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February 05, 2005

Ward Churchill Affair: Various Possible Reasons to Fire Him

I posted on Feb 4 and Feb. 2 on the Churchill affair. A couple of people have commented to me in emails that although the University of Colorado should not fire Ward Churchill maybe for his politcal views per se, he should be fired for other reasons, which may come up in the tenure-stripping investigation the University has started. This is what an editorial today in Colorado's main paper is saying, too. This follows strong political pressure. Gov. Bill Owens called for his firing. The Legislature more moderately condemned his views (they didn't call for him to be fired, as I said in my first version of this post)....


Earlier Thursday, the state Senate passed a resolution denouncing Churchill's comments as "evil and inflammatory." The nonbinding resolution was identical to one passed Wednesday by the House.

Democratic state Sen. Peter Groff cast the lone "no" vote, saying he disagreed with Churchill but that the resolution provides him with undeserved attention and attacks free speech.

The fact that the politicians are calling for Churchill's firing for bad reasons is in itself a good reason *not* to fire him now. It is, of course, perfectly possible, though, that (a) he ought not to be a full professor at Colorado, and (b) there exist grounds for stripping him of tenure. Items (a) and (b) are two different things, as I will explain below-- essentially, the difference between (a) not hiring somebody, and (b) the person having done something bad enough to be fired for.

Let's look at possible reasons for firing Churchill. The facts are described or linked to in my previous two posts.

(1) Churchill incited a mob to shut down a Columbus Day parade, escaping criminal conviction but not guilt.

This does sound like grounds to strip him of tenure. The University need not use "beyond a reasonable doubt", and this crime is particularly disturbing in a professor, more than tax evasion or burglary. But the University should have started the process back then, not now.

(2) Churchill falsely claimed to be an Indian, maybe.

In itself, race should not be the grounds for either hiring or firing, though we know that in fact there is tremendous racial discrimination by universities. (I discuss the facts in my Feb. 4 post.) If the lying is in academic writings, and crucial to those writings, then this would be grounds for firing. How it would be crucial is not clear but he might written something like the fraudulent book that got Rigoberta Menchu the Nobel Peace Prize.

(3) Churchill got tenure under false pretences.

If Churchill's publications did not really exist, or something like that, he should be fired. But I highly doubt that.

(4) Churchill should not have gotten tenure, because he is not a good enough scholar.

This is almost certainly true, from what I've seen on his website, but it must have been obvious to the tenure committee too. This goes back my distinction between (a) and (b). He should not have been given tenure, but it is too late for Colorado to back out of its contract now. It's very common for universities to have professors who got tenure 20 years ago but would not get it today. In fact, that is a sign of a successful university: that it has improved enough that it doesn't have to tenure the mediocrities it did 20 years before, and since those mediocrities have tenure, they are happy to see their departments improve. If I can hire new profs for my department that are better than me, I will, since we aren't in competition for the same job.

Churchill's case is different-- he looks unqualified even by laxer standards than today's. But it still is not grounds for stripping him of tenure. It is, on the other hand, a good reason to buy out his contract. I would not be surprised if that happens-- he negotiates a $500,000 secret golden parachute and leaves everybody happy.

(5) Churchill has improperly brought his politics into his classroom.

I would not be surprised by this, though I haven't seen any evidence of it yet except for a claim by an activist that he gave her a bad grade for a political reason. Even if it turns out that he has been too political in his classroom, that doesn't rise to the level of being something for which the university immediately strips a professor of tenure. Instead, he should be given a warning and punished only later. Giving a student a bad grade for political reasons is a more severe offense, and perhaps justified firing, but I'd want very good proof.

There are many, many, politically active, academically mediocre professors out there. Some departments are prone to hiring them, and some are not. The place to start dealing with this is not in firing, but in hiring, unless it is entire departments that are eliminated, which is a valid reason for firing people with tenure. That might be what should happen at Colorado-- disbanding the entire Ethnic Studies Department. But don't pick on just Churchill.

