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Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Indian Wars come to the campus

The University of Colorado is bi-polar. On one extreme, it has some of the most progressive and productive academic programs in the country. On the other, it has some of the most oppressive political involvement in its governance in the country. The polarities are most evident in its program in Native American Studies.

Professor Ward Churchill, who headed the program in ethnic studies, was fired from his job. A source of much controversy, he wrote an essay following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in which he contended that many of the people who worked in the Trade Center buildings worked in complicity with the forces that oppressed and exploited people throughout the world. He called them "little Eichmanns," a phrase which induced apoplexy in many Americans. The governor of Colorado at the time, other politicians, and regents of the University called for his firing. Academics responded that firing him for saying something because it offended some people would be a violation of the most basic academic freedom. The CU administration concurred on that point.

However, some critics of Ward Churchill had long claimed that he misrepresented and fabricated source materials in some of his work. These charges were seized upon by those who wanted him fired and were escalated into charges of academic misconduct. The University submitted the evidence to review panels on academic ethics, and those panels found that Churchill had misrepresented source materials and recommended his firing, which the University did.

An academic organization I belong to was confronted by some members with the question of whether it should intervene or take a position on the matter. It assembled a panel of professors who were scholarly writers and editors and asked it to review the materials Churchill was charged with misrepresenting. I was asked to serve on the panel. I found that Churchill had, in fact, violated the rules of academic integrity. That was the unanimous verdict of the panel. The panel was not asked what disciplinary action would be appropriate for Churchill, but I have long thought that any professor who misrepresents or fabricates source materials should be dismissed. Some prominent academic leaders thought that what Churchill did is routine in the squabbling that comprises much academic debate and that he did not deserve to be fired.

Churchill sued to get his job back. In April, a jury found that the University of Colorado had wrongly fired him. Their verdict found that although he had violated scholarly rules, that violation was only a pretext for his firing. They determined that the real reason was his inflammatory essay that used the phrase "little Eichmanns," Their finding was made ambiguous when they awarded him $1 in damages. Whether or not he should get his job back was left to the judge.

Last week the judge, Denver Chief Judge Larry Naves, issued a ruling that supported Churchill's firing. However, the ruling was widely misreported in the press. What Judge Naves did was set aside the jury's verdict. He said that the Colorado regents were protected from being sued because they were acting in a quasi-judicial capacity when they fired Churchill. Consequently, the whole jury trial was, in effect, dismissed because the suit was not legitimate, therefore, the verdict was an exercise without any legal standing.

Churchill and his lawyers have said they will appeal Judge Naves' ruling. While the ruling is an elaborate and complex analysis of legal principles and precedents, it does not address the degree of political pressure and influence in Churchill's firing. A number of legal experts have pointed out that the political motive behind Churchill's firing nullifies any claim to judicial immunity on the part of the regents. One Denver legal scholar puts it this way:

At trial, regent after regent testified about the pressure put on them by their constituents and other elected officials to rid the university of Churchill at any cost. Politics was obviously intimately involved in the process of firing Churchill.

Churchill and his lawyers have said they will appeal the case. In the opinion of many academic scholars, the case could well make it to the Supreme Court. Many conservative commentators have heaped accusations on Churchill in addition to his mishandling of scholarly materials. The essential question concerns the controlling motive behind the firing: political suppression of unpopular speech or academic misconduct.

And that question defines the bipolar state that the University of Colorado finds itself in, as do many universities. While the Internet has provided professors with extra-mural venues for expressing their opinions, it has shown that many of them do not know or do not abide by the rules that define legitimate citation of sources and the representation of materials. Like their non-academic counterparts, professors seem to think that the standards of scurrility practiced on blogs exempt them from the stringent rules of academic discourse. I for one thought the firing of Churchill for his falsification of source materials was appropriate, but the political climate in which it was done is troubling. Some professors on the panel that found him guilty of ethical violations recommended lesser discipline, such as demotion and temporary suspension. Their stance is probably more reasonable under the circumstances.

But this is not the first time that the University of Colorado has shown its bipolar symptoms. Another prominent American Indian on its faculty was the late Vine Deloria, Jr., the Standing Rock Sioux who became a leading spokesman for Native American rights and recognition. Deloria retired from the U. of Colorado in 2000 and died in 2005. Deloria taught at the University of Arizona from 1978 to 1990 and at the U. of Colorado from 1990 to 2000. The year before his death, CU wanted to bestow an honorary degree on Deloria for his scholarly leadership in Native American issues, but he declined it. The reason was that CU was embroiled in a scandal involving its football team. A woman place kicker had charged that she was sexually assaulted by male teammates. The coach's response was to deride her performance as a kicker. Deloria thought the handling of the incident was contemptible. In rejecting the honorary degree, he said, "It's no honor to be connected to these people."

The American Indian program at the U. of Colorado shows the forces at work in academe in general and the bipolar forces at work between academic integrity and excellence and political motives to suppress academic research and debate and reduce universities to sites for sports entertainment.

The Indian Wars have come to the CU campus, and they are probably just beginning.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States