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Is Ward Churchill the New Michael Bellesiles?

I’m beginning to see Ward Churchill as the carny in the dunking booth, who hurls insults at the crowd, and then howls with outrage when he gets soaked. Yes, the unenlightened were out to get you. Yes, the system was rigged against you by the power structure. No argument there. But should anyone care?

For the second time in the new millennium, a university professor has come under heavy fire from the political right, and is in danger of losing his job as a consequence. The most prominent dispute in recent years concerned the scholarship of Michael Bellesiles, a history professor at Emory University, who argued that a small minority of Americans owned guns during the early national period. Bellesiles’s thesis was a direct assault on the National Rifle Association’s claim of widespread gun ownership in American history. Thus the Bellesiles controversy opened with the two sides clearly distinguished by their policy leanings.

The gun lobby opened the fray by accusing Bellesiles of fabricating evidence. At first, Bellesiles responded with a defense of his scholarship, founded on evidentiary claims. As it became more and more apparent that Bellesiles’s evidence was questionable at best, Bellesiles turned to political stereotypes to defend himself. Now, Bellesiles would position himself as a professional scholar being assailed by right-wing gun nuts engaged in amateur history. This tactic bought Bellesiles some additional support from the academy, for a time, until it became obvious to nearly everyone that his scholarship actually was of dubious reliability. As this uncomfortable fact dawned, scholars began withdrawing their support, in a state of embarrassment and betrayal. Bellesiles’s initial interlocutors may have been amateurs driven by their political opposition to his thesis, but their criticism turned out to be more believable than Bellesiles’s defense.

The instigating issue today is a three-year-old essay written by Ward Churchill, a University of Colorado ethnic studies professor. Churchill is under attack from the right for likening victims of the World Trade Center attack to Adolph Eichmann, the notorious Nazi implicated in genocide. Churchill’s opponents object to his insults to the dead, and to his implicit support for the terrorists who perpetrated the attack. Churchill’s defenders on the left have preferred to downplay or ignore his characterization of the 9/11 victims, and to instead defend justify his essay’s central thesis—that US foreign policy was a predictable motivating factor behind the attacks. Churchill’s defenders argue that he is being attacked for expressing political dissent. In other words, rather than debating, the two sides are talking past each other, each addressing different aspects of Churchill’s essay in order to score political points.

Meanwhile, Churchill’s critics on the right have taken this opportunity to assail the academy in general for leaning too far to the left. They could not have found a better test case to advance their cause. Colorado’s conservative political class was already at odds with CU, which has endured a number of scandals in recent years. The stakes were raised when Colorado’s Republican legislators introduced a bill last year that would require their public universities to adopt conservative activist David Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights.” The Horowitz manifesto defines academic freedom in terms of “intellectual diversity” and “ exposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints.” Critics view this development as the first step in the politicization of curriculum design and faculty hiring at public universities, with the ultimate goal being to mandate the inclusion of right-wing scholarship. Many saw Colorado as Ground Zero in this action.

Thus when Churchill’s decidedly non-conservative rhetoric entered the public spotlight in January 2005, Colorado’s conservative governor and legislators were prepared to pounce, and called immediately for Churchill’s dismissal. When informed that Churchill’s contract guarantees his tenure from assaults on his freedom of speech, Colorado conservatives sought another justification for ousting Churchill. They were aided by the Colorado mass media, who became as obsessed with all things Churchillian as they had been with JonBenet Ramsay a few years back. Investigations began into every aspect of Churchill’s life. In a truly virtuosic flourish of consilience, Colorado’s more ambitious conspiracy theorists are even beginning to link Churchill to JonBenet’s murder.

Fringe speculations aside, Churchill’s closet does contain a redoubtable collection of verifiable peccadilloes. While employed at CU, Churchill ran a side business in which he reproduced other artists’ images—some of them still under copyright—and then sold them as his own original artwork. Like historian Joseph Ellis, Churchill appears to have exaggerated his military service. Churchill claims to have served in Vietnam as a paratrooper in an elite long-range reconnaissance unit, and walked point on patrol. Yet Churchill’s service record shows that he was trained as a projectionist and Jeep driver. In an early resume, Churchill reports as his military service the dangerous task of preparing his battalion newsletter. They also serve, who only stand behind the lines and publish.

Churchill carried this tradition of epistolary valor over into his civilian career. He apprenticed at Soldier of Fortune magazine in the 1970s, before moving into the academy. In 1998, Churchill published Pacifism as Pathology, a manifesto justifying the use of political violence. Churchill claims to have taught bomb-making to the Weather Underground. Churchill called for breaking the kneecaps of tourists headed for Hawaii, as a political statement in support of Hawaiian nationalism. He repeatedly called for the destruction of the United States. Churchill gave speeches in which he offered justifications and explicit strategies for successful terrorist actions against the US.

Churchill’s personal life echoed this theme of violence. Churchill claims to vandalize or destroy state property as revenge for every traffic ticket he receives. A number of people had accused Churchill of assault or threats of assault. Joanne Arnold, an administrator on Churchill’s home campus, reported that Churchill had threatened in a phone call that she would “get hurt” if she didn’t back off her position in a dispute over naming a dormitory. Carole Standing Elk, an Indian activist, complained that Churchill had spit on her during an argument. David Bradley, a New Mexico artist, complained to his local police that Churchill had threatened to kill him.

The Colorado media also reported that Churchill’s genealogical claims to Indian ancestry are most likely spectral. This became significant when the media uncovered additional evidence showing that Churchill’s Indian identity claims had been a major factor in CU administrators creating a tenured position for him. Officials of the Keetowah Cherokee tribe—including John Ross, the former chief who had arranged an “associate membership” for Churchill in 1994—also repudiate Churchill’s claim to Cherokee identity and to tribal enrollment with the Keetowahs.

