Facts, Fictions, and Footnotes: Revisiting the Firing of Ward Churchill

Posted on 23 February 2009 by

wardThe increasingly massive number of words produced in either defaming Ward Churchill as an academic fraud, fabricator, and plagiarist, or in rebutting these charges, alone makes an analysis of the case a complex challenge. Add to that the political positions and motivations of the various actors, the questions that continue to go without answer, the multiple layers of research misconduct of those who charge research misconduct, and complexity begins to look more like utter chaos. As Ward Churchill proceeds to the trial of the University of Colorado, there is as yet no single fact sheet that has been produced that directly, succinctly, and methodically answers all of the academic charges against Churchill — instead the information is spread across a large array of documents that I fear few will take the time to carefully consult (least of all, his critics, the many angry Little Eichmanns who continue to look for any opportunity for another public lynching). I do not proclaim that the following is the kind of fact sheet I was hoping for, but I hope it will be one step into ordering some of the documentary clutter as we proceed to follow the trial of the University of Colorado.

The case formallly advanced against Ward Churchill by the University of Colorado consists of seven allegations:

The 12-member Standing Committee on Research Misconduct, following a review in summer 2005 by its inquiry subcommittee, announced in September 2005 that seven of nine allegations related to Professor Ward Churchill warranted a full investigation.

The seven allegations of research misconduct referred for further investigation included alleged instances of plagiarism, misuse of others’ work, falsification and fabrication of authority.

Two allegations – regarding misrepresentation of ethnicity and copyright infringement – were not regarded as appropriate for further investigation under the definition of research misconduct.

Also not included in the investigative committee’s review were Churchill’s written and spoken remarks about 9-11 victims. Those written and spoken remarks were not included because those statements concerned Professor Churchill’s opinions concerning United States’ policies and global affairs and thus are constitutionally protected against government sanction by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Questions of Motivation

Before proceeding to some of the academic detail, let us ask ourselves some basic questions, and let us also keep in mind some of the politics of those who led the charge against Churchill:

  1. If the problem about Churchill’s work consists of questionable interpretations of historical evidence, and alleged fabrications, then why was it that his work passed scrutiny when he was awarded tenure?
  2. In fact, when did the allegations of research misconduct first surface, and why then and not before?
  3. How are the charges, if true, sufficient reason for firing a tenured professor with multiple awards for teaching, research, and service?

What it boils down to is that someone whose work contains 12,000 footnotes was being fired over the technical minutiae of select small passages of his work, and disputed for having the presumably “incorrect” view of the history of white racism and genocide. Moreover, Ward Churchill was an activist when he was hired by UC-Boulder, without a PhD, and has still proved himself to be a prolific scholar.

The timing of the investigation into Churchill’s work, and the political connections of some of the leading persons behind the investigation, raise extremely serious issues of conflict of interest and threats to constitutionally protected freedom of speech.

The investigation of Ward Churchill’s work came only after a media frenzy was created around an essay written by Churchill about the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. That essay was titled, ” ‘Some People Push Back:’ On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” Reporter Pamela White of the Boulder Weekly succinctly recounts how that controversy emerged:

“It started when a group of conservative students from Hamilton College in New York, hoping to block University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill’s scheduled talk at their school, protested an essay Churchill had written on Sept. 11, 2001. In the essay, titled “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” Churchill, an American Indian activist and scholar, framed the terrorists attacks as inevitable, the natural result of years of oppressive U.S. policies, which he outlined at length. He also compared the stockbrokers, lawyers and government employees who died in the attacks with Nazi “technocrat” Adolf Eichmann for their role in supporting U.S. actions abroad. The students’ protest caught the attention of the national corporate media, which pounced on Churchill and his controversial essay with rabid ferocity. The result was a national furor. For two weeks now [writing in February 2005], the corporate media has controlled the story, fanning the flames of anger and even questioning Churchill’s ethnicity. Paula Zahn interviewed Churchill – but barely let him speak. MSNBC, Fox and MTV carried the story. Denver talk radio couldn’t get enough of the topic, one radio host declaring Churchill’s essay treasonous and suggesting that Churchill be executed. Media attention prompted reactions from members of Congress, who contacted Gov. Bill Owens, demanding a response. Owens, in turn, condemned Churchill’s writings and called for university officials to fire him. The Colorado General Assembly then picked up the issue and passed a resolution renouncing Churchill’s point of view, and the CU Board of Regents held a special meeting and apologized to the nation for the essay. The regents are now investigating Churchill to determine whether he can be fired.”

