Nearly six years after Ward Churchill compared some American victims of terrorism to Nazi bureaucrats, the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado voted Tuesday night to fire him. But the controversial ethnic-studies professor said he was “ready to roll” into the next stage of his struggle with the university: a court of law.
According to university administrators, it was findings that Mr. Churchill had committed research misconduct–and not the notoriety of Mr. Churchill’s opinions–that fueled the decision.
In a news release that appeared on the university’s Web site just moments after the regents’ 8-to-1 vote, the officials said that Mr. Churchill’s record “shows a pattern of serious, repeated, and deliberate research misconduct that fell below the minimum stand of professional integrity, involving fabrication, falsification, improper citation, and plagiarism.”
“The university’s review of Professor Churchill focused on his professional activities, not his statements about victims of September 11, 2001,” the statement said.
However, Mr. Churchill and his supporters–which include the American Civil Liberties Union and the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors–say that the university’s findings of academic misconduct were just a pretext for retaliating against Mr. Churchill for his views.
“Once you take away this carefully manufactured illusion of due process,” said Mr. Churchill in an interview last night, “there’s nothing left but the political speech.”
Mr. Churchill and his lawyer, David Lane, said they would file a lawsuit against the university on Wednesday morning, asking for damages and reinstatement.
For the Board of Regents, the vote to dismiss the hugely controversial ethnic studies professor was the culmination of a daylong set of deliberations. The deliberations went on an hour and a half longer than expected, adding a last flutter of suspense before yielding an outcome that many saw as inevitable.
For the university, the vote represented the end of a two-and-a-half-year series of investigations into Mr. Churchill’s speech, scholarship, and conduct.
Those investigations started because of a public relations crisis. Mr. Churchill was propelled into the national spotlight in early 2005, when a campus newspaper at Hamilton College in New York, where he was scheduled to give a speech, reported that he had once referred to the office workers killed in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 as “little Eichmanns.”
That incendiary remark, which instantly became Mr. Churchill’s calling card in the press, traveled like wildfire through the conservative blogosphere and traditional media. Before long, Mr. Churchill had become nightly fodder for Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News talk show.
After threats of violence began pouring in to Hamilton College, Mr. Churchill’s speech there was canceled. And when politicians in Mr. Churchill’s home state of Colorado began calling for his ouster, the interim chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Mr. Churchill was on the faculty until last night, announced that there would be an investigation into Mr. Churchill’s work to see whether the professor “may have overstepped his bounds.”
That first investigation–carried out by the interim chancellor and two deans–found that Mr. Churchill’s speech was protected by the First Amendment. However, it also turned up allegations of research misconduct, which set in motion another, more substantial review of the ethnic-studies professor’s work.
In May of 2006, a special investigative committee composed of three professors from Boulder and two outside professors released a 124-page report that found instances of fabricated evidence, improper citation, and plagiarism in Mr. Churchill’s scholarship. That report, which was followed by several other steps, paved the way for Hank Brown, the chancellor of the University of Colorado System, to recommend to the Board of Regents last month that Mr. Churchill be fired.
In its report last May, the special investigative committee said that it was uneasy about the timing of the accusations against Mr. Churchill’s scholarship, which had been prompted by his sudden public infamy. But the committee reasoned through its uneasiness with a law-enforcement metaphor.
“To use an analogy,” the committee wrote, “a motorist who is stopped and ticketed for speeding because the police officer was offended by the contents of her bumper sticker, and who otherwise would have been sent away with a warning, is still guilty of speeding, even if the officer’s motive for punishing the speeder was the offense taken to the speeder’s exercise of her right to free speech.
“No court would consider the improper motive of the police officer to constitute a defense to speeding, however protected by legal free-speech guarantees the contents of the bumper sticker might be.”
In the weeks and months leading up to the Board of Regents’ vote, several supporters of Mr. Churchill turned their own scrutiny on the investigative committee’s report.
Eric Cheyfitz, a professor of American studies at Cornell University, was among a handful of professors supporting Mr. Churchill who drafted a response to the report, accusing the committee itself of research misconduct. The group criticized the committee for not including experts in Mr. Churchill’s field.
Mr. Cheyfitz said that the committee relied too much, in its assessments of Mr. Churchill’s research, on the work of scholars who have had long-standing feuds with Mr. Churchill.
The report focuses on Mr. Churchill’s accounts of several events in the history of U.S. relations with Native Americans. According to Mr. Cheyfitz, those events are shrouded in controversy within the discipline of Native American studies.
“What they’ve done,” Mr. Cheyfitz said of the committee, “is turn an academic debate into an indictment of one side of that debate.”
A large (6’5″), brash, and iconoclastic figure, Mr. Churchill is hardly a natural poster child. Yet he has come to symbolize a bizarre array of modern causes, vices, and perils. He has been called a “poster boy for lefty nihilism,” “extremists in academe,” “academic malfeasance,” and academic freedom, to name just a few.
For many conservatives, Mr. Churchill has become a symbol of the political biases rife in higher education. His views, however unpalatable to the mainstream, have been described as dangerously typical of the professoriate. “How Many Ward Churchills?,” a study published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, purported to show that “Ward Churchill is everywhere” in academe.
Meanwhile, Mr. Churchill’s supporters see him as another kind of poster child. Margaret LeCompte, the president of Mr. Churchill’s local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, has called the scrutiny of Mr. Churchill “a test case by the U.S. right wing to emasculate faculty rights in U.S. universities,” an effort, she said, that has been spearheaded by ACTA.
Anne D. Neal, the president of ACTA and the author of the “How Many Ward Churchills?” study, said on Tuesday that free speech and even political bias were irrelevant to the board’s decision. “It’s not about politics,” she said. “It’s not about First Amendment rights. This is about scholarly standards and the need for the public trust to be maintained.”
The decision, she said, “sends a very positive message that higher education is cleaning up its own.”
Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that Mr. Churchill’s legal case against the university may hold water, if only because of timing.
“Given that this [investigation] was initially launched because of his public opinions, he’s going to have an argument that this was all pretextual,” said Mr. Lukianoff.
Mr. Lukianoff added that the university had placed itself in an awkward position “by launching the investigation initially because people were angry about what he had said, not because of these pre-existing claims of academic misconduct.”
Mr. Churchill and his lawyer, Mr. Lane, said they were not surprised by the regents’ vote on Tuesday. They said they had already written out their lawsuit against the university, in preparation for it to be filed Wednesday morning.