University of Colorado Professor: Why We Must Support Ward Churchill–a letter to skeptical colleagues

April 19, 2007

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing in response to the refusal of many of my academic colleagues to look carefully at the firing of Professor Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado-Boulder. It is true that many people disagree with some of Professor Churchill’s stances, and others find his controversial statements to be offensive. However, even the University of Colorado found that his statements were, in fact, protected under the United States Constitution.

What I find profoundly disturbing is the fact that people do not seem to be able to distinguish between supporting a principle and supporting a person. It is our ethical obligation to support principles of integrity, objectivity, due process and academic freedom, even if we detest the individual whose acts are under consideration. Further, I find it appalling that many of my colleagues who refuse to support Professor Churchill are doing so in ignorance of what really has actually transpired here at the University of Colorado and with a profound lack of information about the facts of the case on the ground. Let me explain, and let me assure you that I am not a “Churchill groupie!!” I, too, once had serious misgivings about Professor Churchill’s scholarship, given the media firestorm that surrounded this case and the nearly total blackout on any alternative perspectives on the matter.

It is critical to realize that one very important fact of academic life has haunted this entire process: Faculty naively have come to trust that the procedures governing reviews, due process, academic freedom and faculty governance are, in fact, fair, appropriate, and duly constituted. The University of Colorado administration has capitalized cynically on that trust in ways that has allowed said administration to put together what looks like a fair process, but which, in fact, has been totally hijacked. What has happened at the University of Colorado makes a mockery of both due process and academic freedom protections, AND what faculty believe. It is a cruel violation of the delicate balance between faculty rights and administrative responsibilities. What happened at CU has allowed the CU administration to argue that “the process worked” and that faculty themselves found that Churchill should be fired. Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened.

Many scholars refuse to question the outcomes of the Churchill case on the grounds that duly constituted faculty and administrative bodies have found serious misconduct on Churchill’s part. If only this were true. The truth is that the special investigating committee only appeared to be duly constituted. In fact, some of its members were biased against Churchill from the outset and the body itself did not constitute an appropriate investigative body. Its chair already had preconceived negative opinions about Professor Churchill. It did not include anyone from Churchill’s own specific area, and thus, he was not judged by a jury of his disciplinary peers. The one person with expertise in Indian Affairs was an expert in Indian law only, not the only area in which Churchill writes. Most egregious, the committee inappropriately relied on very limited information from sources known to be biased against Professor Churchill and his perspectives in American Indian scholarship to create their report. Even the charges of plagiarism, those most disturbing to competent scholars, do not hold up. The entire process was a sham—imitating the form, but not the intent, of due process and fair, objective, scholarly investigation. The actions of the committee violated the intent of laws of the CU Regents, and both the intent and the form of AAUP guidelines on due process and academic freedom, guidelines which CU says they uphold. Clearly, CU did not uphold these guidelines in the Churchill case and others on campus. Clearly, the hijacking of once-revered procedures poses a danger to all of us. Ward Churchill could be any of us. This could happen to ANY of us.

Many academics also have argued that if an investigation, even one generated for motives that are questionable, nonetheless turns up evidence of serious misconduct, that misconduct must, in fact, be addressed and punished. If only the investigation had really turned up such evidence in the record of Professor Churchill! However, even a cursory examination of the investigatory report itself reveals it to be fatally flawed with error and misrepresentation. One of these errors was admitted by the chair of the investigatory committee on April 9, just days after it had been revealed to the press by Dr. Eric Cheyfitz of Cornell University, a distinguished scholar in both Indian studies and Indian law. Dr. Cheyfitz, in fact, argues that the investigatory committee’s report should be rescinded as a disgrace to scholarship–an opinion with which I concur. I urge fellow academicians to read Dr. Cheyfitz’s analysis of the facts of the report, as well as the investigatory committee’s report itself. They are revelatory. The actions of the committee are far worse than any of the charges leveled against Churchill; at least his “errors”—even if they were true—did not stand to ruin a human being’s reputation and a scholar’s career. This could happen to ANY of us.

I do urge you to look a bit more deeply into this important case. It is not limited to Colorado. In fact, it is a test case by the US right wing to emasculate faculty rights in US universities. It is spearheaded by ACTA, the Association of College Trustees and Alumni and other similar organizations. Should you feel that I am exaggerating, I simply refer you to ACTA’s own publications, including “The Colorado Model: Any State Can,” “How Many More Ward Churchills?” and most recently, “Friends in High Places.” It is very important that all of us who value academic freedom and the integrity of the university stand up and support the campaign to prevent witch hunts such as have occurred with Professor Churchill from ever occurring again.

Margaret D. LeCompte, PhD
Professor of Education
University of Colorado-Boulder
(President, CU-AAUP Chapter–provided for information purposes only)

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