Revolution #159, March 22, 2009

From a Reader

Ward Churchill Lawsuit Against CU Forces Some Truth to the Surface

Following is an update Revolution received about the trial that began March 9 In Denver.

The first week is over in the Denver jury trial of Ward Churchill’s lawsuit against the University of Colorado, and already some remarkable testimony has been heard that backs up Churchill’s claim that he was fired in retaliation for writing a controversial essay about the 9/11 attacks, and not for “research misconduct.”* Through testimony under oath by most of the politicians and administrators who carried out the witch-hunt, Churchill’s attorney, David Lane, has shown that their “official story” for why they fired him is a sham. At the same time a number of scholars and academics familiar with Churchill’s scholarship, together with several former students, have taken the stand to talk about their high regard for his scholarship, and for his inspiring work in the classroom. 

Several reporters are in the courtroom and posting reports of the testimony throughout each day at different “Churchill Trial Blogs”: for the Denver ABC TV channel 7; the Daily Camera and Colorado Daily Online in Boulder; and the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Thanks to their work, a good picture of what is taking place is available each day online. What follows is based on their reports.

At the height of the controversy over Churchill’s essay in February, 2005, then-Colorado governor Bill Owens and other powerful right wing forces around the country publicly called for the University of Colorado to fire Churchill. Determining after an investigation that he couldn’t be fired solely for the content of his essay, the university administration changed their tactics, put together a faculty committee and gave them the job of pouring over a collection of old complaints about small aspects of Churchill’s large body of work. The committee claimed to have found evidence of research misconduct, which the university then used to justify firing him.

Here are a few of the “bombshells” that came out this week:

Betsy Hoffman, considered a moderate Republican, had been the President of CU since 2000 but resigned in March of 2005, less than a week after she told a faculty audience in Boulder, “We are in very dangerous times,” and warned about a “new McCarthyism,” referring to what was happening to Chruchill. A video of her deposition was played in the courtroom this week. In it she described “a conversation 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.’”

Owens said in his testimony that he couldn’t remember this conversation, doubted its tone if it did happen, and said he had no “plan.” But Churchill’s attorney, David Lane, then played a transcript of an interview on the O’Reilly Factor which featured Bill Owens. Owens told O’Reilly he didn’t have authority to fire Churchill, but that “I do have some budget authority over the budget,” which could be read as a veiled threat to cut state funding to the university if they didn’t get rid of Churchill. And then Lane pointed to this exchange:

O’Reilly: One more question for you. You have basically a strategy, and I want to get this right. You're not going to pay him off, so he's not going to get the big bucks. You're going to go through the lengthy process to prove that he did something that you can legitimately fire him [for], and then he goes—"See you."

Owens: That's exactly right. That's exactly right. That process is starting. I think it will ultimately result in him being fired.

In her deposition Hoffman also said “she felt like she was becoming the target of a right-wing attack machine, led by conservative media outlets and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), an organization she said had the goal of reducing left-wing bias on university campuses. ‘It was an all-out assault on Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado, and me,’ she testified. She said both former governor Bill Owens, and her successor at CU, former U.S. Senator Hank Brown, had been on the board of the organization.

ACTA is a Washington-based right-wing academic watch-dog group made up of very powerful forces close to those in power during the Bush regime. Ex-VP Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynn Cheney, was one of the co-founders, as was the CU President who fired Churchill–Hank Brown; and major ruling class operatives and mouthpieces for the clampdown in academia like William Bennett and Ward Connerly are involved. Right after 9/11 ACTA escalated their attack on academia by publishing “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America,” claiming that “colleges and university faculty have been the weak link in America’s response” to Sept. 11. Before the CU investigative committee claimed to have found evidence of academic misconduct, ACTA put out a pamphlet with the provocative title–“How Many Ward Churchills?” Their answer?—“They’re everywhere.”


This week also revealed some crucial elements that point to why the faculty investigation itself was a sham. The Dean of the CU Law School, David Getches, was relied on by then Chancellor Phil DiStefano for advice on whether Churchill could be fired for what he wrote. Getches wrote in an email:


Whether or not his particular remarks are protected by the 1st amendment, they are not befitting of someone in a position of leadership at CU. Since it has been disseminated, his paper has caused anguish to Jews and members of the very minority groups the Ethnic Studies program serves, and to 9/11 victims’ families. He has deeply embarrassed CU and flouted the principals of human decency that CU stands for. Moreover, his inaccurate and irresponsible comments cast serious doubt on his competence and integrity as a scholar. Therefore—

Actions 1) Remove him as Director of Ethnic Studies, 2) Suspend him with pay pending review by committee of his competence and fitness to continue as a faculty member at CU.

Churchill’s attorney then showed that Getches played a crucial role in shaping the investigation that he had just recommended. As John Aguilar reported in his blog for the Daily Camera:

Lane also attacked Getches for reviving old allegations of misconduct from an academic rival of Churchill’s—University of New Mexico law professor John LaVelle. He said it seemed like odd timing that as one of the key people looking into whether Churchill’s essay was protected speech, Getches was introducing allegations of academic misconduct that had first been brought to his attention by LaVelle six years earlier.

“All of a sudden here you are advancing LaVelle’s cause to this committee,” Lane said.

If you’re out to carry out a witch-hunt through a faculty investigation, it is important who you put in charge of leading and guiding that committee. The person they chose was Mimi Wesson, Getches’ colleague in the law school who had been an assistant attorney general for the state of Texas and an assistant U.S. attorney for the district of Colorado. It had come to light after the committee’s work was done that Wesson had expressed her animus toward Churchill prior to her appointment. As the reporter’s blog continues:

Lane finished his questioning of Getches by asking him why law professor and colleague Mimi Wesson was chosen to head up the investigative committee looking into Churchill’s scholarship after she had written in an email that Churchill was “a thoroughly unpleasant individual” and “another male celebrity wrongdoer” who had similarities with the worst attributes of O.J. Simpson, Bill Clinton and Michael Jackson.

He asked Getches if he’d want to be judged by someone who had made similar comments about him.

Getches said he wouldn’t.


The first week also brought many distinguished academics and scholars to the stand. Professor Hu-Dehart from Brown University had worked at CU in the 90’s and was colleagues with Churchill. She described Churchill as one of the most cited scholars in “Ethnic Studies” and that it is “not an exaggeration to say…that Ward is one of the leading Native American scholars.”

Professor Robert Williams, a Harvard educated University of Arizona professor with a joint appointment in American Indian Studies and American Indian Law, testified as an expert in both fields. He had been contacted by the CU provost about serving on the committee. Because he knew and respected Churchill and had recently invited him to the University of Arizona as a distinguished scholar, he asked if that would be considered a conflict of interest. Hearing nothing back he decided to decline, but also encouraged all committee members to do the same. He told the attorney for CU felt those on the committee “were just in over their heads.” Williams then went through the committee report and challenged many of their conclusions as unfounded, which he showed demonstrated a lack of understanding of the issues they were judging.

The distinguished civil rights scholar Derrick Bell, who taught law at Harvard University and fought for diversification of faculty on university campuses, testified as well. The judge would not allow him to express his view that CU acted outside the norm in firing Churchill, but he did testify that Churchill’s work falls within the field of critical race theory, which recognizes the integral role of race in the discussion of law and social constructs, and has its own methods of research and analysis.

And several former students took the stand to express their appreciation and admiration for Churchill as a teacher.

The trial reconvenes in Denver on Monday, March 16.

*For background on this case, see Revolution issues #92 & #98, and the article that appeared online at last week—“Ward Churchill Lawsuit Against University of Colorado Begins March 9th.”


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