MOVING TO THE FRONT FROM APRIL 27, 2007, now that the University of Colorado Board of Regents has voted to fire Professor Churchill, a sanction recommended by only one of the five members of the Committee that prepared the report on Professor Churchill's research misconduct. The punishment is so plainly disproporionate to the actual offenses that one imagines Professor Churchill's prospects in court--where he will argue that his offensive speech is the real reason the university is punishing him, in violation of the First Amendment--will be good.
The University of Colorado at Boulder's witchhunt against Ward Churchill--about which we we have written before--is apparently drawing to a close, with his firing for purported "research misconduct" apparently likely. This article is still the most sensible item I've seen regarding the report charging Ward Churchill with "research misconduct." The report is extremely long and detailed, but it's quite clear that most of those on the right clucking with pleasure about the destruction of the career of someone whose political views they despise have read mainly the "summary" of findings, which gives very little sense as to the particulars that underlie the apparently dramatic findings. But the particulars are a rather different matter, and here John Wilson's comments are closer to the mark:
Churchill is guilty of occasionally shoddy scholarship and the dubious practice of ghostwriting, and perhaps even more. But we should be alarmed by the investigative committee’s report, and not merely because the committee exists only because of a concerted effort to fire Churchill for his obnoxious and idiotic comments about 9/11 victims.
By stretching the meaning of “research misconduct” far beyond its true definition, and by supporting the suspension and even dismissal of a tenured professor for his use of footnotes, the Colorado committee is opening the door to a vast new right-wing witch hunt on college campuses that conservatives could easily exploit across the country.
If you don’t like a professor’s politics, simply file a complaint of “research misconduct.” According to the Colorado committee, if you can find a factual error made by the professor with a footnote that fails to prove the contention, that scholar is guilty of “research misconduct” and can be suspended or fired.
This may soft-peddle Churchill's shoddy scholarly practices a bit, but it is far closer to the mark than the absurd contention that Churchill's "falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism...are substantial." In fact, only one plagiarism charge was deemed substantiated in the report, with most of the best-known early allegations dissolving on examination. And the plagiarism at issue in the Churchill case seems quite slight by comparison to some better-known cases in recent years that did not result in anyone's termination.
A statement by the Colorado/Boulder chapter of the AAUP about the investigation, its findings and recommendations, is also revealing:
The hostile climate posed serious problems for the Churchill investigation and surely contributed to the absence on the sub-committee of scholarly peers in Professor Churchill's field. For example, one faculty member was pressured to resign from the Committee on Research Misconduct because he had signed the February 2005 faculty petition supporting academic freedom in general at CU, and thus was viewed by some as supportive of Churchill himself. In addition, the two Native American historians originally asked to serve on the Investigatory Committee were so intimidated by the "toxic" atmosphere at CU and
so pressured by outsiders that both resigned almost upon appointment.
Some scholars argue that the standards of research misconduct used in Professor Churchill's case were elastic and that they were applied to his work with special stringency. Others consider the recommended punishment disproportionate. From a record of more than twenty books and hundreds of articles, chapters, speeches, and electronic communications, the committee investigating Churchill's work isolated six pages, in which they claimed to find examples of plagiarism and one example of fabrication. If these charges are justified, they certainly show that Professor Churchill sometimes failed to adhere to the most rigorous standards of scholarship, but they seem relatively small in light of Churchill's vast opus. All scholars have points of view, and even distinguished scholars make occasional mistakes; however, it is highly unusual for the discovery of such errors to end in dismissal.
The investigation into Professor Churchill's work has been undertaken in the context of extensive well-organized and well-funded activity to discredit scholarship by faculty members perceived as liberal or left-leaning and to undermine the autonomy of institutions of higher education across the country. The University of Colorado has been a special target of such efforts, and scholars around the country are watching carefully to see what happens here. Insofar as the investigation inappropriately casts aspersions on Professor
Churchill's controversial conclusions regarding relationships between Native Americans and the United States, it also will weaken academic freedom across the United States. The freedom of faculty to interpret their own data, regardless of these interpretations' conformity to conventional wisdom, lies at the heart of the scholarly enterprise.
In these circumstances, it is vital for the University of Colorado to defend not only the integrity of scholarly research but also the interlinked principles of academic freedom for its faculty and autonomy for itself. Failure to do this will be extremely damaging to the University of Colorado. It will injure faculty morale, diminish the University's ability to recruit qualified faculty, especially in disciplines where controversies over interpretation are commonplace, impugn the University's scholarly reputation, and reduce our ability to represent the best of scholarly work in research, the classroom and the community at large.
For these reasons, CU-B chapter of AAUP calls on the University of Colorado's administration to reverse the decision to dismiss Professor Churchill. The problems that beset the Churchill inquiry, especially its highly politicized origin and context, bring into question both the objectivity of the inquiry and the proportionality of the recommended penalty. We recognize the possibility that lesser sanctions may be justified for some specific acts described in the report.
The threatened punishment is disproportional to the actual scholarly failures for reasons that are, alas, plain to all. If, in fact, the university takes the ill-advised step of terminating Professor Churchill, one should expect this matter to end up, correctly, in court.
JULY 25 UPDATE: John Protevi (Louisiana State) calls to my attention this critical analysis of the plagiarism charges.
Regent Cindy Carlisle, who cast the sole vote against termination, said Wednesday she felt the Regents should have accepted the advice of the last faculty committee to review the case, which recommended suspending Churchill for a year without pay and demoting him.
She also said the panel, the Privilege and Tenure Committee, had raised questions about three of the seven specific allegations against Churchill.
Asked whether she felt firing Churchill was unfair, she said: “I’m not going to characterize that. My vote speaks pretty strongly. I thought we should defer to the active faculty (the Privilege and Tenure Committee) for their recommendations for sanctions.”