04 April 2009

Churchill Wins, Now $1 Richer

A jury has found in favor of Ward Churchill in his lawsuit for wrongful termination against the University of Colorado. Some observations:

1) It turns out that Churchill is a surprisingly snappy dresser--especially since all I'd ever seen him wear before is t-shirts.

2) I think the jury found in favor of Churchill even though they didn't want to because they only rewarded him $1. Churchill is an abrasive jerk, but if he were wrongfully terminated he deserves more of a financial reward than that--and CU deserves more of a punitive damage responsibility than that. CU's spokesperson stated that the awarding of damages showed that "Churchill was not necessarily a figure to be revered." Congratulations, Capt. Obvious. I don't think someone who tells hard truths in such a brusque and contentious way is looking for reverence; Churchill's looking for change in the way American treats its neighbors and its citizens. People revere Churchill in spite of his best efforts: his writings, demeanor, borderline verbal abuse are directed--as far as I can tell--equally to those with whom he agrees and those with whom he disagrees/disregards. I mean, the man called people who'd recently died "little Eichmanns"; he's not looking for friends. He's looking to be a lightning rod, the avant garde of a radical, progressive movement (and it works...I mean, how many other Native American activists have you heard discussed on the news in the last five years?).

3) None of this changes the fact that Churchill violated some central tenets of academic ethics. He admitted wrong-doing in a statement about small-pox-infected blankets being used as biological warfare, and I respect that. It's a understandable mistake. But the thing he did that really, really, really bothers me, the thing that is unforgivable in my mind and that shows he is committing these errors with forethought and malice is the ghost-writing sham. It seems that he ghost-wrote two essays that appeared in the same 1992 volume edited by his then-wife (pdf): Robbins' "Self-Determination and Subordination: The Past, Present and Future of American Indian Governance" and Jaimes' "Federal Indian Identification Policy: A Usurpation of Indigenous Sovereignty in North America." He then later cited these as third-party independent corroboration for one of his own theories, making it seem as if there were a preponderance of evidence for it (turns out, the only other source he cites is a primary resource which does not support the claim he makes at all). That is dishonest and corrosive to any sort of standard of academic integrity and is something that I cannot cotton to. I'll defend a lot of what the guy does and says, but not this.

4) That being said, I'm not at all certain that it's enough of a result of a large-scale , politically-motivated witch-hunt to fire a guy. It wouldn't have even been noticed if it weren't for an investigation started in late-2004 and early-2005 when he was going to speak at Hamilton College. Here's the general timeline:
  • 1987-1994: Churchill wins the President's Service Award (1987), the Robert L. Stearns Award (1988), the Thomas Jefferson Award for Outstanding Service and Achievement (1990), the Excellence in Social Science Writing Award from the UC College of Arts and Sciences (1992), and the CU Faculty Assembly's Teaching Excellence Award (1994). (All of which you can find on his bloated cv.)
  • 12 September 2001: Churchill writes "'Some People Push Back': On the Justice of Roosting Chickens"
  • 2002: Churchill becomes the Chair of the CU Department of Ethnic Studies
  • 18 September 2003: The essay is expanded into a book called On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality
  • 2005: Churchill wins the Herd Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching in 2005, chosen by the UC student body
  • 26 January 2005: The Syracuse Post-Dispatch runs a story about Churchill coming to campus and the resistance he was getting. The AP picked it up.
  • 27 January 2005: Bob Beauprez, then a Republican Representative from Colorado, speaks out against Churchill, saying: "Unfortunately Mr. Churchill is a tenured professor who is apparently immune from any kind of sanctions from his employer...If he had any respect for the University of Colorado, he would immediately tender his resignation and offer an apology for his outrageous comments."
  • 28 January 2005: After Wall Street Journal articles like this one, his Eichmann comment hit the Internets with a vengeance.
  • 1 February 2005: Hamilton College cancels Churchill's speaking engagement that was planned for two day later, citing security concerns; the LA Times reports that Beauprez "has contacted university officials demanding Churchill's ouster."
  • 3 February 2005: Phil DiStefano repudiates Churchill's statements, defends his right to say it, and initiates an investigation to see if he "overstepped his bounds as a faculty member," that is if his conduct would "provide any grounds for dismissal for cause" and if "this conduct or speech protected by the First Amendment against University action."
  • 24 March 2005: DiStefano announces that they'd found the First Amendment protected Churchill's essay but decides "allegations of research misconduct, related to plagiarism, misuse of other’s work and fabrication, have sufficient merit to warrant further inquiry."
  • 29 March 2005: Colorado Governor Bill Owens went on The O'Reilly Factor and said this about the investigation on Churchill's academic integrity: "I do have some budget authority over the budget. I have some bully pulpit authority. And that's why I said he should be fired from day one. Now they're involved in the process that I think will ultimately lead to him being fired, but in a way that's going to be able to stand up in court....Under the rules of tenure...in order to fire Ward Churchill, they have to go through a procedure. And the procedure is what they've now started. I disagree that they can't put as part of that--part of the issue--what he actually said."
It's pretty obvious from the timeline that the investigation was politically motivated (literally). Immediately after the to-do about the essay in early 2005, things began to happen. There is not only a drastic change between the honors he received at CU before and during the furor and the first investigation that began on 3 February 2005, but there is also a tacit admission by DiStefano that the investigation was in response to Churchill's "repugnant" words, which was already being discussed on conservative radio and by Republican politicians who controlled the purse-strings for CU. If there's doubt, notice that on 3 February, CU says it will investigate if Churchill "overstepped his bounds as a faculty member." Specifically they wanted to see if his conduct would "provide any grounds for dismissal for cause" and if "this conduct or speech protected by the First Amendment against University action." (Churchill contends the answer was obvious (DiStefano "discovered, apparently to his surprise, that all of Prof. Churchill’s writings and speeches are protected by the First Amendment"), but I think CU had the right to investigate because it wasn't that cut-and-dried.)

