Revolution #52, June 25, 2006


Stop the Witch Hunt Against Ward Churchill

The Standing Committee on Research Misconduct at the University of Colorado at Boulder voted 6 to 3 this week to recommend that Ethnic Studies Professor Ward Churchill be fired. In doing so it went beyond the conclusions of four out of the five members of its own investigative committee appointed to look into the charges, who called for Churchill to be suspended for 2 to 5 years. The university administration may now move rapidly to put the final touches on a vicious witch hunt that started over 16 months ago—aimed at driving Professor Churchill from the university, destroying his reputation and career, and delivering a chilling message to radical and progressive faculty on college campuses across the country to “watch what you say, watch what you write.” It remains for the provost and the dean of arts and sciences to send a final recommendation to Interim Chancellor DiStefano.

This is the same interim chancellor that has guided the attack against Churchill within the Boulder community from the beginning. In the spring of 2005, two hundred Boulder faculty published a statement criticizing his call for a month-long investigation to see whether Professor Churchill could be fired—or arrested—for the political content of his writings. This came in response to demands by the governors of Colorado and New York, giving governmental legitimacy to a howling mob whipped up by right-wing newspaper and talk show commentators nationwide, that Churchill be punished for comments he wrote after 9/11. Then, on the public advice of self-appointed academic hit-man David Horowitz, DiStefano shifted the form of the attack and announced that Churchill would be investigated on charges of research misconduct instead. Who was bringing this complaint of misconduct? Interim Chancellor DiStefano himself—who cobbled together various accusations of research misconduct against Churchill, some over a decade old and already heard, into a complaint. The report of the investigating committee itself expresses concern about DiStefano’s role in bringing the complaint as possibly a violation of the laws of the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado. But instead of refusing to be pawns in a politically motivated attack, the faculty investigative committee went ahead.

Their committee, chaired by former assistant attorney general of the State of Texas, Marianne Wesson, concluded that Churchill “has committed serious, repeated and deliberate research misconduct.” But the reality is that this whole attack—and the decision to fire Churchill—has nothing to do with Churchill’s scholarship and everything to do with establishing a new repressive order on the universities in the wake of 9/11 that would crush dissent and critical thinking that challenges the official doctrine about this country’s history and international role in the world. The whole attack and this decision is sending a chill through the academic world. It is extremely important that people inside and outside the academic world get very clear about the seriousness of what is happening, and step into the battle to condemn this witch hunt and demand that this decision be reversed, that all these accusations be dismissed, and that Churchill be reinstated to his academic position with full standing.

In a six-page letter titled “Summary of Fallacies,” Professor Churchill condemns the report as “punishment for constitutionally protected speech,” criticizes the makeup of the committee and the way it went about the investigation, and responds to each of their findings. He concludes, “I have published some two dozen books, 70 book chapters and scores of articles containing a combined total of approximately 12,000 footnotes. I doubt that any even marginally prolific scholar’s publications could withstand the type of scrutiny to which mine has been subjected.” And he sees this decision as “but the latest volley in a national, indeed international, campaign to discredit those who think critically and who bring alternative perspectives to their research.” The report “is designed to send a clear message to all scholars: Lay low. Do not challenge orthodoxy. If you do, expect to be targeted for elimination…”

On cue, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) published a report in recent weeks entitled “How Many Ward Churchills?” Hiding behind this seemingly scholarly name, ACTA is a vicious, right wing outfit started by the Vice President’s wife, Lynne Cheney, and Senator Joe Lieberman, and is now headed by Ann Neal, the wife of influential conservative Congressman Tom Petri, with people like William Bennett and Ward Connerly on their advisory board. If you think the report is interested in the problem of poor footnoting or other forms of “research misconduct,” think again. Churchill is described in the opening paragraph as a “veritable poster boy of extremists in American academe.” This report, on the basis of the flimsiest and most superficial investigation of courses at the top 25 private colleges and the schools of the Big Ten and Big Twelve conferences, concludes that “the kinds of politically extreme opinions for which [Churchill] has become justly famous are not only quite common in academe, but enthusiastically embraced and rewarded by it.” Their proof? Faculty that are allowed to teach courses dealing with the issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, globalization, capitalism, American hegemony, oppression, and the destruction of the environment. And in addition, they particularly single out for attack courses dealing with “justice”! Together with David Horowitz, who has just published The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, the strategy of these highly placed political promoters of the Bush regime’s extreme agenda is to wage a cultural war on the university—one of the areas of society where critical thinking is still taking place and which is seen as a threat to the official orthodoxy justifying the U.S.’s drive for empire. Their goal is nothing less than to threaten, intimidate, and persecute radical and critically thinking scholars into silence.