Let us keep in mind the origin and trajectory of events: the investigation into Ward Churchill’s work followed after the State Governor and national media took umbrage with an essay that itself would not be the subject of the investigation. Instead, as Churchill outlines the events that followed, “with the help of the Rocky Mountain News, University officials spent months soliciting allegations. Even then, they only had some random allegations but still no actual complaints, so Interim Chancellor Distefano stepped in as ‘complainant,’ using the newspaper stories as the ‘complaints’.”

What are the political biases and motivations of those responsible for bringing the case into the university. Ward Churchill has clearly outlined these on his own site:

One of the main players has been the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Oganized by Lynne Cheney [wife of former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney], its goal is to quash the “obsession with diversity” and the “liberal bias” in education. ACTA is financed by rightwing foundations such as Castle Rock (Coors), Scaife, Olin and Bradley, and allied with powerful neoconservative groups such as the Federalist Society, American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, and National Association of Scholars. ACTA furthers its agenda by enlisting trustees (regents), alumni, governors and legislators to bring political and financial pressure on universities.

Colorado is an ACTA stronghold: CU President Hank Brown: was a co-founder and a former CU-Boulder philosophy department chair [who] is now ACTA’s national Chairman. Regent Tom Lucero is a strong supporter, and former Gov. Bill Owens, a leader of ACTA’s Governors Project, hosted an ACTA conference for Colorado trustees.

ACTA published How Many Ward Churchills? in May 2006 to coincide with the release of CU’s Investigative Report. It concludes: “Ward Churchill is everywhere.” …

One of their unfounded concerns is that classrooms are being used as “sensitivity training” (apparently this is a bad thing in the U.S., no wonder so little sensitivity is shown), activism training, indoctrination, etc. Among the great many problems with this are:

  • the notion that students are essentially idiots who cannot judge for themselves, that being young means being mentally handicapped;
  • that the students, unlike other adults, have completely open minds, without biases and prejudices of their own;
  • that the teachers themselves are superb teachers, able to get their message across, undiluted, memorable, and with all plausible alternatives vanquished;
  • and, that the students were forced, against their will, to take these teachers’ courses. (I reflect here on the fact that none of my courses are required parts of the curriculum.)

The above is simply a response to ACTA — no charges of using the classroom for propaganda were made against Churchill by the investigating committee, rather, ACTA would like to exploit any opportunity to use a demonized Churchill as a weapon to intimidate all professors who may question the logic and morality of their own state. The only thing missing here is a Siberian prison camp.

Academic Allegations

Clearly the motivation to investigate Churchill was not academic in origin, and to focus exclusively or even primarily on the academic details is a serious error of judgment. One cannot decontextualize the situation, remove power from the equation, and obliterate chronology, and then claim to be producing a serious analysis. However, since some will continue to push the “academic misconduct” angle, even while basing themselves on arguments without academic merit (as I just explained), it is necessary to take a closer look. Thankfully, Ward Churchill furnishes a wide array of key documents, even if they lack a summary or integration into a single “fact sheet.” I have no problem in using Churchill’s site for this, since he clearly presents both the charges against him, in complete detail, and the counter charges.

