I’ve never written anything much about Ward Churchill on this blog–some of you may have wondered why, since for me it’s a local news story, and since I have written pretty extensively about the academic workplace and academia in the public sphere. 2008 was a relatively low-profile year for Churchill, and the politicians trying to get him fired have been out of office for a few years, as have the University of Colorado presidents who were involved in his censure and firing. Churchill’s civil lawsuit against the University of Colorado is being heard now in Denver, so this is really the first timel’affaire Churchill has been a timely topic for this blog, which has only been in existence since January 2008. (For those of you who just can’t get enough, this law blog is following the trial.)
The major reason I don’t have much to say about Churchill–the “roosting chickens” essay he wrote on September 12, 2001, the allegations of plagiarism against him, or his termination–is that I really don’t see any good guys in this story. (See this rundown by Dahlia Lithwick at Slate about how a 3-1/2 year old essay on the world wide self-published timewasting web suddenly became national news in the late winter of 2005.) Rumors had swirled around Churchill for years in the Native American studies community; many Native American historians in particular thought his work was slipshod and polemical, and I personally found the descriptions of the evidence of his plagiarism convincingly damning, although I haven’t studied the plagiarized articles and evidence in detail myself. (Whatever the outcome of the civil case, his record as a scholar is impeached–but then, I would argue that his main audience wasn’t ever really other scholars.)
Still, it’s clear to me–and I think to most reasonable people–that there never would have been an investigation of his scholarship had the essay he wrote on 9/12/01 not received more attention and had former Governor Bill Owens not ginned up the outrage on The O’Reilly Factor, and engaged in other right-wing agitprop. Click the link, and you can read a description of former CU President Betsy Hoffman’s account on the stand of a 2005 telephone conversation with the former Governor in which he told her to fire Churchill “the next day” or else he would “unleash his plan.” (Who did he think he was–Dr. Evil?)
Churchill on the one hand, and right-wing politicians like Owens on the other–they’re just sideshow clowns playing their scripted roles: the charismatic, bullying provocateur versus the falsely pious fake patriot who is shocked, just shocked. . . And we get distracted by the food fight and miss the fact that all of this could have been avoided had the University of Colorado RTFM’d: Read Their own eFfing Manual. CU hired Churchill as a tenured Associate Professor although he had only a Master’s degree, not a Ph.D., and then promoted him to Professor, most likely because they wanted a celebrity provocateur on their faculty. The university got what it wanted, and then some–but the net result of a case like this is that Churchill becomes the standard in many people’s minds for how university faculty are hired and evaluated. And for most of the rest of us extremely boring schmoes–it just isn’t so. We actually have to have terminal degrees, and the vast majority of us are hired as very untenured junior people who have to jump through a variety of hoops for six years before we’re admitted to the guild. We’re evaluated annually by every single person we work (students, peers, chairs, and deans) with while we’re probationary faculty, and then we’re evaluated by everyone but our peers every year thereafter. And every five years after tenure, many of us are reviewed in yet another separate process by our chairs and deans. Accountability? I’ve got yer accountability right here, pal–this is Baa Ram U., not A.I.G.
Churchill is a very dodgy person who got away with his dodginess for years–but only because CU encouraged him and rewarded him for it. He’s their baby, all the way. I hope he wins his lawsuit–not because I think he’s a sympathetic victim, but because the university didn’t follow its own policies in hiring and promoting him, and then the allowed themselves to be pushed into conducting their investigation of his scholarship by the political passions of the moment–something that ordinarily is done outside of public view at the time of tenure and promotion. (Hello, tenure and promotion committee? Deans who made and/or signed off on these decisions? Paging the Provost! This is your failure. The passions of the moment would have been a heck of a lot easier to resist if you had done your freakin’ jobs in the first place.) Universities have infinitely more money and time than individuals, and they regularly fire individual faculty members who don’t measure up to the universities’ stated standards for scholarship, teaching, and service. In this case, it seems to me that CU should pay the price for not holding Churchill to the same standard they’ve energetically applied to everyone else on the faculty.
Like I said, there are no good guys here, and everyone loses no matter who wins this particular case. It would be much more fun and interesting to come up with another angle besides RTFM, but this I think is one case in which faithfully following boring administrative processes instead of being seduced by celebrity could have saved CU a world of hurt.