In Search of Ward Churchill: The Academic Who Came in From the Cold
It has been nearly nine years since Ward Churchill was the talk of Fox News and the target of a concerted campaign to remove him from his teaching post at the University of Colorado. Well, as many of you know, they were successful. No longer living in Colorado, Ward is still defending himself and his scholarship. I recently caught up with Ward to see why we haven’t heard much from him in recent years and if the right-wing (and liberal) assault on his character had finally forced him into retreat. – JF
Joshua Frank: Ward, your name hasn’t appeared on The O’Reilly Factor in a while. What’s been keeping you busy these days?
Ward Churchill: It’s been eight years since I was the principle focus of O’Reilly’s anally-compulsive attentions, Joshua, so your question covers a lot of ground. The university “investigation” of my work took up an ungodly amount of time during the first couple of years, of course, and after that there was the trial, the various appeals, and so on. The process of “exhausting my domestic remedies” wasn’t really wrapped up until early February 2013, when the U.S. supreme court finally denied cert on the preeminent legal question raised by my case: Whether a nonjudicial governmental body like a university board of trustees can be “quasi-judicially” immunized against the consequences of a unanimous jury verdict holding that the entity involved knowingly and deliberately violated the constitutional rights of a citizen for purely political reasons.
Add in the fact that I moved to Atlanta about a year ago, and that getting resituated down here after more than forty years in the Colorado/northern plains region turned out to be a lot more demanding than I’d anticipated, and the result is that, although I’ve invested a huge amount of time and energy doing research and writing since 2005, relatively little of it’s been for publication. Or at least not yet. The upshot is that I’ve got a half-dozen books in varying states of completion and, now that the smoke’s beginning to clear a bit on the legal front, I figure to finish them pretty much one after another, at a fairly regular rate, over the next couple of years or so. It’ll probably be more like three years before they’re all in print.
None of this, by the way, should be taken to mean that the so-called firestorm of controversy in which I was enveloped during the spring of 2005, or any of the ensuing academic/legal bullshit ever caused me to stop publishing altogether. A relatively low rate of publication for me is still a fair amount, which is to say that I’ve produced several major articles for journals and law reviews, a half-dozen book chapters, an essay-length entry for The Encyclopedia of the American Indian, a batch of intros, prefaces, and forewords to books like Stephan Sheehi’s Islamophobia and Daniel Burton-Rose’s Creating a Movement with Teeth, and a few other odds and ends since then. I guess you could even say I managed to come out with a book, if you want to count the double-header I did with Antonia Darder, organized and edited by Pierre Orelus under the title A Decolonizing Encounter in 2012.
Right now, I’m finishing up a chapter for an upcoming book coedited by Akinyele Umoja and Charles Jones on the late Kwame Ture. I suppose it bears mentioning that Kwame was far better known in the U.S. as Stokely Carmichael, the guy who popularized the term “Black Power” back in 1967. My piece concerns his relationship with and influence upon the American Indian liberation struggle, particularly during the 1970s and ’80s. I also just finished a shorter piece on the Lynne Stewart case and the broader issue of compassionate release for terminally ill political prisoners that was to run in 4Struggle Magazine, to which I’ve lately agreed to be a regular contributor. Lynne was just released, though, so I expect that one is destined for the circular file. Maybe I’ll end up reworking it at some point, because the broader issue hasn’t exactly gone away.
JF: I notice you made no mention of public speaking. You used to do quite a lot of it, as I recall. Do you still?
WC: Nowhere near as much as I was doing prior to 2005. That, in part, is because I’ve been administratively blacklisted on campuses nationwide. There’ve been a fair number of instances in which I’ve been lined up by faculty and/or students to deliver a lecture and college or university presidents have directly intervened to prevent the event from happening. In a few cases, the organizers took such abridgments of their own intellectual rights seriously enough to force the issue and staged the events anyway, but usually not. The meekness with which tenured faculty members have typically submitted to administrative dictates in situations like this has been quite enlightening, and speaks volumes to the state of “academic freedom” in the contemporary U.S.
Both politically and psychologically, it’s of course been necessary that the folks I’ve just described, especially those claiming a liberal pedigree, advance some other, more palatable explanation of their behavior and its implications. Most often, this has taken the form of their citing some supposed defect in my scholarship and/or my “abrasive style,” either or both of which were ostensibly pointed out to them after their invitation was extended, causing them to rethink the propriety of offering me a forum in a campus setting imbued with such lofty standards of scholarship and collegiality as their own. In the name of something like “quality control,” then, preserving the “academic integrity” of their institutions leaves them no alternative but to concur—always with the utmost reluctance, of course—and only in this particular instance, mind you—with the administration’s preemption of students’ right to hear and assess whatever I might have to say and customary faculty prerogatives in the bargain.
