Ward Churchill Report Released

The University of Colorado yesterday released its report [PDF] from its investigation into scholarly misconduct charges against controversial professor Ward Churchill.

The Denver Post summarizes the findings thusly:

University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill plagiarized, fabricated and falsified material and was disrespectful of American Indian traditions in his writings, a report released today said. Three of the five scholars who examined the ethnic studies professor’s work for four months believe Churchill’s academic misconduct is serious enough that CU could fire him from his tenured job, the report said. But two of those three said the most appropriate sanction would be to suspend him without pay for five years.


The committee investigated seven allegations against Churchill, including concerns about his writings about Indian law and a smallpox epidemic at Fort Clark. The committee found that Churchill’s “misconduct was deliberate and not a matter of an occasional careless error.” It found “serious deviation from accepted practices” in university research and that Churchill did not comply with established standards regarding author credit on publications.

Inside Higher Ed adds,

Among the violations that the committee found Churchill had committed were falsification, fabrication, plagiarism, failure to comply with established standard regarding author names on publications, and a “serious deviation from accepted practices in reporting results from research.” The committee also found that Churchill “was disrespectful of Indian oral traditions” in his writings about an 1837 smallpox epidemic.

While most of the blogosphere commentary on this is focusing on the left/right political angle, I’m mostly interested in this from an academic standpoint and am rather torn. Two excellent legal scholar-bloggers whose views I respect summarize that angle.

Steve Bainbridge thinks this sends a bad message in terms of academic freedom because of selective enforcement.

I’m not fan of Ward Churchill, to put it mildly, but as an academic I’m troubled by this incident. On the one hand, academic misconduct is not to be tolerated. On the other hand, Churchill was singled out for an extensive investigation as a result of adverse publicity surrounding his role as a public intellectual. Apparently, there have been reports within his field of possible misconduct for years, which Colorado ignored until critics of Churchill’s politics brought the charges to the attention of the mass media and the blogosphere. You will recall that Churchill wrote an essay in which he compared the victims of 9/11 to “little Eichmanns.” After Colorado’s regents were told the First Amendment barred them from punishing Churchill for that essay, they ordered the just completed investigation. Hence, the investigation was clearly political and retaliatory in its motivation. The lesson is don’t say anything that gets the state governor and media worked up or you’ll face a committee charged with going over your work with a fine tooth comb. The whole incident thus could have a chilling effect on academic freedom.

Eugene Volokh, though, writing at HuffPo, notes that ,

Even prosecution of people who are guilty of a nonspeech crime might thus violate the First Amendment if the government deliberately selected them for prosecution because of their constitutionally protected expression (though I should note that this is a very tough claim to prove).

Nonetheless, whatever may be the rule for criminal prosecutions triggered by the policeman’s own hostility to the target’s speech, such a rule need not be applied here. This isn’t a criminal prosecution, but the university’s decision whether to keep someone on its faculty; it need not keep a dishonest scholar on board, even if the complaints about the scholar were motivated partly by the complainers’ hostility to the scholar’s viewpoints. And as best I can tell, there’s little reason to think that the University wouldn’t have investigated Churchill had he been accused of the same misconduct but had expressed diferrent views. These are serious charges, and my guess is that most universities would indeed look into alleged multiple falsification of evidence and plagiarism by their faculty members.


As the report points out, “public figures who choose to speak out on controversial matters of public concern naturally attract more controversy and attention to their background and work than scholars quietly writing about more esoteric matters that are not the subject of political debate” (p. 4) (emphasis added). That seems to me to be exactly what happened here. Unfortunately for Ward Churchill, it turns out that his scholarship couldn’t bear the attention that his statements prompted. [emphases original]

Gary Farber addresses Churchill’s complaints about selective enforcement more bluntly:

Oh, bullpucky. It came to the attention of everyone that you were a lying, dishonest, sack of… stuff, who was particularly scummy about misrepresenting yourself as an American Indian, and then further lied a lot when the tribes called you on it. Insofar as you are a leftist, you are a disgrace and you make leftists look awful by association insofar as we don’t disown you. Go slink off somewhere and forge some more artwork somewhere where we’ll never have to hear from you again.

As I wrote over a year ago,

[A]s the huge swarm over his remarks made clear, the likes of Churchill don’t dominate the faculty. Contrary to mythology, Churchill is not representative of the academy. While it’s true that college faculties almost everywhere are well to the left of the community, the vast majority are serious scholars and teachers who operate well within the bounds of civil discourse.