(1) The Plagiarism Charges Against Churchill

Dr. Tom Mayer, a professor in sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has produced an excellent report on the charges against Churchill, and their necessary demystification. He tell us:

The research misconduct charges against Ward Churchill are of two general kinds: charges of faulty research and charges of plagiarism. The faulty research accusations have been largely discredited through the efforts of professors Eric Cheyfitz, Michael Yellow Bird, David Stannard, Huanani-Kay Trask, James Craven, Ruth Hsu, and others. These independent scholars, all of whom are intimately familiar with Native American history and culture, have shown that the Report of the Investigative Committee (henceforth called Report) finding Churchill guilty of research misconduct contains numerous errors of omission and commission. The Report improperly converts legitimate scholarly controversies into indictments of the positions taken by Professor Churchill.

Mayer argues that the plagiarism charges lack force. Moreover, in his words:

  • “Significantly, all these charges pertain to Churchill’s work as an intellectual within the broad but fractured movement to emancipate indigenous people.”
  • “None of the papers accused of plagiarism were written for the purpose of building an academic career. This is important because the norms of authorship within the social movement context differ substantially from those within the academic domain.”

All three of the plagiarism charges date back to work 14 years old or more, and were never previously aired as charges. Indeed, the University placed Churchill on numerous committees, had him as Chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, and also recognized his teaching with awards.

The source of all three of the plagiarism charges is the University of Colorado administration itself, rather than an academic complaining of their work having been plagiarized.

As Mayer explains, “The first plagiarism charge concerns a 1972 pamphlet by a Canadian environmental organization called Dam the Dams Campaign about a scheme to transfer water from northern Canada to the United States.” The Dam the Dams campaign is listed as the original author of the source material, and therefore there is no plagiarism. In another instance, Churchill co-authored a piece with the campaign in a Z Magazine article — the magazine itself deleted the co-authorship details, even while Churchill makes it clear throughout that the campaign provided him with the information. Churchill himself makes a point of never citing the article, given the violation committed by the editors of the magazine itself. In subsequent publications, more extensively footnoted (anyone who knows Churchill’s work knows that its footnoting can be massive, sometimes rivaling the length of the main text), Churchill always credited Dam the Dams for the information used, many times over.

“The second charge of plagiarism,” Mayer explains, “concerns a 1992 paper authored by Rebecca Robbins. Professor Churchill allegedly plagiarized this paper in three different chapters of his 1993 book Struggle for the Land. Rebecca Robbins, the purported victim of the plagiarization, did not originate this accusation. John LaVelle, a law professor now at the University of New Mexico who is fiercely hostile to Churchill, suggested he had a hand in writing the Robbins article but did not accuse him of plagiarism.” LaVelle has himself been exposed a biased and hostile source. Instead, the University itself, in the figure Provost Phillip DiStefano, acted as the source of the complaint.

This is a very interesting case: not only is Churchill not guilty of plagiarism, he is the actual original author of the text appearing under Robbins’ name, as Mayer tells us:

“After examining the three chapters in Struggle for the Land and hearing verbal testimony, the investigating committee dismisses this plagiarism charge because Professor Churchill claims to be, and actually is, the author of the paper attributed to Rebecca Robbins. Indeed, Churchill acknowledges that he occasionally publishes under other names, sometimes under the names of living people. When contacted through her attorney, Professor Robbins declined to speak with the investigating committee. It appears that she willingly put her name on the paper authored by Professor Churchill.”

Nonetheless, the investigating committee decided to concoct a charge of research misconduct, alleging that writing under someone else’s name, even with their permission, is misconduct. The University thereby effectively banned ghost-writing, which is an accepted practice in numerous fields, including the authorship of non-fiction books.

The additional charge was that Churchill quotes his own ghost-written work as a source of authority (not that self-referencing, prolific in academia, is a real problem), thereby creating an opportunity for fabricating sources. Instead, actual examination of the footnotes reveals that Churchill was not citing authority needed to defend a questionable hypothesis, but merely a means of avoiding extensive repetition.

