Ward Churchill Fired
It’s official; the University of Colorado Board of Regents met this afternoon and finally fired Ward Churchill by a vote of 8-1. This surprised no one; it was just a formality. The ACLU issued a statement opposing the dismissal, while ACTA vigorously attacked the ACLU’s view, claiming that academic freedom requires the dismissal of evil faculty.
Academic freedom requires both a procedural and a substantive component, and the firing of Churchill violates it in both respects. First, on the procedural grounds, although Churchill did receive due process in terms of faculty investigations, the proposed punishment of dismissal violates the recommended punishment of suspension by most of the faculty. Enhancing the penalty should be done only in extraordinary cases where the faculty judgment is flawed, and certainly not in this case, where the investigation of Churchill’s work only occurred because of his political views.
The Churchill case also violates the substance of academic freedom because the faculty committee was simply incorrect in its judgments. As I wrote on InsideHigherEd.com, Churchill clearly did not commit research misconduct when he cited works that did not support his views about American history. The committee’s conclusions about plagiarism are also unsupported by the facts. We can argue about why the faculty committee at Colorado did such a terrible job–it could have been political pressure, anger at Churchill for being an unrepentant asshole and causing embarrassment to the entire university, an inadequate understanding of academic freedom, or simply an obsession with the academic details of the historical record rather than the question of what mistakes deserve official punishment rather than criticism.
All that has been proven is that Churchill made some dubious claims in his writings without any real evidence, and that he engaged in ghost writing for some other academics. This is appalling, and it should be condemned, but it is nowhere near a firing offense, nor should it be. We need to condemn bad scholarship, not let politically motivated administrators and regents decide what tenured professors get fired for holding unpopular views.
Aaron Barlow seems to argue that we should abandon Churchill. However, when we defend academic freedom, we are defending a principle, not a person. We need to defend people like Ward Churchill, even if they do act like jackasses or idiots sometimes. When Churchill is fired based on trumped up charges for political reasons, it puts all academics (regardless of ideology) at risk.