Roosting Chickens: Ward Churchill and the University of Colorado
Ward Churchill, the justifiably embattled ethnic studies professor at the justifiably embattled University of Colorado, is a walking case history of much that is wrong with publicly-funded universities.
Churchill, who for decades spewed his bile in obscurity, is now notorious, for an essay that equated victims of 9-11 to “little Eichmanns,” temporarily symbolizing the confluence of media and controversy that in our society confers footnotes to relevance. Churchill likes the attention, which has inflated him to B-list bad boy of academia status.
CU (and other soon-to-be-similarly-situated taxpayer-funded institutions of “higher education”) cannot be so enamored of the attention.
CU once enjoyed a well-earned reputation as a party school par excellence. Setting old sofas and cars ablaze was a favorite student pastime. Local recyclers of beverage containers could live well above the poverty level. Students could walk to a passable fly-fishing stream or ski out their dorms, taking requisite care not to run down pedestrians addled by substances legal and otherwise.
By and by, the school developed some fine academic programs, particularly in the hard sciences. It also became a cocoon for wannabes of the sheltered academic left, a welterweight contender, so to speak. Boulder was rocky mountain high ISO an edge.
In that environment, Ward Churchill was hired, awarded tenure and ultimately named Chairman of the Ethnic Studies Department, paid 94 big ones to rage against the machine. Without a doctorate. Without much published scholarly work. Without, it would seem, even much real teaching experience.
Good revolutionary gig, eh? But why, how and from whom did he get it? Under what distorted criteria? How did he keep the job and advance when serious questions of scholarship, ethics, even his claimed “American Indian” heritage, arose long before the bizarre essay that itself only blew by delayed fuse?
National media quickly tired of the Churchill story, correctly judging the brouhaha over Harvard President Larry Summers to have better legs as an academic Punch and Judy show. In Colorado, however, the Churchill story is being kept alive by the efforts of KHOW radio talk show host Dan Caplis, indefatigably filing open-records law demands for documents, and the ever-estimable Rocky Mountain News, just rooting out details and writing them in clear prose.
The steadily unfolding, yet-to-be-concluded result is that Churchill appears to have gamed the system he rails against and found a tribe of academic suckers and suck-ups who looked not past his rhetorical rants and pony tail for authenticity.
According to the Rocky Mountain News, “Churchill’s original 1978 application to the school for a position as a lecturer in Native American studies included a completed federal affirmative action form, on which he claimed ‘American Indian’ ethnicity.” Investigations by the News and others have found no documentation for those claims, which have varied in the Churchill telling over the years. It is known that 11 American Indians applied for the job. Churchill got it, kept it and moved on up.
Other documents obtained by Caplis and reporting by the News show that Churchill was granted tenure under highly irregular circumstances, fast-tracked and by-passing a typical six-year review, rejected by the sociology and political science departments before being reluctantly accepted in communications under pressure from then-Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Charles Middleton. Churchill got his tenure in 1991, with a contract made out to “Dr. Ward Churchill,” although he holds no earned doctorate.
Whatever the misgivings of the academic department heads, it is clear from News interviews with a number of CU folks that CU’s administration had a diversity-in-tenure train on the tracks that was not to be derailed by petty questions about degrees and scholarship. Making the tenure push even murkier, CU officials either feared or said they feared that Churchill was about to be picked off by California State University. But that application was dead on arrival, according to a former Cal State official who spoke with the News. Why? “Lack of credentials” and “Churchill wasn’t writing learned articles…. [CU] thought Churchill was a hot prospect. He wasn’t that hot. The only place he was hot was at CU.”
It does not say much for the real-world impact of academic publishing that CU also seems to have paid no attention to the works of two professors at other schools – Thomas Brown, a professor of sociology at Lamar University and University of New Mexico law professor John LaVelle – who have lambasted Churchill’s writings, making direct charges of fabrication and plagiarism.
For landing and coddling CU’s “hot prospect,” CU is now on the hot seat. Already reeling from sex and sports scandals, the school is between the Rockies and a hard place regarding Churchill. Directed by Regents to undertake a full-scale investigation, the school has no legitimate choice other than to fire Churchill for cause if its investigations certify the charges that keep piling up in the pig sty. That will inevitably result in all manner of accusations regarding free speech, academic freedom, possibly even racism, all misplaced in a case like this.
When Colorado Governor Bill Owens first called for Churchill to be fired, Churchill angrily responded that he does not “work for the taxpayers of the state of Colorado.” He does and so do (or did) all those CU administrators complicit in his provocative career. To provoke is a valid technique of education (the education of Larry Summers aside), but it is not the thing itself. Providing safe haven for provocateurs without portfolio is no more valid in academia than anywhere else.
This week, the Rocky Mountain News reported that applications to CU from out-of-state students have dropped 19 percent from last year, and “if actual enrollment figures for the next school year follow that trend, CU officials project the decrease could translate into a loss of $15 million in tuition revenue.” Even in-state applications are down four percent.
Although it seems too early in the Churchill saga for it to have impacted those numbers, it won’t help. While it is somewhat encouraging to believe that some parents may well be exercising choices to avoid schools enmeshed in scandal and controversy, ideological and otherwise, that is no consolation to the taxpayers of Colorado who are owed better from CU. It is past time for CU and other public universities to recognize and exercise their fundamental responsibilities to education.February 24, 2005