by Dave Lindorff
A group of 6 ordinary people in a Colorado courtroom saw through the McCarthyite political tactics of the University of Colorado officials and Colorado politicians who conducted a witch hunt against tenured professor and long-time Native American activist Ward Churchill, saying with remarkable clarity and sense that he never would have had his tenure revoked and been fired by the university had it not been for his unapologetic left-wing politics and writings.
It was an enormous victory for academic freedom and for the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech.
It is unclear at this point what the split was on the jury on the issue of damages, which ultimately resulted in a symbolic award of $1 dollar. There was a letter from the jury to the trial judge, Denver District Court Judge Larry J. Naves, during deliberations, asking whether they could replace one juror if they couldn’t get a unanimous agreement on the $1-dollar award, but when told that was not possible, they reached that decision unanimously.
A university spokesman, Ken McConnellogue, tried to argue that the low damage award was “some vindication” for the university’s action in firing Prof. Churchill. The Boulder school is now fighting Churchill’s effort to be reinstated in his job, where he had been chairman of the school’s ethnic studies department. McConnellogue claims that because it was a faculty committee that had been instrumental in his firing, an order by the court reinstating him to his position would “probably draw a sharp reaction.”
The idea that somehow a dispassionate group of faculty members at the university had reviewed Prof. Churchill’s scholarship and determined he had plagiarized and falsified his research is simply nonsense.
There may possibly have been a time when faculty committees reviewing tenure decisions were independent scholarly bodies unswayed by administrators—though given the history of blacklists and firings of tenured professors during the 1950s, I doubt it--but in any event those days, real or imagined, are long gone. Over the past several decades, the concept of academic self-governance has been fatally eroded at most universities. At many institutions, administrators routinely override hiring decisions reached by faculty committees, and all kinds of pressures are brought on individual faculty members to reach decisions that are desired by administrators.
Administrators at many schools have aggrandized the power to veto unpaid and sabbatical leaves, to assign heavier teaching loads, to over-rule tenure decisions, etc. In addition, administrators determine or have the final say on raises, which increasingly are based upon ill-defined and hard to challenge “merit” considerations. All of this makes faculty members on critical committees such as the one which was assigned to investigate Churchill’s scholarship, extremely vulnerable to administration pressure—the more so when powerful political figures like the state’s governor and members of the state legislature, who have made clear their desire to see Churchill sacked, are added to the mix.
The academic committee impaneled to investigate him claimed that Churchill had plagiarized articles, but in truth the works they referred to which Churchill had quoted in some of his work were things he had himself written earlier, either anonymously, or with other writers. He was, in other words, being accused of plagiarizing from himself.
As Tom Mayer, a professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Colorado, wrote in a paper titled: “The Plagiarism Charges Against Ward Churchill,” the faculty committee accusations against Churchill were “largely discredited” by a number of respected independent scholars, and the committee’s own report was larded with “errors of omission and commission.” He writes that the faculty “Report of the Investigative Committee” itself “improperly converts legitimate scholarly controversies into indictments of the positions taken by Professor Churchill.” Mayer adds that the three specific cases of alleged plagiarism condemned by the faculty investigative committee, had appeared in writings that were never intended to be scholarly or to be used for his academic advancement, but rather were rather part of Churchill’s voluminous body of political writings. (Mayer goes on to say that even in those three cases, the accusations of plagiarism are “without compelling force.”) Moreover, all three examples, he notes, were over 14 years old, and the charges about them had been circulated by his critics for over a decade, with no one at the university taking any action “until he became a political pariah.”
The jury, as if often the case, saw through the political subterfuge to the root of the problem, which was that Churchill’s body of writing (much of which has been groundbreaking, such as his 1988 book “Agents of Repression”, co-authored with Jim Vander Wall, and his 1992 book “Fantasies of the Master Race”), which includes 14 books and 150 publications, would never have been subject to investigation, had it not been for the climate of political repression that followed the 9-11 attacks. His political difficulties arose in the wake of his publication in 2003 of a book-length essay on 9-11, titled “On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality.” That essay argued that some of those who died in the Twin Towers, rather than simply innocent victims, had been “a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire.” Provocatively calling such people “Little Eichmanns,” Churchill had claimed that their financial machinations had led to death and suffering around the world, and thus to the attack on the US.
It was inflammatory language coming at a time when the American public was being inflamed by demagogues in Washington and a flood of media propaganda and jingoism, but it was also a correct assessment of the role of Wall Street financial firms, as has been made all the more apparent by the recent financial crisis. (In fact, had Churchill written the same thing today, and included American homeowners and workers in his list of the victims of those financial technocrats, the resulting level of public outrage might have been a good deal less—as witness the death threats reportedly being made these days against the recipients of AIG bonuses.)
In fact, it wasn’t publication of Churchill’s 9-11 tract that got him in trouble. It was the workings of the right—most notably former ‘60s fringe leftist-turned-right-wing agitator David Horowitz—who began dogging Churchill in 2005. Horowitz, whose own scholarship is a shameless Swiss cheese of errors and plagiarism, has been conducting a well-funded (courtesy of such right-wing outfits as the Olin Foundation) one-man campaign of smearing and “outing” academic leftists on American campuses, made Churchill a poster child for his absurd charge that universities have become dens of leftism.
It is now up to Judge Naves to decide whether to order the University of Colorado to reinstate Prof. Churchill.
He should do so, though it remains to be seen whether he will have the same political courage shown by those 12 jurors. If he does, he will order reinstatement.
Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org