Who Knows Why Ward Churchill Was Fired?

My employer, the University of Colorado, has finally fired my colleague, tenured professor Ward Churchill. Why? There are lots of explanations. Take your pick.

The University claims that Churchill is guilty of "research misconduct." That's debatable. As I've pointed out on this site, none of the people doing the investigation had expertise in Churchill's field of Native American Studies. Several people who are experts in that field have challenged the University's claim. So who knows for sure?

Churchill and his lawyer say it had nothing to do with his research and everything to do with his infamous words "little Eichmanns," describing the victims of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The nation's headline-writers agree. None of the headlines I've seen mentioned "research misconduct." They all mentioned 9/11. Churchill's sacrilege drove conservatives nuts. Last year, even Colorado's Republican governor called for Churchill to be fired.

It's not just conservatives. This year Colorado's new Democratic governor cheered the decision, too, as did many political centrists and even liberals. But it was the conservatives who launched and persisted in the anti-Churchill attack, outraged by his "anti-American" views.

Then there's another way to see it, through the lens of the old adage, "Follow the money." Here's what CU president (and former right-wing Republican senator) Hank Brown wrote in a letter to the whole university community, just hours after Churchill got the axe: "We are accountable to those who have a stake in the university: the people of Colorado who contribute $200 million annually in tax dollars ... the donors who gave us more than $130 million this year." Like any university president, Brown's job is to watch the bottom line. Like any public university president, he has to satisfy the state legislature (with a majority of centrist Democrats and a sizeable minority of reactionary Republicans).

But in a state that ranks near the bottom in public funding for higher ed, Brown has to keep a special eye on private donors. So at the same time he released a letter to CU donors, on the letterhead of the CU's fund-raising arm, the University of Colorado Foundation. "Donors to CU gave a record $130 million this past fiscal year," he wrote, "and it is incumbent upon us to work to continue to be a place worthy of your investment."

Once the attack on Churchill began, Brown -- and all CU administrators and Regents -- had to decide whether to curry favor with the left or the right. If you were in their shoes, which flank would you protect? Where would you see the money coming from? Duh!

However, it's not fair to blame it simply on pursuit of the almighty dollar. There is some evidence that the administrators who nailed Churchill may genuinely share the outraged conservatives' views.

Just like Hank Brown (who is president of the whole CU system), the head of the Boulder campus, Chancellor Bud Peterson, sent out a letter justifying the firing. The most important issue is about values, Peterson wrote. "We must now reaffirm our core values. ... In a time such as ours, in which the very concept of "truth" is often bracketed by relativism ... and reduced by manipulation and "spin," our students must know that when they enter our classrooms, they occupy sacred territory where truth is always pursued on a foundation of ethics, honor, and integrity."

In fact, if our students have been paying attention they know that CU administrators have been manipulating and spinning this story hard ever since it broke, trying to placate the right-wingers calling for Churchill's blood.

Our students also know what makes our classrooms sacred territory. They are supposed to be set apart from the rest of society, protected from political pressure, so that people can explore new, radical, even offensive ideas freely, with no risk of retaliation. That's what makes them the intellectual laboratories that supply the creative new ideas of the future. The whole system would not work unless truth was considered uncertain, elusive, always open to debate.

That's why conservatives are so easily enraged by academic scholars. Whenever you hear about the need to reaffirm "core values" against the "relativism" of truth, it's a good bet that the cultural conservatives are back in town, gunning for some more or less arbitrary target who symbolizes the uncertainty of truth, which frightens conservatives so badly they don't really care who gets hurt, as long as they can wage another battle on behalf of the absolute truth and absolute certainty they crave.

The conservatives thought they got that certainty on September 11, 2001, when New York's hero, Rudy Giuliani, announced that "the era of moral relativism ... must end. Moral relativism does not have a place in this discussion and debate." Now, with the warrior-in-chief getting record low approval ratings, conservatives can't even be sure that the war on terrorism can give them certainty any more. So they need another target, to give them that certainty. Remember, no one paid attention to questions about Churchill's scholarship until he questioned the conservatives' cherished belief that America is absolutely good and Osama is absolutely evil.

It's appropriate that Churchill was fired just after the release of the last Harry Potter book. Both generated huge media circuses, because they are both what the public always craves: stories full of colorful characters, some good and some evil, in a plot that creates nail-biting excitement because there must be a definite winner. There can be no compromise between good and evil. But no one knows which side will win until the very end.

Is Ward Churchill Harry Potter or is he Voldemort? That's what make it such a great media story. You can have it either way. The mainstream media don't really care.

But for the right wing, Ward must be Voldemort -- and Osama. They all play the same role in the morality play that conservatives want life to be. Now CU administrators and regents have satisfied the right by insisting that they know the absolute truth about the Churchill case, even though they have no expertise in his field, while the many experts in Native American studies who came to Churchill's defense are just dead wrong. Case closed.

Of course, the case has actually just been opened. That's the big difference between Harry Potter and Ward Churchill. There will be no more Potter books. But the firing of Churchill was merely the end of book one. No one knows how many more volumes will follow, or who will win in the end.

One thing is certain. The outcome of the future volumes will be decided in court by judges, and perhaps jurors, who know nothing about Native American Studies or academic research. However they decide, their judgments will be just as debatable as the latest theory any professor teaches. In the end, there will be no end to the debate about the Churchill case. There will still be lots of explanations, and you will still be able to take your pick -- which is just as it should be in a great university.

My university can be a great one. But its administration and Regents have made the task a lot harder. They've let the university be turned into a media circus tent blown by the political winds, chasing a chimera of certainty more elusive than any wind. It may look like free speech, academic creativity, and the University of Colorado have been dealt a mortal blow. But remember, you've only read the first book.

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: chernus@colorado.edu

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