Trustees | Freedom of Expression

A ($1) Win for Ward Churchill

INSIDE HIGHER ED   |  April 3, 2009 by Scott Jaschik

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.

Churchill appeared outside the court shortly after the verdict was announced and declared that he had been vindicated. The University of Colorado “has been exposed for what it is,” he said. The university “not only violated my rights, but my students’ rights and the community’s rights.” Churchill said he hopes to soon win reinstatement and that he was not bothered by the small sum awarded by the jury. “I did not ask for money. I asked for justice,” he said.

Bruce Benson, president of the University of Colorado, issued this statement after the verdict: “While we respect the jury’s decision, we strongly disagree. It doesn’t change the fact that more than 20 of Ward Churchill’s faculty peers on three separate panels unanimously found he engaged in deliberate and repeated plagiarism, falsification and fabrication that fell below the minimum standards of professional conduct. The jury’s award is an indication of what they thought of the value of Ward Churchill’s claim. We will examine our legal options.”

The four-week trial in the case repeated much of the debate over Churchill over the last few years—and both sides had key weaknesses. The University of Colorado maintained that it fired Churchill for scholarly misconduct, but Churchill was able to point to considerable evidence that the university faced intense political pressure to get rid of him. Churchill meanwhile tried to portray himself as the victim of a conservative witch hunt. But the university presented evidence that his scholarship had been repeatedly found lacking, and that some scholars who found his conduct unprofessional shared many of his political views.

Given the coming hearings over reinstatement and the potential for appeals, it seems likely that Thursday’s verdict—while significant—is hardly the end of the battles over Ward Churchill.

An Invitation and Multiple Investigations

Ward Churchill started teaching at Boulder in 1978 and won tenure in 1991. The author of numerous books and essays about Native American history, Churchill uses fiery rhetoric to describe the wrongs committed by the United States. Over the years prior to 2005, Churchill gained both fans and critics in Native American studies and became a popular figure on the campus lecture circuit—although he tended to attract attention from those who shared his views, and he was not widely known outside academe.

That all changed when he accepted an invitation to speak at Hamilton College, a liberal arts college in upstate New York, in early 2005. 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 talk radio hosts, politicians, and the survivors of 9/11 victims expressing shock that a man with such views would be given a platform on a college campus. Hamilton stood by its invitation, on academic freedom grounds, but in the end called off the appearance, citing threats of violence.

At that point, the discussion shifted to Colorado, where numerous politicians—from the governor on down—were demanding that Churchill be fired. After several weeks of reviews, the university announced that the 9/11 essay could not be grounds for dismissal, given Churchill’s rights to free expression and academic freedom and the lack of any evidence that his political views interfered with his teaching. But at the same time, Colorado announced that Churchill could be investigated and possibly fired for scholarly misconduct. That was because—once the controversy broke—scholars, journalists and others checked out Churchill’s scholarship and quickly heard from researchers who said that Churchill had plagiarized or distorted their work.

Colorado then started a series of investigations in which various faculty panels examined the charges and considered potential punishments. While the panels were far from united in urging Churchill to be fired, there was consensus that he was guilty of repeated, intentional academic misconduct—plagiarism, fabrication, falsification and more. That was May of 2006. After still more reviews, the University of Colorado Board of Regents fired him in July of 2007. Churchill vowed to sue to get his job back, and that led to this year’s trial. There were not many bombshells in the trial itself, in part because both Churchill and the University of Colorado have spent so much time issuing statements and reports and counter-reports over the last few years. (A University of Denver law class has blogged the entire trial.)

What the Verdict Means

Ever since the Churchill controversy broke, academics and culture warriors have debated the broader significance of his case. (Some of the pieces published by Inside Higher Ed by authors defending his dismissal may be found here and here. And some of the pieces questioning the way Colorado handled the case may be viewed here and here.)

From a technical standpoint, Churchill was the winner Thursday—and he waved a dollar bill outside the court to mark his triumph. But it remains unclear whether he will win back his job, which he has said repeatedly is his goal in the litigation.

In the immediate aftermath of the verdict Thursday, some academic observers were criticizing the verdict and others the small award. Stephen H. Balch, chairman of the National Association of Scholars, issued a statement in which he said that “the decision for Churchill will only further attenuate an already fraying relationship between the protections of academic freedom and their corollary obligations. Churchill is the poster boy for academic irresponsibility in both substance and style. That he wins today in court, helped somehow by his very notoriety, can only fortify the sense that anything goes.”

He added that “if there is a lesson here it is that universities must be proactive in the enforcement of standards. Waiting for a public scandal with all its attendant complications is hardly the policy of choice. Universities must build a culture of responsibility that affects every aspect of institutional operation, but especially scholarship and teaching.”

Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said in an interview Thursday that she was frustrated by the verdict. “This sends the harmful message to students that plagiarism and fabrication are acceptable if you cry First Amendment loud enough in your defense,” she said.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, said that a key factor over the long term will be whether Churchill wins his job back. If he does not win his job back, the victory is not much of a victory, Nelson said, as the $1 in damages suggests that “the jury considers the loss of an academic job as completely trivial.”

As AAUP president, he declined to discuss his views on the case itself. But as an individual, he said that there was much that was troublesome about the way Colorado reacted to the Churchill controversy. “I did not feel that the charges made against him should have been adjudicated in a disciplinary proceeding,” he said. “They should have been left to the ordinary process of academic debate and discussion.”

And if a review of Churchill’s work was truly needed, Nelson said, it should have been “a comprehensive review” of his career, not just an examination of the complaints filed against Churchill. Further, he said that the committee needed more expertise in Native American studies and people who might be familiar with—and not hostile to—Churchill’s approach to scholarship.

Nelson also questioned the idea that Colorado treated Churchill fairly. The university that turned on Churchill when he became controversial had hired and promoted him, even though he never hid his views or writings. “Colorado knew what it was getting when it hired him,” Nelson said.


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