Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Churchill's Firing

My comment on an InsideHigherEd report:
The University of Colorado has been desperately seeking to find an excuse to fire Ward Churchill, and the faculty who investigated the case (and who plainly hate Ward Churchill, for many legitimate reasons), gave Hank Brown the opening to do this. Although Brown is violating the judgment of the faculty panel about the penalty, he can claim enough support among the faculty committees to get away with it. I think the primary fault here lies with the faculty members, who pushed forward a misguided interpretation of "fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism" in order to get rid of an annoying, obnoxious, and flawed scholar who embarrassed their university and hurt its reputation. Brown's claim that Churchill was not a victim of selective investigation and punishment is completely implausible. Unless the University of Colorado plans to systematically investigate the scholarship of all tenured professors, rather than those who attract negative public attention, it is inevitable that outspoken scholars will be subject to more scrutiny than anyone else. The fact that Brown (unlike the faculty committees) is unconcerned by this fact should disturb everyone.

If Churchill were just an average professor, I don't think any of this would have come up. Nothing proven against Churchill appears to meet the classic definitions of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism that previously have led to punishment of faculty. So I would have objected to this expansion of the definition of punishable research misconduct even if it had nothing to do with a political witchhunt. Fundamentally, I think the best way to respond to poor scholarship and shaky reasoning by Churchill is to criticize him and expose his errors, not to try to fire people who make mistakes. The real question is, if Churchill can be fired on these grounds, there are probably thousands upon thousands of professors who have also made factual mistakes and cited sources that disagree with their conclusions. No one seriously imagines that all of these professors will be investigated, and as a result only the controversial professors will be subject to this expanded definition. Of course, we can all hope that the Colorado committee's decision was merely an ad hoc justification to get rid of a distasteful colleague, and not a serious expression of some new approach to research misconduct. But as I have argued, the danger is that this may just be the beginning of a politicized attack on leftists by finding some flaw in their research.

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