Ward Churchill v. CU v. the people: knee-deep in the muck

In years to come, it seems likely that the ongoing civil suit brought against the University of Colorado by former professor Ward Churchill will provide students in many law classes with a lively case study to debate. If you aren’t already familiar with the details of the clusterfuck story, you can catch up at the NY Times and Boulder Daily Camera. If, at that point, you still haven’t slaked your thirst for data on all things Ward, you can keep on Googling here.

Buff U is pointing to all manner of irregularities in Churchill’s scholarship, asserting that he was fired for plagiarism. Ward’s attorneys have another theory:

His lawyer, David Lane, has sought to portray him as the victim of a “howling mob” of university administrators, conservative media and politicians who were “falling over themselves” to have him fired.

You’ll recall that in the aftermath of 9/11, Churchill penned a screed that referred to the victims in the Twin Towers as “little Eichmanns” for their role in propping up an unjust political and economic system. Trust me when I say that “howling mob” is, if anything, a charitable characterization of the group that sought Churchill’s dismissal.

Before I go further, let me note that I’m not an attorney, so my take isn’t something that’s going to find its way into the case studies mentioned earlier. Further, I have a strong investment in what happens at CU since that’s where I earned my PhD. I know the place and I love it dearly, despite the fact that it can’t seem to go more than a few days at a time without shooting itself in the foot. So if my general lack of lawyering knowledge seems infused by a bit conflictedness and/or frustration, you’ll now know why. Back to the case.

CU lawyers will be asking the jury to pay attention to the technical minutiae attending academic integrity. Churchill’s lawyers will be asking the jury to pay attention to the politics that drove the inquisition. Who’s right?

From my humble perspective, it seems clear that both are right, and that more broadly, everyone was wrong.

  • There is zero doubt about the pressure brought by the “howling mob,” which comprises a barely educated pack of slobbering wingnuts and the “leaders” who follow them everywhere. The political right in Colorado knows little and cares less about academic integrity, and I’ve remarked about the state’s “war on education” for a reason. CU’s current president is an anti-academic freedom global warning denier who’s unparalleled in his unfitness for leadership among America’s major universities, and former president Betsy Hoffman’s testimony that she’s endured an “all-out assault” by conservative politicians not only seems plausible, it would have been remarkable had it happened any other way.
  • Multiple faculty committes found serious fault with Churchill’s scholarship. Churchill’s various claims are unconvincing, at best. The practices of cultures with oral traditions notwithstanding, when you’re a prof in a research one institution you know the rules and you follow them. You don’t like them, you go after them, but you do not simply ignore them.
  • While I have not learned, through the years, to trust uncritically the actions or motivations of university administrators, the final faculty committee report is compelling. It did not recommend that Churchill be fired – two members called for dismissal, but the majority recommended suspension and demotion. However, that means that they were unanimous in their opinion that he was guilty of academic dishonesty. This is a critical piece of evidence. I have some small understanding of the CU/Boulder culture, and can tell you that tenured profs are going to be incredibly sensitive to political encroachments on academic freedom. Their decision in the Churchill case could potentially widen the door to future partisan attacks on unpopular (or misunderstood) scholarship, so my assumption is that Churchill received (as one committee member testified) “the great big benefit of the doubt.”

But wait, you say. They don’t hand out tenure like they would coupons for 10% off a burrito at Illegal Pete’s. How did Ward go from tenure-worthy scholar to dirty cheating whore overnight?

Right. And when all is said and done, I expect the jury to be sitting there convinced of two things. One, Churchill broke the rules and by that standard deserved to be turfed. Two, the process that brought the breach to light was the result of a politically motivated witch-hunt that violated every tenet of the academic freedom upon which our entire university system rests. (If you don’t believe the second part of this equation, let’s talk. I have some prime waterfront property in south-central Florida that’s ripe for development, and you may be just the slack-jawed hillbilly shrewd investor I’ve been looking for.) “Fruit of a poisoned tree” is a term you may have heard if you watch the average courtroom drama. Yes, the perp had the half-eaten remains of 12 murdered prostitutes hanging from hooks in his dayroom, but the cops didn’t have a warrant. So we have to find some way of getting him, and if that means a workaround or two, so be it. Light that torch and hand me my pitchfork, would you?

In sum, it’s a fascinating case that will ask the jurors to focus on the details of the law despite the overpowering stench of politics and, frankly, the fact that the plaintiff isn’t terribly cuddly. Let’s be honest – Ward Churchill is a jackass, although you and I probably think so for different reasons. Here’s mine. He had an opportunity to make an intelligent and altogether valid scholarly argument about the character of our system – and I’m not asking you to agree with the proposition, but merely to understand that such a thing would have been perfectly legitimate within the context of his job; however, instead of behaving like a tenured scholar at a flagship research one university he started lobbing firebombs. Fine. This was a calculated choice and he should have been prepared to deal with the inevitable consequences.

I can’t help thinking that you’d play hell trying to seat a jury that’s a) intellectually capable of tracking the arcane nuances surrounding the tenure and academic research processes, and b) remaining unbiased by the controversial things that Churchill has written and said. This isn’t necessarily a slam at the jury pool, either, because I imagine the case would be extremely difficult for me, as well.

My guess is that both sides have already drafted their respective notices of appeal.


  • Slippery slope here. In my opinion, if Churchill had tenure, he shouldn’t have been fired unless he committed a felony. But then again, you well know the hard ball politics at a university, especially one that has to answer to a bunch of legislators.


  • I believe one regent at CU likened what happened to Churchill as being pulled over for speeding and then being caught with drugs in the car. That’s not what happened. Churchill was pulled over for having a bumper sticker the cop didn’t like, then had his car taken apart piece by piece until they found a marijuana seed.

    That said, I have no patience for academic fraud. None whatsoever. I think those who have been found to have committed academic fraud should be immediately dismissed, and that includes students who cheat in any way. I’m fine with zero tolerance on this one.

    The outcome I would most like to see is that Churchill gets 86’d for academic fraud, then have a fine-tooth-comb, look-under-every-rock investigation of every other tenured faculty member at CU, as well as for every administrator and every regent. THAT would satisfy me about the selective enforcement aspect of Churchill’s firing, which is all that bothers me at this point.

  • churchill and norman finklestein are fired, but dershowitz remains tenured at harvard?…the moral computer just crashed…

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