The case surrounding University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill has become a cause celebre to both academic-freedom fighters and activists on the right who say sloppy professors like him abuse the public trust.
And the 8-1 decision to fire him Tuesday is unlikely to alter the opinions of either side, hardened as they are by more than two years of debate, lawsuits and revelation.
Both backers and opponents of Churchill, a firebrand ethnic-studies professor, say he is a perfect symbol of both purity and irresponsibility in tenured academia, creating an unsympathetic, yet righteous, figure to rally around.
“He’s polemic. … I don’t necessarily agree with his mode of expression,” said sociology professor Tom Mayer, who has taught at CU-Boulder since 1969. “We who are defending him are not claiming Ward is right, but we’re claiming he has a voice that needs to be heard.”
Firing him, Mayer said, “encourages a mentality to keep your head down,” he said. “Most people don’t need academic freedom, they don’t say anything really bold … but it’s the people who are making the outrageous hypothesis who need the protection.”
Churchill’s now-infamous essay that sparked his scholarship investigation likened some 9/11 World Trade Center victims to “little Eichmanns” – a reference to a Hannah Arendt book in which she explores Adolf Eichmann’s role in the Nazi machine.
Once it became widely public, the essay infuriated people all over the country. That drew a call from then-Gov. Bill Owens that Churchill be fired and sparked blogs, letter-writing campaigns to CU’s nine governing regents and protests on campus.
The outcry spurred an internal investigation, and eventually the university’s Standing Committee on Research Misconduct found problems in Churchill’s writings, ranging from falsifying data to plagiarizing.
“I think this particular case has allowed a full discussion of what does academic freedom mean and what does it not mean?” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “Quite frankly, there has been some real confusion. Academic freedom does not mean anything goes.”
Her organization, started by Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynn, has supported CU president Hank Brown’s recommendation to fire Churchill. ACTA also released a paper called “How Many Ward Churchills?” in which liberal professors pushing agendas on college campuses are discussed.
Other CU professors, who some advocates also claim were fired for political leanings, have not received the widespread media attention Churchill has.
Environmental-studies instructor Adrienne Anderson’s contract was not renewed in the spring of 2006. Some of her students concluded it was because state health officials were disputing her research.
Another instructor, Phil Mitchell, believes he was let go because his conservative Christian beliefs didn’t jibe with CU’s history department.
CU spokesman Bronson Hilliard said there was no similarity in the cases. Anderson’s contract wasn’t renewed because of a budget decision, and Mitchell’s contract wasn’t renewed because of a curricular decision, Hilliard said. Churchill, he said, was fired because of his academic misconduct, not his political beliefs.
“If we were in the business of systematically rooting out every single faculty who is outspoken about the subject they teach, we’d be out of business,” he said.
Colorado American Indian Movement leader Russell Means said Churchill struck a particular chord among his supporters because his treatment is emblematic of the institutional racism against American Indians.
“He’s a history revisionist because he’s telling the truth,” he said.