The 3 February investigation found nothing, but when they announced that they'd found nothing, they subtly changed the wording of what they said they would look for. On 24 March, DiStefano announced that they'd been looking at two things:
"First, did certain statements by Professor Churchill exceed the boundaries of protected speech?"
"Second, is there evidence that Professor Churchill engaged in other conduct that warrants further action by the University--such as research misconduct, teaching misconduct, or fraudulent misrepresentation in performing his duties?" (emphasis mine)
That second point is subtly but importantly different from the one DiStefano made on 3 February. Back then, CU was going to look to see if Churchill's essay would "provide any grounds for dismissal for cause" and if this "conduct or speech [was] protected by the First Amendment against University action." There is no discussion of teaching or research "misconduct" or "fraudulent misrepresentation"--neither of which would be covered by the First Amendment anyway. (You'd think that David Getches, the dean of the frickin' CU Law School and one of the three on the investigative committee might have realized that). Luckily for Limbaugh, Owen, Hannity, Beauprez, and O'Reilly (and, technically, DiStefano since he was in a damn tight spot), the new emphasis (in which Churchill contends they actively sought allegations against him, though there's no substantiation of that claim) turns up "allegations of research misconduct, related to plagiarism, misuse of other’s work and fabrication, have sufficient merit to warrant further inquiry." The truth is, if you look closely enough at an author with an enormous oeuvre (like Harold Bloom, Savloj Žižek, or David Horowitz), I bet you'll find some irregularities. Hell, even Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin have had some problems with these issues. It's obvious that CU found some troubling facts, but it's also as (if not more) troubling that the whole thing was politically motivated. They should have definitely removed him as Chair (but he stepped down from it voluntarily). This whole brouhaha--if not for the speech issue that CU tries to pretend wasn't a part of the investigation--would not have demanded any more action.

5) The attorney for CU said this in his closing arguments:
"There's the real university world, and there’s Ward Churchill's world...Ward Churchill's world is a place where there are no standards and no accountability."
I think Churchill would agree with this statement. As a Native American and a Vietnam vet he's probably seen the standards and accountability that white, polite society has extended. We promised Native Americans things and then reneged. Vietnam veterans often suffered from the stigma of being a part of an unpopular war--even if they were drafted--and endured poor and neglectful medical treatment at the hands of the VA when implicit in being s soldier is the promise that you will be respected and taken care of. Patrick O’Rourke, CU's lawyer further said that Churchill "was using the Constitution as a smokescreen. 'You can’t take the First Amendment and use it to justify fraud.'" Unfortunately, the Constitution has been about as tangible and real as a smokescreen to a lot of Americans (Black slaves, women, Native Americans, Chinese in 19th-century American West, etc.), but mostly it has been used to justify fraud--not just the First Amendment but the entire Constitution and Bill of Rights. (It's been a great moral, ethical, and functional center for most of us [here, oddly enough, I agree with Allan Bloom's thesis in The Closing of the American Mind], but what troubles me is not that we should be demanding American citizens conform to its standards and dictates but instead that its standards and dictates have been inconsistently applied--especially to those who "count." It postulates an implicit ideal citizen, but that citizen is (or at least was) White and male. The saving grace of the Constitution is its constant state of flux; as soon as it was created, it was changed, and it has been changed periodically ever since.) But for people who haven't received the full protections that the Constitution was supposed to afford them, I can see how malleable and inconstant it might seem: if it can be bent and twisted for what he sees as purposes against him, why can't it be bent and twisted for his own purposes?

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