Last Thoughts on Ward Churchill?

Well, as expected, Ward Churchill was fired yesterday. I don’t know how I feel about it. Certainly, I have never been a supporter of his, but the whole brouhaha disturbs me greatly. Academia had let itself slip into a spot with no room for a graceful exit.

Everyone seems to “know” the “truth” about all of this. John Wilson, writing at College Freedom, for example, seems sure he’s right about the allegations against Churchill:

All that has been proven is that Churchill made some dubious claims in his writings without any real evidence, and that he engaged in ghost writing for some other academics.

As I assume Wilson has done, I’ve read the report of the first committee that investigated Churchill—but I am not convinced that it is as simple as Wilson makes it out to be. Churchill certainly did produce questionable scholarship, may have plagiarized, and certainly wrote articles under pseudonyms that he later used to validate points in pieces over his own name. But that’s not the whole of it.

Still, had Churchill committed the “crimes” he was “convicted” of in one of my classes, I would not even have brought him before the university, but would have worked with him personally. I would have tried to teach him what good scholarship is, helping him learn that one does not decide an answer first and then twist “facts” to support it, that one makes all use of outside material absolutely clear, and that one’s own earlier work is not sufficient as documentary proof in later work (though it can be referred to).

So, I’m not sure Churchill’s scholastic offenses alone add up to transgressions warranting termination.

On the other hand, I don’t think Churchill is exactly the sort of person I want to see in a college classroom.

We, as the academic community, have a certain responsibility towards our students. When one of our colleagues is shown, even belatedly, to be undeserving of his or her place before the chalkboard, we do a disservice to the students when that professor is not removed.

But it gets more complicated.

Another problem is that the University of Colorado at Boulder is not exactly innocent in the Churchill situation. It wanted a Native American for the position Churchill was hired to fill. Is it any wonder that Churchill, who certainly looks like he could be Native American, claimed that he was? He could not have gotten the job otherwise, no matter how stellar his other qualifications might have been. So, the University is complicit in at least one of his lies. Also, the University turned a blind eye to complaints about Churchill’s scholarship for a minimum of eight years; its tenure and promotion committees had also failed in their duties. If the University had done its job, there would have been no need for an outside hue-and-cry to spark an investigation.

The University comes off badly in l’affaire Churchill from every angle. It should not have caved to the pressure to investigate Churchill for political reasons (it should have done so for other reasons, but much earlier). When it did cave, it should have had sense enough to turn the investigation over to some sort of neutral agency. And it should have made sure that there was no place for anyone with a political axe to grind to have anything at all to do with the ultimate decision on his retention.

None of the University’s failures, however, justify retaining a professor in the classroom who is not qualified. And Churchill fails to reach minimum standards on a number of levels of scholarship and honesty. It’s an outrage to our students for us to force on them instructors who do not meet standards—for any reason. In this case, the outrage goes back to Churchill’s initial hiring—and is not mitigated by the passage of time.

As I said above, I would deal privately with Churchill’s crimes, were he a student of mine. But he is not—he is (or was) a colleague with responsibilities not only for setting a good example for his students through his own research but for judging their research. There is also a question of honesty, here, that is extremely important to our position as role models: Even if the university “forced” him to lie to get the job, Churchill is the one who lied—and there’s a pattern in his past of dubious statements,one going back years. Mount Holyoke College suspended Pulitzer winner Joseph Ellis for lying to his students about his “experiences” in Vietnam. Should Churchill, whose fabrications certainly go beyond those of Ellis, not face sterner penalties?

Ellis, at least, had a strong track record of scholarship of the first rank.

None of Churchill’s defenders, as far as I know, has addressed the question of whether or not he should be in the classroom. They focus on the politics (his supporters even wore tee-shirts yesterday making that point)—and they are right: The reasons for the investigation into Churchill were of a reprehensible variety.

But that does not mean that Churchill belongs in a classroom.

Since returning to academia (just six years ago), I’ve been astonished by “our” lack of willingness to look to ourselves and the weaknesses in the ways we (as faculties) evaluate ourselves and govern ourselves. Hiring and promotion policies are arcane, often dishonest, and an almost deliberate bureaucratic nightmare.

Three years ago, I began to talk and write against David Horowitz and his attacks on academia—and started to see that our own policies are actually helping him in his campaign… as is our instinct to circle the wagons whenever we are attacked, protecting our own even when they aren’t worth of protection. It made me furious: Rather than helping protect us from attack, our own policies were actually making us more vulnerable.

We, ourselves (academia), have insured that there could be no good resolution to the Churchill case. With Churchill gone, a slight bit more control is ceded by the universities to the politicians. However, if Churchill had stayed, we would be doing a disservice to our students and making it appear that the David Horowitz’s and Anne Neal’s of the world are right, that the universities are controlled by a cabal of leftists—again ultimately ceding control to the politicians through renewed negative perception of us, through showing ourselves living down to expectations.

Personally, though I am not happy about it, I would rather see Churchill gone than stay. His firing, in my view, does less damage than his retention.

We, the faculty, need to reform our hiring and promotion processes, however, to start to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

This isn’t over. Unless we do something to clean our own house, there will be another Ward Churchill, and our independence will be once more slightly chipped away, no matter the outcome.