Revolution #48, May 28, 2006

Footnote Police Demand Blood:
Ward Churchill Ruling

A five-member investigative panel put together by the University of Colorado last summer has recommended that Ethnic Studies professor Ward Churchill—who became the target of two governors and a mob of right-wing columnists and talk show fascists fifteen months ago for remarks he made after 9/11—be either suspended for two to five years, or fired.

The panel's investigation and findings supposedly focused on Churchill’s alleged academic misconduct in research. But everything about this investigation has been politically motivated. As a columnist in the Rocky Mountain News put it, “Let’s be honest. You don’t care if Churchill plagiarized. The governor [of Colorado] isn’t calling for Churchill to quit because he willfully misrepresented facts in his footnotes.”

The decision to investigate Churchill for “academic misconduct” in the first place was illegitimate. It arose not out of a complaint about his scholarship, but as a result of demands that Churchill be driven from the academy, or the academic world, for his political views. After Churchill was invited to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York in February 2005, an essay he wrote after 9/11 became the subject of a massive right-wing outcry.

Churchill’s invitation to speak was withdrawn, the administrator who invited him was removed from her position, and Churchill became the target of death threats. Colorado Governor Bill Owens went on the O’Reilly Factor and called for Churchill to be fired, “because of his words and his actions, which I think are inconsistent with what we stand for in Colorado and at the University of Colorado.” In other words, someone should not be allowed to teach at a college in Colorado unless they conform to the highly conservative governor’s political standards of “what we stand for.” The President of the university was forced to resign after saying she feared a “new McCarthyism” in the uproar over Ward Churchill and added, “We are in dangerous times again.”

In an effort to fine-tune the attack, David Horowitz, the hit man devoted to purging the universities of critical thinking and dissent, publicly advised Colorado politicians and university administrators not to fire Churchill for his political statements, but to fire him for “academic misconduct” instead. Responding on cue, political enemies of Churchill flooded the university with a collection of mostly old and already considered complaints about plagiarism, misrepresentation of facts, inaccurate footnotes, etc., in his scholarship, which became the rationale for this investigation into academic misconduct. Two of the faculty first picked for the committee were removed when it was concluded that they might support Churchill.

And when, in the midst of this, Churchill was voted “Favorite Professor” by the students at the University of Colorado-Boulder campus, the alumni association withheld the award. As soon as the investigation began, public pressure was applied to ensure the “right” outcome, in the form of an extensive “investigation” of and “verdicts” on each of the charges, carried out through the pages of the local press.

In an article titled “Footnote Police vs. Ward Churchill” at the website “Inside Higher Ed,” John K. Wilson says:

“By stretching the meaning of ‘research misconduct’ far beyond its true definition, and by supporting the suspension and even dismissal of a tenured professor for his use of footnotes, the Colorado committee is opening the door to a vast new right-wing witch hunt on college campuses that conservatives could easily exploit across the country. If you don’t like a professor’s politics, simply file a complaint of ‘research misconduct.’”

In its own report, the committee admits that “...this investigation was only commenced after, and perhaps in response to, the public attacks on Professor Churchill for his controversial publications….Thus, the Committee is troubled by the origins of, and skeptical concerning the motives for, the current investigation.”

Others have drawn a conclusion from the origins of this investigation. “One has to ask why the process was initiated,” one professor pointed out in comments following an article in the online journal “The threat to academic freedom is precisely in the use of even fair procedures as a means to silence those with a particular viewpoint.”

It needs to be said straight up that conducting this investigation has done far greater harm, and constitutes a far greater danger, than any evidence of research misconduct this committee may have discovered. Whether bludgeoned or suckered into carrying out this investigation, the members of this committee have allowed themselves to be used in service of a concerted effort to shut down the universities as one of the few remaining spaces where critical thinking in pursuit of the truth has still been able to be carried out without being subordinated to governmental authority or political or religious indoctrination.

In an “Open Letter From Concerned Academics” entitled “Defend Dissent and Critical Thinking On Campus,” hundreds of scholars around the country have said that:

“The Churchill case is not an isolated incident but a concentrated example of a well-orchestrated campaign launched in the name of ‘academic freedom’ and ‘balance’ which in fact aims to purge the universities of more radical thinkers and oppositional thought generally, and to create a climate of intimidation. While the right-wing claim that the universities are ‘left-wing dictatorships’ is specious beyond belief, it is unfortunately true that the campus remains one of the few surviving refuges of critical thinking and dissent in this country. This is something to defend and strengthen.”

Powerful forces tightening their grip over this country have drawn the conclusion that the whole idea of critical thinking that searches for a deeper understanding of reality, threatens this imperialist system and their pursuit of a greater world empire. And it is an impediment to radical reconfiguration of the “home front,” including cohering society around know-nothing Christian fascism. And so the Bush regime is determined to establish and enforce coherence around a new set of very reactionary, fundamentalist norms.

Horowitz and his new book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, have been given the royal treatment on Fox’s Hannity and Colmes and Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. And according to the “Footnote…” article referred to above, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (founded by Lynne Cheney, the wife of the Vice President) “just issued a report on ‘How Many Ward Churchills?,’ proclaiming that ‘professors are using their classrooms to push political agendas.’ ACTA’s alleged proof that Ward Churchills are ‘common’ on college campuses is a survey of course catalogs and syllabi, objecting to classes that mention social justice, sex, or race.” This University of Colorado committee report will send a chill not just through academia, but through society. It will embolden the Horowitzians and their campus brownshirts to step up their hounding and harassing of progressive and radical scholars whose voices need to be heard within, and beyond, the universities.

With so much at stake, attacks like this one on Ward Churchill cannot be allowed to stand. The “Open Letter” proposed a template resolution to be taken up by faculty groups around the country, which said:

“Resolved, that the attempt, escalated by government authority, to fire Ward Churchill and the trial by media which he is undergoing amount to a serious assault on dissent, critical inquiry, and academic freedom, and a heightening of the repressive atmosphere in American society overall. This attack is intolerable and must stop now. The precedents already set in this case—that a professor can be publicly pilloried and threatened with dismissal for what he writes—must not be allowed to stand. The University of Colorado Board of Regents must drop any effort to fire Churchill, cease its spurious investigation into his body of work and repudiate its actions up to now; and all colleges and universities must reaffirm, in word and deed, their commitment to defend critical thinking.”

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