Like Bellesiles, Churchill also stands accused of committing scholarly transgressions in his publications. In two pieces published in the 1990s, John LaVelle, a University of New Mexico law professor, accused Churchill of plagiarism and fabrication. LaVelle laid out a compelling argument, substantiated by damning evidence. In the November 2005 issue of Commentary, Guenter Lewy accused Churchill of fabricating a genocide by the US Army against the Mandan Indians in 1837, supposedly by distributing smallpox-infected blankets and then withholding vaccination.

I entered the fray when I placed a partial first draft essay on my faculty website, offering additional evidence in support of Lewy’s initial accusation. I received an onslaught of phone calls, emails, and media inquiries. Among the general public, my essay was hailed by conservative interlocutors, and criticized by many on the left, even though the essay itself contains nothing even remotely relevant to contemporary policy debates, other than my criticisms of Churchill’s scholarship. Once again, a question of scholarly veracity had become politicized.

The current controversy over Ward Churchill is more complex than other recent public disputes over academic freedom. While the Bellesiles controversy was initially motivated by a policy dispute over gun control, the core of the debate focused on the reliability of Bellesiles’s scholarship. In Churchill’s case, the political class in Colorado has made clear that they want Churchill fired for advocating revolution against the United States, and that Churchill’s various other transgressions are simply an excuse to sidestep the inconvenient institution of academic freedom. Because the politicians have created a public evidence trail that even one of our court-appointed defenders down here in Texas could follow—and because Churchill was, for a while, well-endowed with support from the ACLU, the AAUP, and a sizeable number of CU faculty—until Friday morning he stood a good chance of walking away with early retirement and a nice six-figure parting gift to boot.

Then Friday’s papers reported that Fay Cohen, a professor at Dalhousie University, had complained to her school’s attorney in 1997 that Churchill had plagiarized an entire chapter from her. Cohen had originally published the chapter in a book edited by Churchill. When Churchill wanted to reprint the chapter in yet another edited collection, Cohen refused. Churchill’s response was to give the piece a once-over rewrite and publish it anyway, without Cohen’s permission. The press reports indicate that in the second collection, the piece was credited as having been “assembled” by Churchill, without acknowledging Cohen’s original authorship. Dalhousie’s attorney agreed with Cohen that Churchill’s action constituted plagiarism. Dalhousie never reported Churchill’s theft to CU, apparently because Cohen feared physical retaliation from Churchill. She reported a late night phone call in which Churchill threatened “I’ll get you for this.”

When this story entered the public domain, the Colorado regents decided to rethink the notion of buying Churchill out. Regency is an elected office in Colorado, and paying Churchill to go away was more than their constituency could stomach. At this writing, the most likely outcome is a long court battle over academic freedom of speech, with a plaintiff whose behavior few scholars would tolerate, were he one of their own students.

Like Bellesiles, Churchill has played on political symbolism to defend himself. Churchill initially refused to respond to questions about plagiarism and fabricating evidence, nor would he address the issue of ethnic fraud. Instead, Churchill positioned himself as the victim of a right-wing campaign of censorship against dissenting scholars. As the tide turned against him last week, Churchill began spinning madly in an attempt to minimize his violations of scholarly norms. He still maintains that he is a victim of a right wing conspiracy to undermine academic freedom.

As a vocal critic of Churchill’s scholarly transgressions, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I do not think Churchill is competent to function as a university professor, given his disregard for the norms of honest scholarship. He should not remain in the academy. On the other hand, Churchill is correct when he complains that the assault on him is politically motivated, and is part of a broader assault on the institution of tenure and academic freedom. Thus the academy must support Churchill’s contract rights in this controversy, no matter how distasteful that prospect may be.

But that leaves us at a stand-off. What we have here is a man who climbed onto a rickety chair, put a noose around his own neck, hurled abuse hither and yon, and then complains that the folks kicking the chair out from under him are attacking academic freedom. Are the records of Churchill and other dissenting scholars now immune from review, simply because the review might be politically motivated? If so, that leaves no way to discipline professional misconduct by such people. But if review only happens when you get someone angry at you, it casts a pall over freedom of expression.

Responsibility for this state of affairs traces back to the CU administrators who tenured Churchill—despite his lack of a doctorate, without the normal tenure review, and despite the fact that he avoids publishing in peer-reviewed venues—simply in order to create the impression of racial-ethnic diversity among the campus’s faculty. Documents obtained by the press show that the CU administration had a difficult time finding a department that was willing to roster Churchill. Eventually, they strong-armed the Communications department into accepting him. Additional documents reveal that when CU founded its Ethnic Studies department a few years later, there was no shortage of other qualified applicants for Churchill’s position, and that a number of them had far more legitimate claims to Indian heritage than Churchill.

Had CU only followed the normal vetting procedures for hiring and tenuring faculty, this particular scandal may never have occurred. The CU administration had a second chance to address the problem when Professor LaVelle brought Churchill’s habit of plagiarism and fabrication to light nearly ten years ago. Instead, CU dithered and failed to act, thus allowing the media and the political class to drive the issue.

The Bellesiles controversy was eventually resolved when Bellesiles resigned from Emory. But Churchill is disinclined to go, and has told the press that if fired, he will sue and “own the university”. Whether or not Churchill keeps his job, we in the academy will have to grit our teeth over Churchill’s disregard of scholarly norms, and the consequent loss of legitimacy for the entire academic enterprise. On the other hand, if Churchill is fired, it means that academic freedom of speech now comes with the fear of investigation, should you say the wrong thing to the wrong crowd at the wrong time. Whatever the outcome for Churchill himself, the academy loses.

Related Links

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