The upshot is that not only has a decided majority of the liberal professoriate exposed itself as being guilty of the most craven sort of capitulation vis-à-vis the principles they espouse and are purportedly prepared to defend, but the manner in which they’ve sought to rationalize the capitulation has served to lend a completely unwarranted appearance of “left wing” validation to the welter of falsehoods promoted on the right for purposes of discrediting both me, personally, and, more importantly, the kind of work I’ve been doing over the past several decades. All of that nonsense about my having perpetrated “scholarly fraud” and the like has been long since and repeatedly disproven, both in court and elsewhere—that’s a matter of record, easily accessible to anyone who cares to look—but they simply ignore such facts in favor of the convenience embodied in regurgitating the same old lies as a pretext.
None of this is breaking news, of course, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s how blacklisting has always worked. Which means, among other things, that being blacklisted is in no sense an experience unique to me, either currently or historically. A lot of people have been blacklisted for one reason or another and to a greater or lesser extent over the years, and, as is readily evidenced by the examples of Norman Finkelstein and a number of others, that’s still true. It just happens that among the recent cases, mine has been especially high-profile, and is thus rather useful for illustrative purposes. So I’ve run down this aspect of it mainly to demonstrate to anyone entertaining doubts on the matter that not much has really changed in these respects since, say, 1955.
All that said, however, being blacklisted by the country’s self-styled guarantors of academic freedom accounts for only part of the drop-off in the number of public lectures I’ve delivered over the past few years. For one thing, I was already growing increasing weary of the lecture circuit before the Great Controversy commenced in 2005. I mean, I’d been speaking twice a week on average for nearly 20 years at that point, and was frankly sick of airports, motel rooms, and lecture halls. Literally so. Correspondingly, there’s a sense in which I’ve actually welcomed the drop-off. I’d undoubtedly have started cutting back on the number of speaking gigs I accepted, even without the Controversy and resulting blacklist.
I’m getting’ on in years, and the sentiment has grown steadily more pronounced. At this point, I absolutely will not set foot on an airplane in anything other than extraordinary circumstances—getting to Pine Ridge from Atlanta last October when I received word that Russ Means probably had no more than a day or two to live, for example. This is not because I’ve lately developed a fear of flying, but because I refuse to accept the dehumanizing treatment accorded passengers these days by the airlines. If I can’t drive my old pickup to wherever I’m going, well, chances are good that I just won’t go. True, The Authorities are doing their level best to make driving a miserable experience as well—them, and the oil companies and chain restaurants—but it’s still vastly preferable to flying. Or even entering an airport. Hard to do a lot of events on the west coast under those circumstances when you live in Georgia, soooo…
The truth is that I’m basically doing as many speaking gigs as I want these days, and that allows me to be rather selective about which invitations I accept. I participated in a symposium honoring Russ at the University of Colorado/Denver in October, then drove on out to LA to deliver a lecture at Scripps College a week later. I’ll be delivering the annual Walter Rodney lecture at Atlanta University in February, and presenting at a conference at Oxford via Skype a few days after that. Last spring, I drove all the way up to Buffalo to give a talk at Burning Books a little infoshop, simply because I like what the people running it are into and wanted to support their effort. In November I gave a talk at the anarchist book fair in LA. I might be inclined to do more speaking at political events, but I’ve been targeted for a bit of bad-jacketing on that front over the past couple of years. I can go into some of that a bit later, if you’d like.
JF: I would. But first, just so we’re clear, you mentioned that charges that you’ve engaged in scholarly fraud, plagiarism, and the like have been disproven, both in court and elsewhere. Could you go into the details of that?
WC: Sure. As concerns the “in court” part, I sued the University of Colorado right after I was fired in July 2007 on grounds that it terminated me in retaliation for my expression of political views—a violation of my rights under the first amendment—rather than any supposed “research misconduct.” That resulted in a four-week jury trial in March 2009, during which the university made its best case, bringing in most of the faculty members who’d comprised the committees that investigated my scholarship to testify as to the “facts” of my misconduct. Both they and the university’s attorneys also argued, repeatedly, that if I was guilty of even one of multitude of scholarly offenses the committee members claimed I’d committed, that in itself would be legitimate cause for the regents to have fired me. In effect, they trotted out everything they had while simultaneously hedging their bets. Pretty sound strategy, that.