Posted by erasmuse at February 5, 2005 02:32 PM

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» Rasmusen on Churchill from ProfessorBainbridge.com
Eric Rasmusen has weighed in on the Ward Churchill matter in several posts, the most recent of which lists five plausible grounds on which CU could fire Churchill. But I still think CU shouldn't do so. As Eric observed in [Read More]

Tracked on February 7, 2005 12:19 AM

» Professorial Obligations from Democracy Project
The outrage that characterized the initial reaction to Ward Churchill's newfound fame hasn't so much passed as paved the way for more thoughtful writing on some foundational problems in academe. Among the more thoughtful I've come across is this post... [Read More]

Tracked on February 7, 2005 02:11 PM


The issues surrounding Ward Churchill are more important and complicated than anything this shake-and-bake leftist has said. As an academic myself, I'm concerned that this situation will serve as an opportunity for right-wing attacks on, and wild assertions about, all of Academe and especially the institution of tenure.

Tenure does serve a crucial role in ensuring that faculty feel comfortable in pursuing and speaking the Truth -- lofty as that sounds. But there's a two-way commitment. The faculty member in turn is assumed to be a professional who deeply and passionately loves a discipline, loves it enough to stay current in it, loves to talk about it and teach it, and to contribute in meaningful ways to it -- and this includes contributing work that can stand up to scholarly scrutiny from colleagues in the discipline. One certainly does have to wonder how Ward Churchill ever achieved tenure at a flagship state university. Given the very real possibilities being bruited about that he isn't even who he says he is, and hasn't done what he claims to have done in his life, you have to wonder as well if the hiring process broke down. The hiring committee was probably made up primarily of other ethnic studies faculty. But there had to be administrative approval up the line (been there and done that myself for several years). Did no one thoroughly check his references? And again, during the tenure process over a few years, probably no one but his own department was reviewing his work. And for the life of me, I can't figure out how a unversity hired a guy into a tenure-track position, and not only tenured him but allowed him to chair a department, without his having a doctorate. Curioser and curioser. Bringing politics into the classroom...hard to judge in a "discipline" like ethnic studies, which is usually an advocacy bull session rather than a serious research/teaching unit. Many colleges and universities have language in their faculty personnel policies about using instructional time appropriately, or something to that effect. Advocating for certain political viewpoints or actions rather than teaching about a subject would seem to pass beyond what a professor is hired to do and how classroom time is being spent. That may be one way to get at grounds for his dismissal. And if he in any way misrepresented himself as a minorty or lied about his credentials in employment forms, there is usually language on some of the personnel forms that would allow the institution to fire him for lying.

But let's not jump to damning conclusions about all of American higher education. One university for whatever reasons dropped the ball in its duty to hire, evaluate, and supervise a faculty member appropriately. Letting the sunshine in on Churchill hasn't actually been so bad. Let his irresponsible rants be publicized. Let it be pointed out that he's a hypocrite for taking good pay from the very democratic, capitalist system he would like to see destroyed, while cloaking himself in one of its noblest concepts, freedom of speech. Better yet, do what the universities did well for centuries: set up a series of debates at the Colorado campus -- or anywhere else -- between Churchill and scholars in real disciplines who can take him apart on the illogic and historical inaccuracy of his assertions.

Posted by: Susan at February 10, 2005 03:51 AM

Mr. CHurchill is adept at presenting theatrical type presentations to tabla rasa 18 year olds with short attention spans and a craving for entertainment.

Where Mr. Churchill is potentially the most vulnerable to his impressionable young disciples is in his economic hypocrisy.

Mr. Churchills rails against the corporate "little Eichmans". Those Twin Tower Stock and Bond traders, that keep the finances of the world flowing, including the funds that support campuses like CU, and gasp, these are the same folks who were putting together the stocks and bonds that compose the Pension Plan that Mr. Churchill is vested in through the Univ of Colorodo. You know the one. The one that has holdings in those energy companies, and those international banking concerns, and those fast food stocks, etc.

IF Mr. Churchill was truly of man of his convictions he would immediately divest himself of all those evil corporate holdings in his retirement plan as a statement of his true moral courage. Guess what folks. It aint gonna happen.
Mr. Churchill likes his cake and wants to eat it too, just like the fat cats, he always is threatening to kill or overthrow from power.

Ward Churchill is just another hypocritical scam artist who found an easy to manipulate audience. Sort of like an academic version of Charlie Manson.

Posted by: Winston Smith at March 3, 2005 08:46 PM

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