A plea for Ward Churchill

Dear President Brown and Provost Poliakoff:

I am writing once again regarding my urgent concern over your impending
decision regarding the fate of Professor Ward Churchill. It is my strongly
held belief that Churchill and his work have been vital to the field of
Native American/Indian studies in the United States. In spite of several
errors of fact or citation revealed during the unprecedented scrutiny of his
writings (a scrutiny not applied even during his promotion to full professor
and department chair), the basic thrust of his work–which is largely
accurate–has been to educate the public regarding the history of American
Indian experience since the founding of the Anglo colonies on our continent.

Any politically motivated committee could find errors in almost any
scholar’s work. The point of published scholarship is that one would be
accountable to the broader intellectual community, whose further research
serves to correct the record and move knowledge forward. Being wrong in the
process of marshalling evidence in support of one’s claims is not usually a
firing offense among scholars and, as in the case of Galileo, what counts as
“wrong” is often a political matter.

I beg you to keep in mind that the timing and content of this scrutiny of
Professor Churchill demonstrates its political character. The conservative
organization American Council of Trustees and Alumni has reported that Ward
Churchill is only their first major target; they foresee many more. It was
after their politicized charges that the University of Colorado felt it
necessary to search for evidence condemning Churchill allegedly on the basis
of his scholarship– even though it is clear that your committees’ efforts
arose out of offense at his remarks after 9/11.

As wrongheaded as I may find those remarks (although his argument that U.S.
actions generated anger and resistance, including terrorism, seems
sustainable to me), it is the right of every intellectual as a scholar and a
citizen to speak his or her mind on matters of importance. Offensive public
speech and action–from the Boston Tea Party to the integration of public
schools to veterans and their families coming out against the war in
Iraq–constitute a fine tradition in building a democratic public life and
spurring significant social progress.

If you proceed to fire Ward Churchill, you will have set an incredibly
chilling precedent redolent of McCarthyism. Any number of fine scholars with
unpopular but necessary (at least in a democracy) critical ideas and
controversial new knowledge will be vulnerable after your decision. You may
not personally be motivated by political censorship, but many organizations
across this country (including ACTA and David Horowitz’s groups) are
awaiting your signal. They will swiftly and surely take your lesson as one
in how to shut up critical intellectuals. If the strategy of miring
administrations and scholars in the most minute details blinds us to the
political, historical, and intellectual contexts of these efforts, any
inadvertent footnoting error or misremembering of sources, any claim that is
honestly mistaken, or any politically brazen public statement may mean the
end of a career for some wonderful, bright, productive, and brave
colleagues.

Thus, I urge you to think very carefully about the issues I have raised as
you make your decision. What you do now has implications far beyond the
narrow details of one scholar’s work. If you dismiss Professor Churchill,
you will be acting against the spirit of democratic inquiry and academic
freedom. The credibility of the claims of Native Americans to the
recognition of their histories is at stake. So are the futures of many
intellectuals whose work is crucial to the vibrancy of our public life and
future knowledge.

I thank you for considering my thoughts.

Earnestly,

Dana L. Cloud
Associate Professor
Department of Communication Studies
University of Texas
CMA 7.114
1 Longhorn Station A1105
Austin, TX 78712

(512) 471-1947
dcloud@mail.utexas.edu

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One thought on “A plea for Ward Churchill

  1. So according to Dana, there is no such thing as research misconduct? You seem to have waved your hands and dismissed Churchill’s serial acts of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism as mere errors that will be corrected in due time by other scholars.

    Would you tolerate such behavior from your own students? Can I sign up for your class, and then plagiarize and make up fairy tales with impunity in my term paper?

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