But, you have to bear in mind that this was the first time any of these folks were forced into an arena where the university was not in complete control of the procedures involved, were unable to change the rules as they went along, and so on. It was also the first time any of them were subject to genuine cross-examination and to say they ended up getting their butts kicked is an understatement. You never saw so many red faces or heard so much sputtering in your life. Meanwhile, my own experts—who, unlike the university’s faculty hacks, actually knew what they were talking about, and who had the additional advantage of not having to try and defend a series of expedient fabrications—were in precisely the opposite situation. It wasn’t much of a contest, really, but I have to admit that there was some serious payback involved from my point of view, and that I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.
In any event, having heard both sides in depth, and having been exposed to several thousand pages of documentation, the jury unanimously concluded in its verdict that the university had shown no cause other than objections to my political views for firing me. In substance, none of the charges of scholarly fraud held up to scrutiny. On the contrary, in a post-trial meeting convened in the judge’s chambers between the jury and attorneys for both sides and the jurors, the latter explained that they’d found none of the university’s witnesses to be credible. Not one. In fact, they said they’d made themselves a chart during deliberations and went through it, witness by witness. What they found was that every single witness called by the university had been caught in at least one outright lie, and in several cases multiple lies. At several points, the university’s lead attorney was also caught flagrantly misrepresenting his supposed evidence.
A couple of the jurors subsequently said as much on one or another among Denver’s endless spew of rightwing talk radio programs, and one of them, a young woman named Bethany Newell, summarized some of it in an interview with Westword, the city’s alternative weekly. I think the interview, along with a more sharply-worded affidavit Newill later provided my attorneys, and key elements of the judicial proceedings, are all posted on wardchurchill.net. That’s what I meant about the information being readily-accessible to anyone who cares to look.
JF: Let me stop you for a moment at this point. It seems clear enough that the jury’s verdict would serve to exonerate you of the scholarly offenses alleged by the university. But, then, the judge vacated the verdict, didn’t he?
WC: Yes, he did. But it’s important to understand that he didn’t do so on the basis that the jury somehow erred in its understanding either of the law or of the facts involved. The verdict therefore remains unaltered: I didn’t do what the university claimed I did—that was simply an elaborate pretext—and it violated my constitutional rights by firing me for the actual reasons involved. What the judge ruled was that such things were utterly irrelevant. Why? Because, he said, the regents enjoy “quasi-judicial immunity” from the consequences of their actions, at least when it comes to personnel matters. So, even though they’d plainly violated my constitutional rights by firing me, and had systematically defamed me by conjuring up the pretext of my supposed scholarly fraud, I had no legal recourse. In effect, I’d never had standing to bring suit in the first place.
Of course, there’s an obvious question as to why, if he genuinely believed that were so, the judge didn’t simply dismiss my claims out of hand rather than conducting a major trial on the matter. If nothing else, as several jurors quite reasonably complained after he’d entered his ruling, he’d been rather cavalier about wasting a solid month of their lives in the process. The answer is that since there was no legal precedent either in Colorado or anywhere else establishing absolute immunity for boards of regents or trustees—quite the opposite, in fact— he didn’t really believe it. He introduced the concept of regential impunity, post hoc and purely on grounds of political expediency, so I guess you’d have to say that he himself established the precedent. In other words, he literally made the whole thing up.
Actually, in the interests of accuracy, I need to correct myself on that. It wasn’t the judge who made it up. That role was filled by the university’s lead attorney, Pat O’Rourke, who’d very much wanted to go to trial, fully expecting to win, that the results would thereby lend an aura of validation to the regents’ actions, and that his own star would rise accordingly. After the verdict, in what might best be described desperation maneuver, he wrote up the immunity argument and submitted it as a motion to vacate judgment. We were all laughing about how Patrick had finally gone completely “quazy,” and he himself didn’t seem to think the judge would actually buy into such an off-the-wall premise. In anticipation of the university being ordered to reinstate me, he’d started inquiring about which classes I wanted to teach in the fall so that they could be listed in the regular course catalogue. Things like that.
Came the moment, O’Rourke may have been as surprised as anyone else when the judge—Larry Naves, he was chief judge of the Colorado district court in Denver, and assigned himself to preside over the case—not only accepted his argument but simply reformatted his motion and entered it, verbatim, as the ruling. Seriously. Over 90 percent of the text in the two documents is word-for-word identical. One might well accuse Naves of indulging in a rather spectacular example of plagiarism were it not for the fact that the judiciary has exempted itself from application of that particular concept to its own material. Whatever the proper term for describing Naves’ authorial/juridical behavior in this instance, the reality is that he allowed the university itself to write the opinion he signed, nullifying not only my due process rights, but those of every faculty member in the UC system, whether they realize it or not.
