Revolution #81, March 11, 2007
The Case of Ward Churchill:
A Witch-Hunt That Must Be Defeated!
Ward Churchill, tenured Native American studies professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, was invited to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York in January 2005. Suddenly, right-wing forces went into action. They dragged out an essay Churchill had written three years earlier, right after 9/11, that was critical of the U.S. role in the world, and they demanded that Churchill’s speech be canceled. The governor of New York joined in. Right-wing TV and radio figures like Bill O’Reilly and numerous politicians, including the governor of Colorado, demanded Churchill’s firing.
In the course of Churchill's sharply worded post 9/11 critique of the U.S. role in the world, he included a very provocative formulation about how not all the people, but those people who worked particularly as functionaries for the large corporations with offices in the World Trade Center were “Little Eichmanns,”—comparing them to the functionaries of the Nazi regime.
A lynch-mob atmosphere was incited. Churchill’s scholarship, which focuses on the genocide of Native Americans and their current-day oppression, was pilloried and ridiculed. At one point Churchill and the Ethnic Studies Department he headed were receiving a thousand threatening and racist emails a day. Powerful figures like Republican strategist Newt Gingrich issued calls to restrict or abolish tenure—which protects thinkers and researchers from being fired for what they say or write once they are attached to universities as full professors.
The University administration launched an investigation to determine if Churchill should be fired—or arrested—for any of his writings. At the same time they insisted that all of their professors prove that they had signed the loyalty oath required of them. The president of the University, herself a moderate Republican, made a speech to the faculty expressing fear of a “new McCarthyism.” Less than a week later she resigned. When the Boulder student body voted Churchill their “favorite professor” later that spring, the alumni association withheld the award. All this was beginning to raise questions among more progressive segments of society about whether it was right for people to have to "watch what they say," politically, or risk losing their jobs, particularly within academia.
In stepped David Horowitz, ex-'60s "leftist" turned reactionary, with public advice about how the administration should fine-tune its persecution of Churchill. In a speech accusing Churchill of supporting “America’s terrorist enemies,” Horowitz gave tactical advice—declaring that Churchill should not be fired for what he’d written, but should be investigated instead for academic fraud. As if on cue, the University received a flood of mostly old and already considered claims of plagiarism, misrepresentation of facts, inaccurate footnotes, etc., in Churchill’s scholarship, which were cobbled together by the chancellor as the rationale for a new investigation—into academic misconduct.
A faculty committee was convened to investigate, putting the veneer of a “jury of his peers” on the same witch-hunt. But the fact is this investigation would never have happened without the original firestorm of attacks on Churchill’s political statements, which even they admit were supposed to be protected by the first amendment, and the voicing of which are supposed to be an important part of academia and academic freedom. This means their whole investigation into Churchill’s scholarship was completely illegitimate on its face and never should have taken place. It's like the "fruit of a poisoned tree," to borrow a term from principles applied in a court of law. Headed by a law professor (a former assistant attorney general of Texas!), the faculty investigative committee in their report had to acknowledge being “troubled by the origins of, and skeptical concerning the motives for” the investigation—but they still went ahead. It must 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.
In May 2006 the faculty committee issued its findings--though not before two of its members were pressured into resigning after they were accused of possible sympathy toward the merits of Professor Churchill's defense. The final committee report alleged “serious and repeated research misconduct.” A Boulder sociology professor who carefully studied the committee’s report concluded that it greatly exaggerated the seriousness of so-called misconduct, making it entirely out of whack with the sanctions imposed such luminaries as presidential historian Doris Kerns Goodwin for far more serious errors of scholarship. And 44 pages of the committee's report on Churchill were devoted to three paragraphs of Churchill’s writings. It’s an important point—to put any prolific scholar’s publications to this kind of scrutiny would likely turn up some mistakes—and how could any serious and challenging scholarship be conducted in such an atmosphere?
Four out of the five members of the investigative committee called for Churchill to be suspended; one called for his firing. But less than a month later the chancellor announced his recommendation that Churchill be fired. The Boulder chapter of the American Association of University Professors has issued a statement of protest, saying “We believe that the investigation now is widely perceived to be a pretext for firing Churchill when the real reason for dismissal is his politics.”
This witch-hunt must be defeated. An orchestrated attack is underway, by very powerful right-wing forces in society closely intertwined with those in power, in order to create an atmosphere where dissent and critical thinking itself, in relation to crucial issues in society, face intimidation and are increasingly ruled out of order. Whatever you might think of his choice of words or specific arguments, the attempt to fire Churchill is based solely on his radical critique of U.S. history and present-day policy in the wake of the events of 9/11. If it is allowed to succeed it will set a dangerous new precedent and is already sending a chilling message through academia. At stake is whether faculty, in their scholarship and public discourse, will be able to tell the truth about the “official narrative of America.” Also at stake is whether fields of inquiry such as ethnic and women’s/gender studies that often challenge and stand in the way of a resurgent patriotism and chauvinism will be able to carry on their intellectual and cultural work.
Support for Churchill is growing, but this has to be greatly magnified. Students and faculty need to close ranks and take up the defense of Ward Churchill and the cause of defending dissent and critical thinking at this urgent hour.
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