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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