Continuing on the journey into ever more obscure charges of plagiarism, Mayer informs us of the following:

“The third plagiarism charge concerns a 1991 paper on Native American fishing rights by Fay G. Cohen, a faculty member at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, that Ward Churchill allegedly misappropriated. Cohen’s paper was originally published in a book entitled Critical Issues in Native North America, Volume II that was edited by Churchill. Cohen’s paper was also slated for republication in a 1992 volume named The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance edited by M. Annette Jaimes, a former wife of and sometimes collaborator with Churchill. For reasons that remain uncertain, Professor Cohen decided to withdraw her paper from the Jaimes anthology. Nevertheless, an article named “In Usual and Accustomed Places” about Native American fishing rights and the struggles to secure them did appear in The State of Native America book. The title of this article refers to the locations where Native American fishing was permitted according to the text of the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek. The Report finds this paper guilty of plagiarism and identifies Professor Churchill as the plagiarizer even though he is not listed as the author.”

To be clear, Cohen’s work was indeed plagiarized in that article. The “author” of the article was an insititute to which Churchill belongs. Churchill claims to have done copy editing for the article. He continues to reject any kind of authorship. Mayer finds his explanation to be convincing. Nor is the paper authored in Churchill’s usual voice, nor is it integrated as Churchill’s other work. It appears to have been drafted by a committee.

Also, to be clear, neither Cohen nor Dalhousie University legal counsel accuse Churchill of plagiarism.

Mayer concludes, “the Report convicts Professor Churchill of plagiarism for a paper he did not sign, claims not to have written, which is published in a book he did not edit, and whose text clearly diverges from significant features of his published work. At the very least, this judgement violates the criminal court standard of establishing guilt beyond reasonable doubt.”

(2) Contesting Historical Fact

The Report does more than just allege plagiarism, it faults Churchill for not being enough a historian (he is not a historian in fact), and for not delving far enough into what it considers the facts to be. Essentially, the University argued that Churchill got his interpretations wrong, and should be fired. That should sound a chilling warning to anyone who either makes a mistake, or has a different interpretation of events.

Churchill has explained the matter in the following ways in one of his documents submitted to the University:

  • “The first two allegations addressed in the Investigative Report concern Professor Churchill’s summaries of the impact on native peoples of two federal laws, the Allotment Act and the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. In its 20-page analysis, the Committee acknowledged that his conclusions may be correct, but criticized the nature of his citations and faulted him for having failed to publish a response to a particular critic. On the Allotment Act the Committee again acknowledged that Professor Churchill was essentially correct and his accuser generally incorrect. However, the Report accuses him of getting the details wrong, despite the fact that he wrote only a few paragraphs on the subject and, thus, did not address any details. For this he is charged with falsification.”
  • “The third charge concerned Professor Churchill’s statement that there is ‘strong circumstantial evidence’ that John Smith introduced smallpox among the Wampanoags in the early 1600s. The committee took it upon itself to decide that this was an ‘implausible’ conclusion and that, therefore, he had not cited to enough circumstantial evidence. This is characterized as both falsification and fabrication.”
  • “Professor Churchill’s two paragraph statement that in 1837 the army deliberately spread smallpox among the Mandans at Fort Clark generated 44 pages of analysis on the fourth allegation. While basically affirming his conclusions, the Committee expressed displeasure with the nature, thoroughness and, in some cases, the sources of his citations. Although numerous scholars have made the same general point without any citation, Professor Churchill was charged with falsification, fabrication, and deviation from accepted reporting practices.”

The investigating committee’s subject expertise has also been called into question, in addition to using ad hominem sources, and suppressing evidence that ran counter to their conclusions. Where they claimed Churchill had no support for his conclusions, and that he misrepresented the authors he quoted, others reading the same sources found otherwise (see here).