In fairness, I should note that Naves was by no means the only Colorado judge guilty of cut-and-paste work in the legal opinions attending my case. While the pattern was not quite so blatant, whole blocks of O’Rourke’s prose also appear without attribution in the opinion of the state appeals court affirming Naves’ ruling. The same with the Colorado supreme court opinion. The university was allowed—or enlisted—to write substantial portions of every one of them, but in each instance, only the judges’ names appear as “authors.” To the extent that this conforms to prevailing standards of judicial propriety—and apparently it does, according to no less an authority than federal appellate judge Richard Posner—then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the “canon of ethics” pertaining to the judiciary sanctions outright deception.
I could run with this one for a while, expanding it to consider the implications of the plagiarism scandals at Harvard Law, for example—especially those involving Alan Dershowitz and Laurence Tribe—but that would be getting fairly far afield. Or maybe not. Be that as it may, I can’t think of a more fitting way to wrap up my answer than with the observation that in 2010, the year after he rendered such invaluable assistance to the university in neutralizing the effects of its loss in Churchill v. University of Colorado, the law school bestowed its annual alumni service award on none other than Larry Naves. The former judge, who’d retired from the bench almost immediately after signing off on his O’Rourke-written ruling, shamelessly accepted it. And that, boys and girls, pretty much says it all.
JF: I do want to get back to what we were talking about before I posed that last question, but since we’ve gone off into legal matters at this point, let me pose another to put a cap on things in that regard. Earlier, when you mentioned that the U.S. supreme court declined to hear your appeal—“denied cert,” is how I think you actually put it—you framed the situation in terms of “exhausting domestic remedies.” That phrase typically connotes the threshold requirement for bringing an issue before an international legal body. Is that what you have in mind?
WC: Oh, it’s more than just something I have in mind. A complaint, Churchill v. U.S., was filed on my behalf with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on September 30. The action is being handled by the Human Rights Research Fund along with David Lane and Bob Bruce, a couple of the attorneys who’ve been representing me from the outset. We’ve been planning to move in this direction for a while now, but you’re correct about one of the threshold requirements being that the possibility of domestic judicial recourse first be exhausted. So, we had to wait until—surprise, surprise—the U.S. supremes formally refused to hear my case, and that’s rather lengthy process. Another requirement is that any complaint be filed in a “timely fashion,” in this instance within six months of date on which the supreme court’s denial was registered, and of course we met the deadline.
There are another pair of requirements as well, the first being that the complaint allege concrete violations of codified international law by a “state party,” the second that the violations alleged fall within the jurisdiction of the adjudicatory body with which the complaint is filed. We meet both requirements. The obligations of state parties—in this case, the U.S. government—to protect “human rights defenders” from the sorts of official repression and reprisals I’ve experienced is clearly articulated in international law, and—as is evidenced with equal clarity by, among other things, the supreme court’s conspicuously supine posture in the matter—the federal government of the United States has made no effort to meet those obligations in my case.
The term “human rights defender,” incidentally, isn’t something I or my attorneys came up with. Personally, I find it a little embarrassing. Nonetheless, it’s the term used in the relevant body of law to describe people with records like mine, targeted for reasons similar to those precipitating the actions undertaken against me. In any event, the Inter-American Commission unquestionably has jurisdiction vis-à-vis offenses of this sort. It also has jurisdiction over violations of academic freedom—believe it or not, there are elements of international law dealing with that issue—so, although it’s a relatively unexplored area in terms of application, that’s our second line of attack. The petition is posted on wardchurchill.net, so anybody wanting further details should read the document itself.
JF: What do you hope to see come of this?
WC: Not much in personal terms. The process is likely to take years, assuming that the Commission opts to pursue the matter—they can always decline the case, and you can be assured that the U.S. representative will be lobbying very hard for them to do so—and, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not exactly getting any younger. So, even if I won within a relatively short period of time—say, five years—a finding that I should be reinstated in my faculty position would be largely symbolic. If monetary compensation were to be ordered, well, I don’t really need the money. Since my material desires have never been especially grandiose, I’m really quite comfortable as things stand. I suppose I might pay off my kids’ education loans and set something aside for my grandbaby, but, beyond that, the proceeds would most likely end up going to outfits like Freedom Archives.
