The welcome news that Ward Churchill has been removed from the University of Colorado faculty is blighted by the fact that the means used has allowed the university to avoid the much larger problem that Churchill’s conduct pointed to. It was in early 2005 that the public learned of, and was appalled by, excerpts from an essay that had been posted on the web by Churchill, a full Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, on the subject of 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now, over two years later, Churchill has been fired after due process within the university for plagiarism and falsification of research. But what the public heard and responded to was not fabrication and plagiarism. Though these are certainly legitimate grounds for a dismissal, they could never have attracted the attention of the public, still less caused a widespread sense that something must be horribly wrong with a university that employed such a man as a professor.
The ACLU, basing itself on this undeniable discrepancy between the furor of the public’s response and the narrow grounds of the decision, has charged that the firing is illegitimate because the real motive is nothing to do with the ostensible reason that has been given for the university’s action. But that charge makes no sense. Al Capone may have been jailed for tax evasion when his far more serious offense was racketeering, but he was certainly guilty as charged, and so is Ward Churchill. Yet in both cases the limited grounds had the effect of removing one man from the scene while leaving a larger systemic problem untouched.
The manner of Churchill’s dismissal clearly sidestepped the issues that the public was so disturbed by. The ACLU maintains that the public furor was caused only by Churchill’s unpopular political opinions. Again, it is wrong. Far left political expression by professors is nothing new to the American public – Noam Chomsky’s views are just as extreme and unpopular, but they do not lead to calls for his dismissal. What the public reacted to was something much more than this. All of their own experience of what their teachers and professors had sounded like told them that the man they heard should never under any circumstances have been a professor at a major university.
Let’s look at a few examples of the kind of language and thought that brought them immediately to that conclusion. Here is Churchill commenting on Madeline Albright: “…that malignant toad known as Madeline Albright, squatting in her studio chair like Jabba the Hutt, blandly spewing the news that she’d imposed a collective death sentence upon the unoffending youth of Iraq.” Or take Churchill on the FBI: it has “proven quite adept at framing anarchists, communists and Black Panthers, sometimes murdering them in their beds or the electric chair. The Bureau’s SWAT units have displayed their ability to combat child abuse in Waco by burning babies alive.” Or Churchill on the American military: “They are preparing once again to sally forth for the purpose of roasting brown-skinned children by the scores of thousands.” Or, in the piece most familiar to everyone by now, Churchill on the thousands who suffered horrible deaths in the twin towers on 9/11: they were “busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.”
People who heard this were struck by the huge gulf that separated it from their memories of their own teachers. They remembered those teachers always pressing them to write more carefully, and to think in a more disciplined way. They remembered the time that had been devoted to curing them of the bad habits of the uneducated: reckless generalization, inflammatory language, question-begging, bad inference, and more. Yet here they saw a man with the title of professor at a world class university, writing and speaking in a way that would have got them an F even in a freshman class. They could see plainly that the level of Churchill’s writing and thought were the lowest imaginable. Their experience placed him not with the careful speech and thought of their teachers, but rather with the crude and incoherent ranting of a drunk in a bar. How could this man possibly be a professor? He would surely be unable to function in the way that the position demands: he sounded completely and utterly incompetent. This was the basis of the public’s shocked reaction, not plagiarism.
But that reaction on the part of the public leads immediately to one question after another, and those questions raise ever broader issues. What kind of university department appoints such a man, sees him at work day after day, and far from understanding its error promotes him to full professor? How can the university’s quality control mechanisms have broken down so completely – why was there no intervention by a dean, and how could the dean have appointed him as department chair? When Churchill’s essay became public knowledge, why did the campus so conspicuously lag behind the public in condemning this incoherent nonsense? Had the campus simply come to accept this kind of degradation of its standards? If so, how many more Ward Churchills are there on campus? And the broadest question of all: to what extent are tests of competence and coherence now replaced by tests of ideological conformity in those parts of the nation’s colleges and universities that have been colonized by radical political activism and ideology?
These were the issues that the public saw in Ward Churchill’s crude rant and the initial lack of campus concern, and those that the university sidestepped when it fired him for plagiarism and fabrication of research. An individual was removed, but the larger problems of which he was a symptom remained. A department that thought this an acceptable standard for the professoriate will not be placed in receivership, a dean that let it happen on his watch will not be fired for dereliction of duty, a provost who did not ensure that he had appointed deans of adequate backbone will not be replaced, and so on up the line. The whole corrupted system will be left in place – just as it was when Al Capone’s empire survived his jailing on a peripheral charge. That is why we can offer only two cheers for a dismissal that would have been fully justified on other and far more important grounds, grounds which would have amounted to an admission that Churchill was part of an infinitely larger and more serious problem than plagiarism. The university was lucky to be able to solve a problem it could not avoid (Churchill’s presence on campus) without touching the wider one; the public was not so lucky.