That, though, is a separate issue from willful misrepresentation of one’s scholarly credentials, plagiarism, and other serious cases of misconduct. Still, I share Bainbridge’s concern that controversial professors–whether of the Left or Right–might be singled out for Star Chamber inquiries into their backgrounds. I’d rather keep a few scumbags like Ward Churchill on our college faculty than set that precedent. The maxim that “if you don’t have anything to hide, you should welcome the investigation” is not one that I’d like to live by in an ostensibly free society.

Hard cases make bad law. Just as Larry Flynt is not the poster boy one would want when arguing the virtues of free speech, Churchill is not the icon of academic freedom*. But selective prosecution of either of them starts us down a rather slippery slope.

*Note: I’m not saying Churchill’s conduct falls within the ambit of academic freedom; it doesn’t. But, if the misconduct was known by the University before Churchill gained national political attention, the sudden interest in investigating it strikes me as a backdoor violation.



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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    I’m afraid I couldn’t agree less!

    Volkh has it right: no matter one’s field, no matter one’s politics, if you step into the spotlight you will attract attention. (That’s why you stepped into the spotlight in the first place, no?)

    Attracting attention can be good or bad and you need to consider the consequences of that. Had Churchill quietly conducted his various frauds, he’d still be getting away with them. That might have saved his hide, but at what price to the reputation of the institution or, most importantly, to the students who believed what he was professing?

    It is not “selective enforcement” to deal with a problem that is screamingly attracting attention. Firemen go first to houses on fire, after someone has sounded an alarm, not houses that might be on fire.

    Are you suggesting that some academics would escape sanctions for activities such as Churchill’s? If so, on what grounds? Simply because their malfeasance was as yet undetected?

  2. RA says:

    Because he is an American hating left-wing scumbag they won’t do a thing to him.

  3. Steven Plunk says:

    Selective prosecution may be a good thing here.

    Serving notice to those who would lie to gain a position in a major university does a service for all of us. Why would we put up with any lying like this?

    The whole selective prosecution thing is hooey as well. Not every speeder on the freeway is caught. Sometimes it’s just the guys doing 100 mph or the guy in a red sports car. Do they get to plead to the judge that it’s selective prosecution?

    Churchill is a manipulator. He is a bully. He simply doesn’t deserve to be in the position he is in. Prof. Bainbridge’s concerns are misplaced since a serious scholar who doesn’t lie has nothing to fear.

  4. James Joyner says:

    John and Steven: I take your point. Again, I don’t much mind in the case of Churchill. But I worry that this will incentivize witch hunts into all controversial figures. That’s not a good outcome.

  5. It would seem to me that someone should be very publicly fired. Either the administration that hired and retained him with his fraud or Ward himself for his actions.

    If you say we should not reward those who went hunting for Ward because of his views, I can understand the argument. We do not want to encourage witch hunts. But regardless of how his activities came to light, the activities them selves are certainly not something that we should encourage either.

    If the committee that hired him, the deans that kept him on and the president of the university were all fired for failing to detect and deal with a charlatan in their midst, I would be satisfied. The message that a witch hunt will not be delivered of a witch even if they find one is sent. The message that failure to do ones duty to keep your own nest clean is also sent.

  6. John Burgess says:

    Sure, “witch hunts” are bad, generally speaking. But sometimes there are, in fact, witches that need hunting.

    I do appreciate that innocents can get caught up in the whirlwind. But Salem seens to have been the last significant episode of mass murder of the innocents as a result of a witch hunt.

    The WWII internment of those of Japanese decent may well have been a witch hunt gone awry, but that error has been publicly admitted (pace Malkin) and restitution to some extent made.

    McCarthy’s methods may have been reprehensible–and they were–but there certainly were witches hiding among the innocents. Some were caught, some died still unidentified. And yes, some innocents may have been tarred in the process. That, however, doesn’t provide an excuse for permitting the “witches” to teach at will.

    The law may indeed let a ten guilty men go free rather than imprison one innocent man, but public opinion–and public institutions–don’t necessarily need to follow the same guidelines.

  7. RA says:

    The public is subsidizing these traitors. The public should have a say in who is teaching our children. The public has the right to fire those who are enemies of the vast majority of American citizens. It is a characteristic of a communist state to foist our enemies on our children.

    Let the Churchhills and the ACLU pay for their own platforms to subvert our country. The taxpayer want them out, they should be thrown out of the government trough.

    Those worried about “witch hunts” are ACLU idiots.

  8. JennyCW says:

    “…American hating left-wing scumbag…”

    RA, I’m pretty sure that Churchill’s a registered republican. Please don’t give those “American hating left-wing scumbags” ammunition against you by getting the facts wrong.

  9. McGehee says:

    RA, I�m pretty sure that Churchill�s a registered republican.

    And just where the @#$!! do you get that?