Ward Churchill And The ACLU

The Regents of the University of Colorado are meeting to determine Ward Churchill’s fate tomorrow, July 24th. The ACLU has written the University of Colorado arguing against Ward Churchill’s firing. This isn’t surprising – its letter repeats a central canard in the case – that the Churchill investigation was merely a pretext for larger, sinister pressures:

It is undisputed, however, that Professor Churchill’s views are protected by the First Amendment, and cannot serve as a legal basis for any adverse employment action. Nevertheless the University soon launched the investigation of Professor Churchill’s scholarship in an effort to find more defensible grounds for sanctioning him.

Churchill defenders willfully conflate all elements of the proceedings against Churchill – “the University” you notice, is here presented as judge, jury, and (perhaps) executioner. No difference is admitted in agency or person between the submission of a complaint as to Churchill’s work, and the creation of a University panel looking into the question; the processes are looked upon as one and the same. The timing of the complaint about Churchill’s research is viewed as an ineradicable taint, no matter what they unearth or how often they address the question directly of the reason for inquiry. Consider the Standing Committee on Research and Misconduct’s statement here:

As we have already described, a cloud has hung over this investigation from its inception due to questions about the timing of the allegations. Many, including Professor Churchill himself, have asked why the charges were not investigated years ago. The simple answer on which the SCRM has proceeded is that the research misconduct investigation process has to be initiated by a written complaint, and no such complaint had been received by the committee until March of 2005. Had Professors Brown, Cohen, or LaVelle presented the information (that they provided to the Chancellor’s ad hoc committee in March of 2005) to the SCRM at some earlier point, the same sort of investigation would have ensued years earlier.

The ACLU is not placated – and has not stopped amassing criticisms – all designed to embellish the impression of a valiant free-thinker battling a united University administration. In speaking about the case, Churchill defenders execute a near-pirouette, fully in evidence; exculpatory evidence from the various stages of the investigation is unspooled, but proofs that the University has undertaken these numerous levels of review, (involving, in my count, over twenty judgments from individual professors and panel members) are skipped over in order to provide a better image of a top-down right-wing rush to lynch Churchill. Another paragraph from the letter offers a prime example of this cherry-picking tendency.

The investigative committee found six charges of research misconduct to be sustained. The Appeals Panel of the Privilege and Tenure Committee concluded that only three of those were valid. Only one member of the five-member investigative committee believed that dismissal was an appropriate sanction, and a majority of the appeals panel concluded that termination was not warranted. Despite these conclusions, the University President has recommended termination, thus urging the same result as the elected officials who publicly called for Professor Churchill’s termination in 2005. The current Governor of Colorado has now added his voice to those clamoring for Professor Churchill to be fired.

The nutshell account offers academic dissenters on one side and a right-wing administration/governor on the other. Of course the ACLU would present the case in this fashion – a fuller accounting of the process offers a considerably more damning portrait of Churchill. Now, it’s true that the stages of review failed to yield a decisive conclusion – this has proven the substantive cause for the Board of Trustees’ involvement. The initial investigating committee offered a variety of recommendations: one for termination, four for some sort of suspension. The Standing Committee on Research and Misconduct (the ACLU skips this stage) offered a mixed, but much stiffer recommendation – six votes for dismissal and six votes for suspensions of varying length. The appeal committee, as the ACLU letter cited, did weigh on Churchill’s behalf. And this left only “three charges” standing? “Falsification”, “fabrication”, and “plagiarism.” Oh, only those three.

The University of Colorado has proceeded very deliberately, with multiple levels of review. Boards of Trustees are typically established as forums for final review. The session tomorrow can most easily be seen as an outgrowth of these processes, rather than the Inquisition tribunal that the ACLU presents. The sober march of academic proceedings is a story that doesn’t suit their preferred mythology. But when it comes to Ward Churchill, myth has always been a steady companion.


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