By KC Johnson
This week, as expected, the University of Colorado regents dismissed Professor Ward Churchill from his tenured position in the Ethnic Studies Department. (A university committee had found that Churchill committed plagiarism and misused sources.) And, as expected, Churchill has filed suit, alleging First Amendment violations.
The move against Churchill - who first attracted attention after describing those who perished (except for the terrorists) in the World Trade Center attack as "Little Eichmanns" - came over the opposition of the ACLU, which charged that the "poisoned atmosphere" of the inquiry into Churchill's scholarship rendered meaningless the committee's findings. ACTA president Anne Neal, on the other hand, welcomed the dismissal as "a very positive message that higher education is cleaning up its own."
The viewpoints of both organizations raise additional questions. The ACLU's position, if established as a precedent, would invite academics who (like Churchill) had engaged in research misconduct to issue inflammatory public statements, in the hopes that a public outcry (preferably from "right-wingers") could then provide a First Amendment shield for their academic misdeeds.
Meanwhile, Neal is clearly correct in observing that Churchill violated academic standards. But, as FIRE president Greg Lukianoff told the Chronicle of Higher Education, the university could be vulnerable to Churchill's lawsuit, since it launched "the investigation initially because people were angry about what he had said, not because of these pre-existing claims of academic misconduct."
On campus, the most troubling aspect of the Churchill case came in the initial response of the faculty. In February 2005, 199 professors at Colorado signed a public statement denouncing the inquiry into Churchill's conduct - suggesting, in effect, that because outsiders had condemned Churchill, the university itself had no right to even inquire into serious allegations of academic fraud. Even after Churchill's academic misconduct had been documented, Margaret LeCompte, who heads the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, wildly termed the inquiry "a test case by the U.S. right wing to emasculate faculty rights in U.S. universities."
The AAUP and the Colorado faculty protesters justified their positions by citing academic freedom. Yet the doctrine, which arose in a period when professors were regularly fired for their political views, also presumed that professors would not bring their political views into the classroom. (The 1915 AAUP statement on academic freedom and the since-repudiated University of California academic freedom policy, drafted in the 1930s, were explicit on this point.) Therefore, it was correctly reasoned, professors shouldn't be fired for saying controversial things in public (even if their remarks were intellectually dubious), because these comments had nothing to do with their academic qualifications or how they taught their classes.
Of course, the line between political and classroom speech was never as clearcut as the California or AAUP resolutions implied. But Churchill's defenders have argued that, when it serves their purposes, there should be no line - that political speech is perfectly appropriate in the classroom, if this is how a professor wants to teach his or her class. At the same time, they contend that academic freedom protects a professor's out-of-class utterances on the grounds that a fundamental distinction exists between such remarks and what the professor does in the classroom. These two positions are irreconcilable.
Beyond illustrating the flawed conception of academic freedom too prevalent in the contemporary academy, the Churchill case illustrates what happens when universities abandon excellence as the primary criterion in the personnel process. Well before Churchill ever uttered his "Little Eichmanns" line, the University of Colorado - a Tier I research university - had hired, then tenured, and then promoted to department chairman a woefully underqualified academic charlatan. In this respect, the affair provides a case study of "diversity" hiring practices gone awry.
Churchill was hired through a "special opportunity" position, designed by the university to help "recruit and hire a more diverse faculty." He had an M.A. from little-known Sangamon State University and no Ph.D at all. As documents from the time noted, his qualifications included only two items: strong lobbying from Evelyn Hu-DeHart, the chair of the Ethnic Studies program, and the now-disputed fact that "Ward is a Native American," meaning his hire would contribute "to increasing the cultural diversity on campus."
Churchill then received tenure after Hu-DeHart - by this time chair of the newly created Ethnic Studies Department - obtained positive reviews of his scholarship from other professors of ethnic studies. That scholarship, of course, has now been almost completely discredited - as based on plagiarism and willful distortion of sources.
As New York City Tech professor Aaron Barlow recently conceded, "If nothing else, the Churchill case points out the fact that we need to seriously consider the question of whether we academics are doing enough to police ourselves. The next time those attacking academia come up with a particular person to attack, will we be confident that our defense of that person will not open us up to further accusations of protecting the unqualified or dishonest?"
How, then, could his fellow academics have originally found Churchill's scholarship acceptable? The outcome, alas, suggests that in politicized fields such as African-American Studies, Women's Studies, and Ethnic Studies, the message too often trumps quality. In this case, it appears that Churchill's extremist arguments that the U.S. government engaged in genocide against Native Americans blinded his academic reviewers to the poor quality of his scholarship. Indeed, some Churchill sympathizers, led by Cornell professor Eric Cheyfitz, have continued to maintain that the former professor's writings constitute appropriate scholarship for the field of Ethnic Studies.
Churchill's career path, remarkably, also serves as a model that Hu-DeHart, who now teaches at Brown, wants other universities to follow to achieve a more "diverse" faculty. In a 2006 report that she prepared for Williams College, she contended that as "the opportunity to hire [under-represented minority] candidates is only as good as the pool," elite institutions needs to change their pool. Ph.D. programs from Ivy League schools, or from institutions such as Stanford or Michigan, might not have enough "diverse" candidates to go around. As a result, they need to target less prestigious institutions, such as Churchill's Sangamon State or - as she urged upon Williams - the University of Texas at El Paso.
At least Hu-DeHart is honest in her assertion that universities should set aside normal academic standards in their zeal to implement a "diversity" agenda. But for more sober administrators, the Churchill affair should force a hard look into the dangerous side effects of "diversity" initiatives left unchecked.
KC Johnson is a Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and author of the blog Durham-in-Wonderland. He is co-authoring, with Stuart Taylor, a forthcoming volume on the Duke Lacrosse case, "Until Proven Innocent."