Gov. Bill Ritter on Tuesday added his voice to the Ward Churchill case, joining his predecessor in calling for the firing of the University of Colorado ethnic studies professor.
Ritter made his comments after news broke over the Memorial Day weekend that Hank Brown, the university’s president, had drafted a letter recommending the firing of Churchill for “repeated and deliberate academic deception.”
The previous governor, Republican Bill Owens, called on CU to get rid of Churchill in 2005, soon after a controversial essay came to light. Ritter, a Democrat, weighed in Tuesday, saying that Churchill had damaged the university’s reputation and should be dismissed.
“The character of his conduct is different than those things that are protected by the First Amendment, and I really do think in an academic institution, we need to pay attention to what we’re telling our kids and what our professors are writing about,” Ritter said after a bill-signing ceremony in Glenwood Springs.
Ritter stressed that the authority to fire Churchill rests entirely with the Board of Regents, but he agrees with Brown’s recommendation for that action.
“I’ve thought that for a long, long time, based on all his comments and … problems surrounding his writing,” Ritter said. “I thought it was black and white for the university.”
Churchill’s lawyer, David Lane, said his client will file a lawsuit contending his First Amendment rights have been violated.
“Well, the only people I’m interested in weighing in is a jury after a full-blown court trial,” Lane said.
He blasted both Owens and Ritter for taking a stance on Churchill’s fate.
“They’re both politicians, and they will say whatever will get them the most votes,” Lane said.
Only two other tenured professors have gone before the University of Colorado’s governing Board of Regents for firing, but neither of those cases produced the extensive controversy and media attention accompanying the Ward Churchill case.
Churchill’s work came into question after an essay he wrote came to light, comparing some victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center to Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann.
A university investigation later determined he had a First Amendment right to make those statements but found that his academic research had been falsified and plagiarized.
Ritter isn’t the only one expressing opinions.
Weldon Lodwick, chairman of the university’s privilege and tenure committee, which had recommended that Churchill be suspended for one year without pay and demoted, said he receives five to 10 opinions each week from those with strongly held views.
“I get two types of phone calls or e-mails,” Lodwick said. “One is you’re a son of a gun if you do fire him. The other is that you’re scum of the earth if you don’t fire him.”
The Society of American Law Teachers wrote a letter arguing against a firing. The local chapter of the American Association of University Professors also has given support.
“It’s emblematic of bigger issues,” said Margaret LeCompte, a CU education professor and president of the Boulder chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “It’s not just about Ward Churchill.”
She views the Churchill case as a key precedent that could lead to curtailing academic freedoms and part of a larger effort to make “faculty more amenable to fresher and more conservative political correctness.”
Others are less supportive of Churchill.
“I think it’s important to emphasize that academic freedom also means academic responsibility, and it is not just anything goes,” said Anne Neal, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which applauded the news that Brown wants Churchill fired.
Brown’s 10-page letter urging Churchill’s firing was sent to the privilege and tenure committee for review. If Brown still recommends firing after hearing from the committee, the matter will go to the regents.
Lodwick said five other dismissal cases have been reviewed by the committee since 2002, and only two of those actually went before the regents for firing. Of those five, one case still is active and under consideration, Lodwick said.
He said only the Churchill case prompted a firestorm of controversy.
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