An Open Letter to Colorado University's President

Professor Churchill does have the right to “odious” commentary. ... The public also has a right to judge the university that provided academic standing.

March 2, 2005

Dr. Elizabeth Hoffman, President
University of Colorado
Office of the President
Boulder, CO 80309

Dear President Hoffman:

Significant issues regarding the employment of Professor Ward Churchill by the University of Colorado are cascading so quickly that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Let’s start with your attempt last week to jawbone Colorado legislators into shutting up about firing Professor Churchill.  A Rocky Mountain News report said you told them the law protects public employees’ right to free speech “no matter how odious it may be.”

Not that consistency matters much in situational academics, but there does seem to be some tension between that characterization and your earlier statement that “Professor Churchill’s comments have precipitated a discussion we ought to have.”

But we’ll set aside your rather quaint view of free speech rights — that the First Amendment guarantees professors absolute freedom such that their exercise of that freedom should provoke nary a response from elected officials who have constituencies (that would be citizens of Colorado) to whom they must answer and responsibilities that are greater than yours.  This, even though CU remains, after all, a public university, despite growing public perceptions of outlaw fiefdom.

In all fairness, you did say you were trying to reduce the chances that Professor Churchill could win a lawsuit, but perhaps if you and other CU officials had attended your responsibilities in a timely manner, legislators would have found no need to speak.  Perhaps they remember that you have been President of CU since September 2000, and there have been other scandals on your watch — sordid, ugly stuff.  That grand jury report leaked just this week, which CU fought mightily to suppress, contained more disturbing details.

The real issue is the viability of Professor Churchill’s CU employment does not concern free speech rights.  If it did, we and others would have already been there, legal briefs ablazing, offering to defend anyone so deprived.

Professor Churchill surely wants the issue to be about free speech or “purging the academy” by “white Republican” critics, in his words.  If he can keep the firestorm contained like that, he gets the support of students, faculty, other academics and some media, few of whom are going to have much interest in or acquaintance with the facts.  The ad placed by 200 CU faculty members this week, calling for an end to the investigation of Professor Churchill’s writings, amply illustrates that point.

Arguably, you and the CU administration also may want the issue to be about free speech rights, given what has been said so far.  That’s one way the whole bunch of you, past and present, can appear less inept.  Another, reported by the Denver Post last weekend, is the discussion about buying out Professor Churchill’s contract.  Pay him off, call it early retirement, “get everyone off the hook,” as sources told the paper.

You may be able to do that and get back quickly to your collegial teas and fundraising duties.  Such solutions are fast becoming the American Way, eliminating accountability, hiding responsibility.  Paying Professor Churchill off may well help CU’s reputation, superficially, in some quarters, simply by short-circuiting the controversy.  It would also be an affront to the fundamental ideals a university should represent, in all aspects of its existence.

Searching for the truth should be more than a theoretical academic concept, not limited to classrooms and research labs, not to be abandoned at the slightest intrusion of discomfort.  Searching for the truth regarding Ward Churchill — and CU’s treatment of him — would not seem all that difficult.  Forget the free speech red herring; this is a fact-based employment law case.  To treat it as anything else is to ignore evidence that must be pursued in the interest of probative inquiry.

Professor Churchill either did or did not claim “American Indian” ethnicity in his job application to CU.  Professor Churchill either did or did not claim affirmative action status deriving from said minority ethnicity to get his job.  If those claims were made and if those claims were not true, CU has grounds to end his employment.

Professor Churchill either has or has not demonstrably misrepresented cited source materials in his writings.  If he has, CU has grounds to end his employment.

Professor Churchill either has or has not demonstrably plagiarized the work of others in his writings.  If he has, CU has grounds to end his employment.

Whether Professor Churchill misrepresented his military service in Vietnam or made misrepresentations to CU to obtain tenure or even plagiarized a painting clearly require more inquiry, as may other concerns not yet publicly revealed.  Those issues depend a great deal on circumstances for their ultimate relevance.

Any culpability by CU officials or flawed contract language could introduce extenuating circumstances, but it is inconceivable if CU handled personnel issues appropriately that those would eliminate the possibility of termination for cause or for failure to adhere to accepted academic standards.

It may well be that after thorough investigation, neither witch hunt nor whitewash, Professor Churchill has done none of the things which have been alleged.  If he has not, then his name should be cleared of those taints, he should retain appropriate faculty status, the debate over his thoughts and views to continue in academic forum, public square and, yes, the state legislature, his reputation and that of CU to become issues of subjective public interpretation.

Absent all other issues, Professor Churchill does have the right to “odious” commentary.  Unfortunately for CU, the public also has a right to judge the university that provided academic standing, perhaps even tacit approval or encouragement for that commentary.  Free speech has many forms, not all moving in a singular direction.

On the basis of currently available information, it is difficult to identify anyone involved in the mess who has done the right thing so far.  You should do so — and now.

Find the truth, tell the truth, explain the meaning of that truth, stand by that truth.  Restore the essence of the university.


Center for Individual Freedom

[Posted March 3, 2005
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