While it was not unanimous that Churchill be fired (some panelists argued for suspension without pay, or demotion), this is the core of what was advanced as a reason for firing Churchill:

(1) failed to provide evidence sufficient to convince them that

(a) the place from which smallpox blankets were obtained was an infirmary;
(b) an Army doctor or post surgeon was the one who told the Mandans to scatter; and
(c) 400,000, as opposed to possibly 300,000, people ultimately died as a result of the 1837 epidemic in question;

(2) cited material he has consistently acknowledged to have ghostwritten;
(3) published an article in Z Magazine in which the editors deleted his insertion of “Dam the Dams” as a co-author; and
(4) copy edited a piece (in a book edited by a third party) which, unbeknownst to him, plagiarized Fay Cohen. (source)

Nine University of Colorado professors, seven external ones, and two attorneys wrote to the University to protest its own egregiously improper acts in investigating and then punishing Churchill. The nine Colorado professors wrote in an open letter of 23 April 2007 that the authors of the Report against Churchill committed the following violations:

  1. relying on a biased and flawed source for major arguments;
  2. relying on the artificial exclusion of reputable independent sources that contradict the Report’s argument in order to support its argument;
  3. suppressing text from a cited source that contradicts the Report’s argument;
  4. distorting the weakness of the Report’s case;
  5. artificially limiting scholarly interpretation in violation of norms of scholarship.

In addition, as mentioned before, a group of seven external professors also wrote an open letter condemning the investigative committee of the University of Colorado for suppressing alternative evidence, distorting the words of witnesses writing on Churchill’s behalf, misrepresenting evidence, and seeking to act as an arbiter of truth. They note that the committee deliberately sought to tackle Churchill’s view of events as constituting racism and genocide, which betrays a further political motivation on its part, while denying Churchill academic freedom. In particular, they cite the five following cases of wrongdoing on the part of the investigative committee:

  1. The Committee misrepresented and suppressed evidence concerning smallpox among the Wampanoags in New England, 1614-1618;
  2. The Committee misrepresented and suppressed evidence concerning Smith and the deliberate infection of the Wampanoags;
  3. The Committee misrepresented and suppressed evidence concerning the 1837 smallpox epidemic among the Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara and the withholding of vaccine;
  4. The Committee misrepresented and suppressed evidence concerning the role of the military in the 1837 smallpox epidemic, and denied access to its sources; and,
  5. In asserting that Professor Churchill “disrespected” American Indian oral tradition, the Committee misrepresented, distorted, and suppressed evidence and exceeded its mandate to conduct a nonadversarial, fact-finding investigation.

The Report produced by the University of Colorado has placed that university in great  jeopardy, legal or otherwise. It explicitly dismisses the assumption that the investigation was politically motivated, or about Churchill’s 9/11 essay, noting that is protected under his Constitutional Right to Free Speech and therefor not subject to its authority. However, it is clearly there that the process began, as a political inquisition, and the right to free speech comes back in, because it was particularly that free speech that so offended the leading players and led them to labour at producing anything suspicious out of Churchill’s 12,000 footnotes.

Moreover, members of the reporting committee included persons with a conflict of interest, persons who were negatively predisposed towards Churchill and had, via email to colleagues, already concluded he was guilty before even examining the facts. This is a lesson in proper academic conduct?

In the meantime, Churchill’s strident critics, writing with a hostility that belies any supposed indignation over improper footnoting, find refuge in ever tinier corners of cyberspace. The first page of Google search results for Ward Churchill features sites that either support Churchill, or are relatively neutral, without exception. The results do not change if you place his name inside quotation marks. Pages of links that were critical of Churchill and claimed to provide resources unmasking his wrongdoing, are often now dead. On the Chronicle of Higher Education one finds dubious characters, like Thomas Brown who has published sarcastic, analytically shoddy pieces about Churchill’s alleged plagiarism, in an attempt to build a career by destroying someone else’s. There are those who want to contradict Churchill’s genocide thesis, and then betray their own ignorance of internationally accepted understandings of the term. Then there is “Snapple,” an anonymous blogger whose big claim to infamy is a psychotic conspiracy theory that Churchill is responsible for the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey. Should “Snapple” ever be unmasked, a severe lawsuit on the grounds of libel awaits him/her — either that, or one long overdue appointment with a mental health institution. With opposition like this, one hopes that Churchill will have an easier day in court than we already expect.