integrity that, if they say something sufficiently inflammatory as well, they’ll have a chance at the defense that they were fired for their political views.

22

Steve LaBonne 04.04.09 at 6:56 pm

I simply don’t think academic freedom (or freedom of speech for that matter) is an absolute value.

Few things in life are absolute, but unless the hedging of those freedoms is limited to the minimal amount that’s truly necessary to deal with, say, direct incitement to violence, those freedoms effectively don’t exist. The more you start carving out exceptions, the more the exceptions start becoming the rule. (Yes, that’s a slippery slope argument, but its practical truth is borne out precisely by cases like this one.) So in my opinion you’re either pretty much an “absolutist” or you don’t really value freedom of speech all that much after all. The latter a is defensible position, to be sure, but one that I would vigorously oppose.

Thought is more important than order. No order lasts forever, and no decent replacement of an expiring order can be arrived at without free thought.

23

Steve LaBonne 04.04.09 at 7:00 pm

Jacob- isn’t that concern best handled by not hiring and tenuring charlatans in the first place? I mean, they may not have known about the plagiarism (not that they seem to have looked very hard), but how could this guy have been taken seriously as a scholar even so?

24

PabloK 04.04.09 at 7:10 pm

@novakant

It’s not actually terribly complicated. If an academic denies that the Holocaust happened, publishes those views in academic papers or presses, and clearly violates academic standards in doing so, then they should lose their job. Not because of what they said, but because of the grounds on which they made their claims. Now, if a professor denies the Holocaust but somehow has good academic grounds for doing so, then they shouldn’t lose their job. That would constitute a major ‘advance’ in our knowledge, if it were true. Which it’s not. Similarly, if an expert on epidemiology publishes ranting screeds in favour of Hitler in their own time, it is quite simply none of the University’s business.

You will, of course, know that many people justify genocide. And some of them don’t like Ward Churchill very much.

25

Colin Danby 04.04.09 at 9:37 pm

I don’t know how serious your question is, Steve, and I don’t see Churchill’s CV online, but if page three of this thing (http://wardchurchill.net/files/churchill_response_to_regents_071207.pdf) is right he has a serious record of publication, much of it refereed. If you set that against the rather slender findings of the committee that was set up to find reasons to fire him, this is the profile of a busy activist-scholar whose wide range of publication includes several culpable misdeeds, not that of someone who avoided refereed venues (e.g. L. Jeffries, if memory serves) or someone who systematically cheated his way to academic advancement, like the feller in Henry’s Chronicle link. I’m not offering a defense of the style or content of Churchill’s work, but I’m troubled by the easy slide to “charlatan.”

26

Steve LaBonne 04.05.09 at 12:32 am

Fair enough, Colin, I am willing to stand corrected. (Which of course makes the political witch-hunt that much worse.)

27

chris 04.05.09 at 3:29 am

Colin:

I think one reason that many of us regard Churchill as something of a charlatan is the disjunct between his academic preparation and his appointment. I’m all for interdisciplinarity, but it does seem that it was his claim to being a Native American that got him hired. Which brings me to the second reason for holding him in disregard (and as a charlatan): there is no evidence that he is NA.

28

Colin Danby 04.05.09 at 5:49 am

I’m not sure how we got to interdisciplinarity, Chris, but if being Native Am were all it took to get hired at CU the place would be rather different, no? What’s your evidence?

I repeat, the guy has a serious publication record. You want to read and critique it, please go ahead. But I’m suspicious when people instead go straight to the bloodline.

29

Tangurena 04.05.09 at 2:01 pm

Don’t forget that the regents of the colorado university system are elected officials. If they didn’t fire the guy, then they wouldn’t have been re-elected.
http://www.elections.colorado.gov/DDefault.aspx?tid=974

30

virgil xenophon 04.05.09 at 11:11 pm

Ahem/

Free speech and tenure arguments aside, the fact that Churchill was a documented plagiarist and fraud who lied on his job application is reason enough for ANY employer
to terminate the man. True enough, it was his publicized statements about 9/11 which inflamed public opinion, but that only exposed the sloppiness and idiocy of an administration too lazy and indifferent to properly vet a walking fraud. And I don’t understand Colin Danby’s “suspicions” either. He MUST therefore be directing his suspicions toward the very Indian tribe which publicly/formally revoked Churchill’s strictly HONORARY membership in their tribe for abusing it by claiming false blood ties as a way to finagle his was to his both his academic and administrative positions at CU. The fact that CU hired this fraud in the first place reflects poorly on CU–and those here who come to the defense of this academic fraud also foolishly cover themselves in ignominy–both intellectual and ethical.

31

Nullifidian 04.07.09 at 6:45 am

Free speech and tenure arguments aside, the fact that Churchill was a documented plagiarist and fraud who lied on his job application is reason enough for ANY employer
to terminate the man.

Except that Churchill was not a documented plagiarist and fraud, as that argument got shot down handily in the trial which has just concluded.

He MUST therefore be directing his suspicions toward the very Indian tribe which publicly/formally revoked Churchill’s strictly HONORARY membership in their tribe for abusing it by claiming false blood ties as a way to finagle his was to his both his academic and administrative positions at CU.

You, on the other hand, are a demonstrable liar.

Ward Churchill’s membership in the United Keetowah Band of Cherokee is an associate membership, not an honorary membership. This means that Ward Churchill has demonstrated, to the satisfaction of the the Keetowah Band that he was less than of 1/4 “Cherokee” heritage (granting the racist assumption, promulgated by the Dawes Roll, that Cherokee identity is reducible to a strict blood quantum). 1/4 or above can be admitted as a full member.

His membership was confirmed by the very same Keetowah Band on June 4, 1994, after Churchill’s initial enrollment and despite the alleged “formal” revocation (which was never formal, nor was his membership revoked).

32

roy belmont 04.07.09 at 5:52 pm

And now, on to Norman Finkelstein!
Keep that distaste simmering boys, there’s work to do!

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