One thing I kind of admired or respected was that, even though the world may disagree with what Ward Churchill said, even though it was very painful to people, I do respect that he can stand up for what he believes in… He never issued an apology because he doesn’t feel one was needed.
— Juror Bethany Newill, at the Denver Post, 4/4/09.
On April 2, a jury in Denver rendered its verdict in the case of Ward Churchill. The jury agreed with former University of Colorado (CU) professor Ward Churchill—and the many distinguished scholars in his field of Native American studies who testified on his behalf—that he was fired in July, 2007 not for faulty scholarship but in retaliation for a controversial essay he wrote after 9/11. There’s been extensive and continuing coverage in the major media of the decision’s impact. And this is an indication of the significance and great stakes for the battle to defend dissent and critical thinking in academia, and ultimately in society. The essence of the case from the very beginning was the political persecution by a major university of a controversial professor, scholar, and activist—that’s what the jury confirmed. The jury’s verdict is a significant setback for forces hell-bent on suppressing and stifling dissent and critical thinking on campuses.
The jury also awarded $1 in damages. Five out of the six jurors argued to pay Ward Churchill more in damages, but the jury as a whole could not agree. A juror who spoke to the press later explained their decision: “…it wasn’t a slap in his face or anything like that when we didn’t give him any money. It’s just that David Lane (Churchill’s attorney) kept saying this wasn’t about the money, and in the end, we took his word for that.”1 Professor Churchill said: “What was asked for—and what was delivered—was justice.”
Witch-hunt on Trial
There were two elements the jury had to determine in rendering its verdict: did the majority of the Board of Regents of CU fire Professor Churchill principally because of his post-9/11 essay? And even if they did, was Churchill correct that he would not have been fired for other reasons—that is the alleged research misconduct?
Ward Churchill was a tenured professor of American Indian Studies and Chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at CU-Boulder (2002-2005). In January 2005, his invitation to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York suddenly became the target of right wing forces, the governors of New York and Colorado, and radio and TV figures like Bill O’Reilly, because of a sharply worded essay Churchill had written three years earlier, right after 9/11. This essay was critical of the U.S. role in the world and included a formulation about how those people who worked as functionaries for the large corporations with offices in the World Trade Center were “little Eichmanns”—a reference to the functionaries of the Nazi regime.
The speech was cancelled, and numerous politicians, including the governor of Colorado, called for Churchill to be fired. After first launching an investigation of all of Churchill’s writings to find a reason to fire him, the university changed gears, put together a collection of mainly old complaints about aspects of his large body of work, and formed a faculty committee (IC) to investigate. In July 2007, Churchill was fired by the university Regents, who pointed to the IC’s findings of “serious research misconduct,” though the IC had only recommended suspension.
Among the “heavy-hitters” behind Professor Churchill’s firing who were called as witnesses was former Republican governor Bill Owens. Juror Bethany Newill described the testimony this way: “We’d seen depositions of previous testimony, and we found that a lot of them contradicted themselves.” In speaking of Governor Owens she said: “He had gone on the Bill O’Reilly show and mentioned threatening the budget” [that he might cut CU’s state funding if they didn’t get rid of Churchill]; “On the stand, he said that wasn’t what he was doing, but that was clearly what I saw.”
There was remarkable testimony by Betsy Hoffman, who’d been president of the University of Colorado from 2000 until resigning in March of 2005, shortly after the controversy broke out. One observer at the trial described Dr. Hoffman’s testimony where she described a conversation she had “with the Governor [Owens] where she said he told her to fire Ward Churchill ‘tomorrow,’ that his tone was ‘threatening,’ and that if she didn’t he would ‘unleash his plan.’”2
Churchill’s attorney, David Lane, asked Dr. Hoffman about the comparison of the treatment of Professor Churchill to neo-McCarthyism that she’d made in a speech to a faculty committee less than a week before resigning:
“She said that the list of the 101 Worst Professors in the Country by David Horowitz3 was an example of this type of targeting, and pointed out that list included Mr. Churchill and some ‘very highly regarded academics, like Derrick Bell, who were espousing controversial left-wing views.’
