On Tuesday, July 24, the University of Colorado Board of Regents will decide whether to accept the recommendation of CU President (and former Republican senator) Hank Brown, and fire CU Professor Ward Churchill. It's not likely that Brown, one of the shrewdest (and most conservative) politicians Colorado has produced, would recommend the firing unless he was already sure the Regents would back him up. So it's a very good bet that the Regents will indeed give Churchill the axe. The only thing that might change their minds is an outpouring of public opinion supporting a professor's right to voice unpopular views.
The Regents' decision is not merely a local affair. It has enormous impact on the whole country. That gives you the right -- and the responsibility -- to let them know what you think. The chair of the University of Colorado Board of Regents is Patricia Hayes. You can write to her at: Patricia.Hayes@cu.edu.
Why should you bother? It's still a rare occasion when a tenured professor is fired because he is an outspoken leftist. But every time a witchhunt is successful, it encourages other right-wingers to go after their favorite target. It brings the next witchhunt closer and increases the odds that it will succeed.
I'm an outspoken leftie professor at the University of Colorado too, so I've got a personal stake in this. Someone once asked me to wear a big button that said, "I am Ward Churchill." I said I'd prefer a button reading, "I am Next." But you never know who will be next. There is nothing very special about Colorado. It can happen anywhere. The witchhunters may be coming to a campus near you. That's one reason the fate of Ward Churchill matters to you.
The visible fallout from the Churchill case -- the future attacks on leftist academics -- is only the tip of the iceberg. The bigger effect is one we'll never see or hear: the silence of all those, on and off campuses, who start censoring themselves, not speaking their minds completely and directly, avoiding controversial topics in their teaching and research, because they see which way the political wind blows.
Right after the 9/11 attack, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that people had better "watch what they say." That's the same message the CU Regents will send across the country by firing Churchill. The impact of this chilling effect is invisible and incalculable, but it is very real. And it will directly affect your freedom to hear the diversity of opinions, including the most radical opinions, that our ailing democracy needs so badly. That's another reason the fate of Ward Churchill matters to you, no matter where you live.
Of course the chilling wind would blow coldest across our college campuses. The quality of education in this country would take a blow. The efforts we profs make to engage students in critical thinking would be compromised as faculty avoid potentially damaging conflicts. The long-term trend toward turning colleges into vocational job training centers would get a boost. So would the powerful forces promoting what they call "politically neutral" indoctrination in Western culture and values.
Do we want our universities to graduate incurious and obedient functionaries rather than creative and bold leaders?
You may hesitate to weigh in on the case of the right wingers vs. Ward Churchill because you don't know the facts. After all, the faculty's Research Misconduct Committee produced a voluminous report detailing his supposed misconduct. It's the basis for firing Churchill.
Was the committee fair and accurate in its assessment? To be honest, I don't know. How could I? I'm not an expert in Native American Studies. I don't have the knowledge or experience to make an informed judgment. But neither did the committee, nor anyone else in the University bureacracy who has brought Churchill to the academic gallows. There were two experts in Native American Studies on the committee for a while, but they quit (some say they were hounded off) because they were trying to give the matter a fair hearing, and it seemed to them that was not what the committee had in mind.
So a professor is about to be axed for research misconduct even though no one with any expertise in his field has substantiated the charges. In fact a number of experts in Native American Studies who examined the committee's report found that it had numerous flaws and seemed to reflect the selective use of evidence to advance a predetermined objective. They found no evidence of gross errors, which is what "research misconduct" means, in Churchill's work.
To be sure, Churchill has his critics in his academic field. So do I. That's what academia is all about. But as Eric Cheyfitz of Cornell University, who closely studied the committee's report, wrote, it "turns what is a debate about controversial issues of identity and genocide in Indian studies into an indictment of one position in that debate." If you start firing professors because some of their colleagues don't like their research, most all of us would have to go. And if you take apart the work of a productive scholar, looking for every little flaw you can find (a misplaced citation here, a small misquote there), most all of us would have to go. But that's not research misconduct.
Churchill's scholarship as well as his politics has always been controversial. Critics charged for many years that he wasn't adhering strictly to all the academic rules. But CU officials ignored those charges for most of those years. (In fact they granted him tenure even though he did not have a Ph.D and his work was somewhat unconventional, because they wanted a star to show their commitment to diversity. Now they are using the same unconventionality to hound Churchill out -- and raise grave questions about their concern for diversity.)
CU officials only became concerned about the quality of Churchill's work after right-wingers discovered his now-famous essay that called corporate functionaries working in the World Trade Center on 9/11 "little Eichmanns." That triggered an avalanche of conservative pressure on CU to fire Churchill. Of course the University administrators could not come out and say they were investigating him for unpopular political opinions in the post-9/11 era. So they got the Research Misconduct Committee to go through his writings with a fine-tooth comb. Lo and behold, they found the "evidence" they were looking for.
There's a lot more to the case. Charges of plagiarism rest on weak evidence and strained interpretations that don't withstand serious scrutiny. The University administrators broke their own system's rules in a number of ways. Most importantly, they let a massive campaign by outsiders -- conservatives from across the country -- influence what should be strictly an internal decision-making process.
It looks like President Hank Brown is catering to those outsiders. He has rejected his own faculty advisory committee's recommendation to discipline and suspend Churchill, opting instead to go for out-and-out firing.
The irony is that once the Regents do give Churchill the axe, he will go to court and argue that his contractual rights were violated. Both sides will trot out their experts. In the end, some judges who know nothing at all about Native American Studies will have to decide whether there is compelling evidence of research misconduct here. Since the whole case of the right wingers vs. Churchill rests on political animus, the outcome will probably depend on how conservative those judges are. If it ever reaches Supreme Court, we can unfortunately pretty well predict how it will go.
The last chance to stop that slide down the slippery legal slope is to convince the Regents that it's not in their best interests to fire Churchill. They need to know that the whole world is watching. They need to hear from you. Again, the chair of the Board of Regents is Patricia Hayes. You can write to her at: Patricia.Hayes@cu.edu. If you want email addresses for the other Regents, go to https://www.cu.edu/regents/RgntsPUB0101.html.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org