As we said in our previous coverage of the investigative committee’s findings (“Footnote Police Demand Blood: Ward Churchill Ruling,” Revolution #48, May 28, 2006), “It needs to be said 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.” The fact that the perpetrators of this witch hunt were able to get a faculty committee to conduct this investigation has given the appearance that this is a verdict of Churchill’s peers, his fellow faculty. It has given a thin veneer of legitimacy to a blatant political assault unleashed from the highest levels of power. To some degree it has cast doubt and confusion where there should be no confusion at all about what this whole attack has been about.

Professor Thomas Mayer, a member of the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and faculty research associate of the Institute of Behavioral Science, has carefully studied the report and issued his own findings in “The Report on Ward Churchill.” He concludes: “The central flaw in the report is grotesque exaggeration about the magnitude and gravity of the improprieties committed by Ward Churchill. The sanctions recommended by the investigating committee are entirely out of whack with those imposed upon such luminaries as Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Lawrence Tribe all of whom committed plagiarisms far more egregious than anything attributed to Professor Churchill.”

Mayer points out that to make claims of fabrication and falsification “stretches the meaning of these words almost beyond recognition. Fabrication implies an intent to deceive. There is not a shred of evidence that the writings of Ward Churchill contain any assertion that he himself did not believe. The language used in the report repeatedly drifts in an inflammatory direction: disagreement becomes misinterpretation, misinterpretation becomes misrepresentation, misinterpretation becomes falsification. Ward may be wrong about who was considered an Indian under the General Allotment Act of 1887 or about the origins of the 1837-1840 smallpox epidemic among the Indians of the northern plains, but the report does not establish that only a lunatic or a liar could reach his conclusions on the basis of available evidence.”

Mayer also says that “The charges of fabrication and falsification all derive from short fragments of articles within much longer articles. The report devotes 44 pages to discussing the 1837-1840 smallpox epidemic. One might think that Ward had written an entire book on this subject. In fact this issue occupies no more than three paragraphs in any of his writings. In each of the six essays cited in the report, all reference to this epidemic could have been dropped without substantially weakening the argument.”

Mayer concludes that “If any of the sanctions recommended by the investigating committee are put into effect, it will constitute a stunning blow to academic freedom. Such punishment will show that a prolific, provocative, and highly influential thinker can be singled out for entirely political reasons; subjected to an arduous interrogation virtually guaranteed to find problems; and then severed from academic employment. It will indicate that public controversy is dangerous and that genuine intellectual heresy could easily be lethal to an academic career. It will demonstrate that tenured professors serve at the pleasure of governors, political columnists, media moguls, and talk show hosts… The permanent or temporary expulsion of Ward Churchill would be an immense loss for CU. In one fell swoop we would become a more tepid, more timid, and more servile institution. His expulsion would deprive students of contact with a potent challenger of accepted cognitive frameworks. The social sciences desperately need the kind of challenge presented by Ward Churchill.”

In short, this investigation has completely overblown whatever possible errors in scholarship they claim to have considered. And the extreme and unprecedented sanction of suspension, to say nothing of dismissal, is completely unwarranted, and further evidence that this whole attack on Churchill from beginning to end is nothing but the continuation of a political witch hunt. Many more people—faculty and students and from all arenas of society—urgently need to condemn this whole witch hunt and join the battle to defend Churchill, and the universities as places where critical thinking and dissent are valued and encouraged. What position you take on this battle has to do with what kind of society you want to live in.

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