“Dr. Hoffman… began researching where some of the criticism of Mr. Churchill was coming from. She found a website for ACTA, an organization the Colorado Chapter of which Governor Owens and Senator Hank Brown had been founding members. The organization encouraged members to ‘take a very active role in reducing the left-wing bias in universities.’ Once ACTA became involved in an ‘all out assault’ on CU and Mr. Churchill during February 2005, Dr. Hoffman assumed that the action was part of the ‘plan’ ‘unleashed’ by Governor Owens….
“Mr. Lane asked if she saw a link between the 9/11 essay becoming publicized and ACTA working in concert with the right-wing media to paint Mr. Churchill as an example of ‘what’s wrong with academia in this country’ and Dr. Hoffman indicated that this was her impression at the time… ‘It was an all-out assault on Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado, and me,’ she testified.”2 (emphasis added)
The jury concluded political motivations were principal among the majority of Regents in the decision to fire Churchill. The question remained; would Professor Churchill have been fired for research misconduct anyway?
Experts in American Indian Studies and Indian Law Testify
Many scholars, experts in Professor Churchill’s field of American Indian Studies testified on his behalf, disagreeing with most of the IC’s findings and conclusions. Professor Eric Cheyfitz, Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters at Cornell University, had only met Churchill in 2007, but was familiar with his scholarship and held it in high regard. He said his reaction to the IC report, as elaborated in his extensive recent essay, “Framing Ward Churchill: The Political Construction of Research Misconduct,”4 was that the charges were “fundamentally baseless and motivated by the political circumstances surrounding the 9/11 essay.” He then went on to challenge each of the committee’s findings.
Dr. Barbara Alice Mann, an eminent historian, teacher and writer at the University of Toledo, is a Native American and author of nine books. Her latest, The Gift of Disease, includes a chapter on the 1837 smallpox epidemic that destroyed the Mandan Indians of the Great Plains. Dr. Mann’s testimony contradicted the IC’s report—saying there was indeed a “reasonable basis” for Churchill’s claim that the smallpox epidemic was a result of blankets taken from an infirmary in St. Louis, and the claim that army doctors at Fort Clark told the infected Indians to scatter.
This is just a glimpse of how fundamentally flawed, how politically motivated, and how damaging to historical scholarship and the search for the truth this whole investigation was. Research by Revolution reveals that in November of 2006, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter at CU-Boulder had written the university, saying out of Churchill’s more than twenty books and hundreds of articles, chapters, speeches, and electronic communications, the committee investigating Churchill’s work studied six pages of his writings. The IC offered no evidence that they were even familiar with the bulk of Churchill’s work, yet they made claims from a tiny sample of evidence that he “deliberately” engaged in research misconduct; that there was a “pattern” of such misconduct, and that he “has repeatedly plagiarized, as well as fabricated and falsified information to support his views on American Indian history.” Nevertheless, their findings have been used to destroy Churchill’s reputation as a scholar, and to delegitimize basic verdicts about the genocide of the native peoples.
After weeks spent listening to testimony about Churchill’s scholarship, juror Newill concluded: “I definitely saw where [the university] was coming from on a few of them,” but in other instances, “I thought they had really weak arguments. To me, it just seemed like the charges were trumped up. And even if all of those things were true, we didn’t feel that was the reason for termination.”2
In a New York Times essay on April 5, 2009, Stanley Fish, a highly recognized professor in the U.S., wrote that the accusations that the committee investigated “are the kind scholars regularly hurl at their polemical opponents. It’s part of the game. But in most cases, after you’ve trashed the guy’s work in a book or a review, you don’t get to fire him.” Fish then observed, like many other scholars, “…if the standards for dismissal adopted by the Churchill committee were generally in force, hardly any of us professors would have jobs.” He added, “There is… a disconnect in the report between its often nuanced considerations of the questions raised in and by Churchill’s work, and the conclusion, announced in a parody of a judicial verdict, that he has committed crimes worthy of dismissal, if not of flogging.”5
The battle to defeat the political persecution of Ward Churchill is far from over. CU has a month to appeal the verdict; and it is up to the judge to decide whether CU will be ordered to pay Churchill’s attorneys’ fees, to award Churchill his lost wages, and to require the university to give Churchill his job back, which has been at the heart of his demands from the beginning. CU officials are expressing strong opposition to his returning to campus.
