I Called The Ward Churchill Verdict

On several occasions, I have (unpopularly) argued that Ward Churchill's firing from his tenured faculty position at the University of Colorado was unjustified, as the termination seemed to pretty clearly be due to his remarks about 9/11 rather than any academic mis-conduct.

While Colorado has tried to argue that they fired him because his academic work was weak, I have argued that it is no weaker than much of the work done by any number of high-profile racial and gender studies departments  (Duke University being just one recent example).  Racial and gender studies professors are generally evaluated based on their political activism, not their scholarship, so firing Churchill was both wrong on a first amendment basis and wrong because his statements on 9/11 were merely conforming to the standards of his chosen academic discipline.

A jury seems to agree:

A jury found on Thursday that the University of Colorado had wrongfully dismissed a professor who drew national attention for an essay in which he called some victims of the Sept. 11 attacks "little Eichmanns."...

The jurors found that Mr. Churchill's political views had been a "substantial or motivating" factor in his dismissal, and that the university had not shown that he would have been dismissed anyway.

If you don't believe me about activism trumping scholarship as a criteria for hiring racial and gender studies professors, just listen to Churchill's lawyer:

Mr. Lane, Mr. Churchill's lawyer, said his client had been a spokesman throughout his academic career for disempowered people and causes "” a trait, Mr. Lane said, that never made Mr. Churchill popular with people in power. "For 30 years, he's been telling the other side of the story," Mr. Lane said.

Missing are terms like study, research, investigation, etc -- this is activism, pure and simple.  And Colorado knew it and wanted it when they hired him, so it was wrong for them to fire him for it.


  1. DrTorch:

    The proper thing to do is eliminate the department. You can get rid of tenured faculty that way. At any rate, that's what should be done w/ these departments in every state-funded university.

  2. Orthogonal Vision:

    The more practical solution is to get rid of tenure. The concept of someone busting their buns for 7 years and then being able to kick back with a life long job (only revokable for doing something illegal or violating professional code of ethics) does not make sense in today's world. The argument that academic freedom requires this lifetime waiver doesn't wash today, where professors are either compensated by the university for their teaching and/or administrative duties (for which they should be regularly reviewed and evaluated) or they obtain outside sponsorship (grants, etc. from government or private sources).

    If nobody outside the university is willing to pay a professor to work and the university does not believe they are getting their money's worth in terms of teaching and other duties relevant to the university, why should the professor get a free ride the rest of his life?

    Tenure can evolve into something like moving from annual performance reviews to three and then five year reviews.

  3. David W:

    On the other hand, tenure does have a strong effect when it's used properly. In an engineering school, for instance, they can hire a strong graduate for ~70-80K and get 60-80 hour weeks out of them, while the same Ph.D would be worth 90-100K in industry for 40 hour weeks. In addition, they can use the chance of tenure to motivate a horde of post-docs at 40-50K, and can always reject a significant fraction of those who did put in the time but were just unlucky in their research results. As long as they're careful to only grant tenure to those who'll 'slack off' down to 45 hours a week, they can staff the place a lot cheaper than if they used at-will contracts. Even when they mess up, it's usually a wash because they got their money's worth and then some out of the professor when he was young.

  4. Mike C:

    I agree with the poster. The University of Colorado got EXACTLY theirs with this verdict. They wanted to hire an activist then they shouldn't be surprised when he runs off at the mouth. That being said, I think what Churchill said was reprehensible and wholly irresponsible, and I think he SHOULD be held accountable for it. After all, stupid SHOULD hurt.

  5. Nelson:

    Folks: I have no doubt that Churchill was looked at in greater detail because of his remarks after 9/11. Having said that, he made numerous false claims in his research. To my knowledge, two authors of studies that Churchill sited said that he purposefully mistated their work and that have firing was the appropriate remedy. The AIM (American Indian Movement)has stated that Churchill's claim to have American Indian roots is false. Two wrongs don't make a right. He should never have been hired in the first place. Now that we know the extent of his academic fraud what is the University suspose to do? What a weird world we live in. Sorry Steve, I think you are off base on this one.

  6. Ross:

    I would have to agree with Nelson on this one. Churchill's "Eichmann" essay brought him under scrutiny, but it was his plagiarism, his lying regarding ethnicity, his distortion of others work, etc., that are the real issues. He is an academic fraud who should not be employed by a University.
    Juries often get it wrong.

  7. bobby b:

    Tenure: Wonder how many long-term quietly conservative profs retain their spots mostly due to tenure? The statismocracy that rules most of academia wasn't there 20 or 25 years ago, and so those olde fartz had fellow individualists on their faculty to provide mutual support, but most of them are gone now, leaving the painfully small cohort of conservative engineers and docs and biologists and . . . . the real scientists and empiricists, the "facts are your friends" people, who, academic excellence aside, still have to run the liberal, Statist PC gauntlet every day they come to school. For their sakes, keep tenure.

    Churchill: is the law regarding dismissal now truly going to be modeled after search-and-seizure law? If they said "what he said about the victims was awful - go investigate his bona fides one more time", and they then find that he lied about his qualifications, his criminal record, his name and SSN, his attraction to minor boys - they can't act on that new information in the manner in which they would normally act upon learning such things, merely because their initial driving reason for even looking at him was improper?

    But then, if we truly do give serious criminals a pass when we try them on poisonous-tree evidence, I suppose that, in the defense of all such rights, UC-B probably does have to ignore those issues now when they make continued-employment decisions about him.

  8. Bob Sykes:

    You can't get rid of tenured faculty simply by eliminating a department. Under AAUP guidelines, which courts generally follow, the faculty in an eliminated department must be placed in other faculty positions. The faculty are dismissed only if the elimination is due to a provable finacial exigency.

  9. diz:

    so firing Churchill was both wrong on a first amendment basis and wrong because his statements on 9/11 were merely conforming to the standards of his chosen academic discipline

    I don't see how the 1st Amendment applies at all here. The 1st Amendment prevents the government from tossing you in jail for your speech. It does not prevent your employer from firing you for it.

    The only real question is what does his tenure agreement allow him to be fired for.

  10. DWPittelli:

    The 1st Amendment... does not prevent your employer from firing you for it.

    Actually it does, if your employer is the government, such as a state university.

  11. Allen:

    This was a civil suit with a lower bar of proof. So yes, the young jury said that the firing came not from academic dishonesty but because of the blow-up over the paper. But Churchill was awarded an entire dollar in damages. Not exactly a ringing endorsement that Churchill was harmed. You'd think at least he'd be able to get some compensation for his last 4 years of lost wages, maybe more dependent on if the judge rules that he's to be reinstated, and some damages. But a $1?

  12. tehag:

    If only I'd known before working on my master's degree (which now I wish I'd done in CO) that I could plagiarize all I wanted, cite non-existent sources, etc., then defend myself my saying none of my academic violations matter because I'm loud-mouthed and hate-filled and that's why you're after me.

    If Churchill won't be disciplined for his "academic" work then why should I care if any other academic is fraud?


  13. Shaunsky:

    He didn't plagiarize, the jury found that all of the charges were false or very minor.

    CU will have to pay 1 million to his lawyers in addition to 5 million to their own, plus may have to pay back pay and re-instate him depending on the judge's decision.

  14. Eric:

    OK, so what you're saying is that the University made the wrong argument. They should have said, "Yes, we hired him to be an activist. However, he crossed the line. We fired him for being bad at the job for which he was hired." Tenure or no, he CAN be fired for poor performance.