Academic Politics Gone Wild and Ward Churchill’s “Grand Slam”

“That was a grand slam. I got everything I wanted from them,” he [Ward Churchill] said Friday. “I wasn’t looking for money.” (source)

While still celebrating the victory of Ward Churchill, and victory for academic freedom of speech, we can look forward to the prospect of Ward Churchill being reinstated at the University of Colorado. But what about those colleagues who took part in the circus that was charged with finding any ink smudge that could be cited as a firing offense? Would they not be a little too uncomfortable brushing elbows with the man they tried to lynch?

“If it really makes you that uncomfortable, you’re free to leave,” he [Churchill] said. (source)

If Judge Larry Naves should decide not to reinstate Churchill in the position from which he was wrongfully fired for political reasons, what are Churchill’s options?

If the judge declines to give Churchill his job back, he said he’ll ask for 10 years worth of lost “front pay” — at about $110,000 a year. (source)

Having opted for formal investigations, prosecutions, and penalties, the University of Colorado, deformed into a pawn of the right wing, neo-con extremists, opened itself up to becoming the target of formal investigations, prosecutions, and penalties. And the formal, final verdict is:

“A jury has just convicted the CU Board of Regents of being civil rights violators,” Lane said. “Doesn’t that concern anyone?” (source)

No, Mr. Lane, it does not concern those those who think you can only have freedom of speech as long as it is the right speech. It does not concern those who think that having a different interpretation or a fuzzy footnote in a book for a lay audience is suddenly a firing offense. It does not concern those who made a spurious distinction in saying that Churchill’s superb 9/11 essay was Constitutionally protected free speech, but that none of his other work was.

Academics who are concerned, however, will likely conclude with Dave Lindorff, “Hooray for Juries!–A Courtroom Victory for Ward Churchill and Academic Freedom of Speech” (CounterPunch, 3-5 April, 2009) that the entire process set in motion against Ward Churchill was politically driven, from beginning to end. It was never about “research misconduct”:

The idea that somehow a dispassionate group of faculty members at the university had reviewed Prof. Churchill’s scholarship and determined he had plagiarized and falsified his research is simply nonsense.

There may possibly have been a time when faculty committees reviewing tenure decisions were independent scholarly bodies unswayed by administrators-though given the history of blacklists and firings of tenured professors during the 1950s, I doubt it–but in any event those days, real or imagined, are long gone. Over the past several decades, the concept of academic self-governance has been fatally eroded at most universities. At many institutions, administrators routinely override hiring decisions reached by faculty committees, and all kinds of pressures are brought on individual faculty members to reach decisions that are desired by administrators.

Administrators at many schools have aggrandized the power to veto unpaid and sabbatical leaves, to assign heavier teaching loads, to over-rule tenure decisions, etc. In addition, administrators determine or have the final say on raises, which increasingly are based upon ill-defined and hard to challenge “merit” considerations. All of this makes faculty members on critical committees such as the one which was assigned to investigate Churchill’s scholarship, extremely vulnerable to administration pressure-the more so when powerful political figures like the state’s governor and members of the state legislature, who have made clear their desire to see Churchill sacked, are added to the mix.

Even as Lindorff notes that Churchill’s 9/11 essay was, “inflammatory language coming at a time when the American public was being inflamed by demagogues in Washington and a flood of media propaganda and jingoism,” there has been a shift in public discourse since then, as Churchill essay was,

“also a correct assessment of the role of Wall Street financial firms, as has been made all the more apparent by the recent financial crisis. (In fact, had Churchill written the same thing today, and included American homeowners and workers in his list of the victims of those financial technocrats, the resulting level of public outrage might have been a good deal less-as witness the death threats reportedly being made these days against the recipients of AIG bonuses.)” (source)

As the debate about Churchill shifts entirely away from a pedantic one about footnoting, the debate returns to its original, proper place: academic freedom, and freedom of speech.

That there has been a shift in the public discourse is coming to light more and more in articles and commentaries in the mainstream media that, had they been written four years ago, would have likely resulted in the vigorous marginalization if not outright demonization of these authors as terrorist-loving anti-Americans. Witness, for example, CU alumnus George Walker, “a frequent fixture at University of Colorado meetings,” rising to informally nominate Ward Churchill for the position of permanent Chancellor of the University (source).

One can also read Mike Littwin, a columnist in the Denver Post, writing in “Jury sees clearly what CU overlooked” (The Denver Post, 03 April 2009):

The jury got it exactly right. In fact, the jury, six men and women, tried and true – clearly understood what the leaders of our state’s flagship university could never quite grasp.

The jurors figured out that this case was not really about Ward Churchill. The case was, from the very beginning, about the University of Colorado and its unwillingness to do the right thing, meaning the hard thing, when it mattered most.

The case was about what happens when the mob wins, when a grandstanding governor trumps academic freedom, when talk-radio noise gets mistaken for the sound of truth, when university leaders cower in fear.

The jurors sat for weeks in Denver District Courtroom 6, and, after hearing all the testimony, they got it. Yes, they got it exactly right.

Then, finally, the piece de resistance, from a New York Times columnist who if anything has tilted conservative and against ‘classroom radicals,’ clearly assessing the investigation of Ward Churchill as a form of academic politics gone wild, of pedantry used as a cover for severe political persecution. I am speaking here of Stanley Fish, writing “Ward Churchill Redux” (The New York Times, 05 April 2009):

The verdict did not surprise me because I had read the committee’s report and found it less an indictment of Churchill than an example of a perfectly ordinary squabble about research methods and the handling of evidence. The accusations that fill its pages are the kind scholars regularly hurl at their polemical opponents. It’s part of the game. But in most cases, after you’ve trashed the guy’s work in a book or a review, you don’t get to fire him. Which is good, because if the standards for dismissal adopted by the Churchill committee were generally in force, hardly any of us professors would have jobs.

Fish then walks through the many instances where the CU investigative committee actually found that Ward Churchill had not falsified or fabricated, as already presented on this blog, only to turn around a few pages later and decide that, no, there was indeed research misconduct.

In short, it seems for an instant that Churchill is going to be declared (relatively) innocent of the most serious charges against him. But after noting that he cited sources that do not support his argument and failed to document his assertion that up to 400,000 Indians died in the smallpox epidemic, the committee turned severe and declared, “We therefore find by a preponderance of the evidence a pattern of deliberate academic misconduct involving falsification, fabrication, and serious deviation from accepted practices.” On the evidence of its own account the committee does not seem to have earned its “therefore.”

What explains these many twists and turns in the CU investigative report?

There is, as I think I’ve shown, a disconnect in the report between its often nuanced considerations of the questions raised in and by Churchill’s work, and the conclusion, announced in a parody of a judicial verdict, that he has committed crimes worthy of dismissal, if not of flogging. It is almost as if the committee members were going along happily doing what they usually do in their academic work – considering , parsing and evaluating arguments – and then suddenly remembering that they were there for another purpose to which they hastily turn. Oh, yes, we’re supposed to judge him; let’s say he’s guilty.

Also refreshing to see is that the overwhelming commentary posted on Fish’s article is sympathetic to Ward Churchill’s case, with a noticeably diminished presence of the previously usual trolls, with their barely literate and normally quite hyperbolic and splenetic shouts for blood and vengeance. It’s as if pockets of sanity had emerged more prominently.

In the meantime, still celebrating, still looking forward to welcoming Ward Churchill to Concordia University in Montreal next Wednesday.

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