Beyond that, there is also a great deal at stake for academia and for society overall right now in upholding and defending this verdict, and deepening its lessons. An ugly, high-stakes public witch-hunt by dangerous, reactionary, and powerful forces, aimed at spreading a repressive chill over the universities, has been dragged into the light, and dealt a setback. But these forces, far from retreating, are regrouping, and trying to turn the meaning of this verdict on its head.
To them, Professor Churchill remains the “poster-boy for academic irresponsibility in both substance and style,” as the Chairman of the conservative National Association of Scholars put it in “NAS Regrets Ward Churchill Verdict.” John Leo, senior fellow at the ruling class think tank the Manhattan Institute, calls Churchill’s scholarship “hideous and embarrassing,” blaming the university for hiring, “for diversity reasons, an unprepared, erratic, ideologue with no sense of fairness and no academic credentials…” And Ann Neal, president of ACTA, says “shock, hurt, and even anger are surely natural reactions to the recent jury determination,” but promises that “ACTA is here to help” all those trustees strongly motivated to respond.
With stakes so high, a robust debate is called for with those within and outside academia that have accepted these twisted distortions, now discredited by the Denver verdict. Roger W. Bowen, who was head of the AAUP when the Churchill attack was in full swing, practically brags in the Wall Street Journal that he did nothing in response to requests for assistance from “his [Churchill’s] loyal spouse, Natsu Taylor Saito.” Bowen says, “When Churchill invokes ‘academic freedom’ as a protection for scholarly fraud, he dishonors a noble tradition that appropriately defends honest scholars who bravely challenge conventional wisdom.”6 What is this other than continuing to cling to the same distortions coming from the likes of academic hit man David Horowitz; ACTA; William Bennett and company.
In a supplement to Revolution Issue #81, “Warning: The Nazification of the American University” we wrote that powerful, right wing forces in this country have set out to transform university administrations into instruments of coercive enforcement and control over faculty and students—intimidating, threatening, and “cleaning house” of dissident thinkers when called on to do so, while leaving scholars under attack to fend for themselves. These right wing forces attacking the university are “out to turn the university into a zone of uncontested indoctrination, where severe limits would be placed on permissible discourse—in terms of professors speaking out, writing, or encouraging engagement over controversial issues in the classroom, etc.; and in terms of restricting and gutting programs like African American studies, women’s studies, etc., that challenge and refute the official narratives and explanations of U.S. history and present-day inequality and global lopsidedness.”
And further: “The overall objective of this attack on dissent and critical thinking is to change the university as we have known it: in its internal life and functioning and in its effects on society. If this reactionary program wins out, the university will be turning out students who will have had little, if any, opportunity to think critically, into a society qualitatively more severely repressive than anything seen in this country’s history.”
The challenge to administrators, faculty, and especially students is to stand up to this assault. And broader segments of society must join with them. We must continue to defend those like Ward Churchill when they are singled out for attack, and, more generally, defend the ability of professors to hold dissenting and radical views. It is vitally important that the new generation of students step forward to defend an unfettered search for the truth, intellectual ferment, and dissent. One way or another, this struggle over the university and intellectual life will have profound repercussions on what U.S. society will be like, and on the prospects for bringing a whole new society into being.
- Michael Roberts, “Juror Bethany Newill talks about the Ward Churchill trial,” Denver Westword, 4/3/09. [↩]
- From a blog of law school observers of the trial, theracetothebottom.org. [↩] [↩] [↩]
- Referring to the book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. [↩]
- In Carvalho, Edward J. and David B. Downing, eds., Works and Days: Academic Freedom and Intellectual Activism in the Post-9/11 University 51/52.26 (Spring/Fall 2008). [↩]
- Stanley Fish, New York Times, 4/5/09. [↩]
- “Freedom, but for Honest Research,” Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2009. [↩]