That would be worthwhile, of course, but the main point of the exercise is to try and bring a previously unused dimension of international law to bear in such a way as to establish parameters around the latitude enjoyed by state—and, by extension, corporate—actors in constraining the sociopolitical discourse. If our effort is successful, it would be a significant breakthrough. Not by any means a “solution” to the problem at hand, but certainly an additional tool to be used to advantage by those opposing the status quo, not only in this country but in others as well. Who knows? A win might even be sufficient to inject a bit of backbone into such hopelessly bureaucratic—actually, “accommodationist” would be a better word choice—organizations as the national AAUP [American Association of University Professors, JF].
Frankly, I never really envisioned myself devoting substantial amounts of time and energy to these issues. I was essentially forced into it, but, hey, I’ve come this far and may as well play out the hand. It’s a tactical consideration, ultimately, a matter of flexibility. One adjusts to changing circumstance and keeps right on moving toward the strategic objective. I think you’ll find something to that effect in Sun Tzu, and variations on the theme appear in the works of most theorists of guerrilla warfare, from Mao to Marighella.
JF: Okay, thanks. Returning now to the question of how the university’s claims that you engaged in scholarly fraud have been disproven, you stated that this was true both in court and elsewhere. We’ve covered what you called the “in court part” pretty thoroughly at this point. Could you summarize what you meant by “elsewhere”?
WC: Sure. Any reasonable person might have concluded that there were serious problems with the Investigative Report on my scholarship posted by the University of Colorado on its official website when, back in 2007, groups of scholars started filing research misconduct complaints against its authors on grounds that the findings against me were not just baseless but fraudulent. There were at least five such complaints, as I recall, maybe six, detailing how the committee members had systematically misrepresented sources, suppressed evidence favorable to me, and so on. Words like “falsification” and “fabrication” came up repeatedly, and one of the complainants, Joseph Wenzel, showed how the committee had serially plagiarized his material. Several of the complaints are posted on wardchurchill.net, so its easy enough to see what charges were made, on what basis, and who made them.
The university never rebutted any of this. On the contrary, it adopted a position prefiguring that assumed by Judge Larry the Knave after the trial. This is to say that, having spent the preceding year hyping the supposed significance of the scholarly credentials of those serving on the investigative committee—they were all full professors, although none of them could claim any particular competence in the areas of history at issue—and publishing the resulting document in a form replete with every conceivable scholarly trapping, the university abruptly—and very quietly—this is definitely not something it wanted to have publicized—decided that the report was an “administrative document” rather than “a work of scholarship,” and thereupon exempted its authors from the very standards of professional scholarship they’d ostensibly applied to me.
Now, if that’s not tantamount to an admission that the charges filed against the investigative committee members were valid, I can’t imagine what would be. The more so, since the committee chair, a former prosecutor turned law professor named Marianne Wesson—she goes by “Mimi,” and doubles as the author of a series of potboiler fiction about a female detective in Boulder—started to cave when details of the complaints began to surface, publishing a letter in the faculty newspaper, The Silver and Gold Record, wherein she admitted that she and her cohorts had “erred” with regard to one of their findings that I’d “fabricated an historical incident.” The administration quickly muzzled her, but that particular cat was already out of the bag.
I should’ve mentioned, by the way, while we were discussing the trial, that another came out during the testimony of Don Morley, a member of the faculty panel that reviewed the investigate committee’s findings and affirmed most of them. When asked by one of my attorneys, Bob Bruce, to explain what he and his colleagues had based their conclusion that I was guilty of plagiarism upon, Morley referred to a supposed pattern of citation in one of my book chapters. Bob then handed him the book, open to the relevant pages and with the allegedly offending footnotes hi-lighted, and asked him to show the jury what he was talking about. A couple of minutes later, Morley, his face beet red, handed the book back to Bob and admitted that, “Apparently, we got that one wrong.” Again, that’s a matter of record.
In view of all this readily-accessible material, or even part of it, there’s really no excuse for anyone, especially anyone in academia, to go right on citing the university’s investigative report as if it were the least bit credible, much less at face value. It follows that there’s no basis for more casual chatter, common not only on the right but across a broad swath of the liberal intelligentsia, about there being “scholarly findings” with regard to my supposed academic misdeeds. Apart from the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News—which I doubt even Bill O’Reilly would try to pass off as a scholarly publication—the only place findings on such questions were ever posited was in the investigative report, and the university itself has long since admitted that the report is not a “scholarly work product.” These things being so, I suppose I could and maybe should end right there. I’ve been saving the best part for last, but it’ll take a while and I don’t know how much more time you want to devote to this topic. So, your call: Should I go on?
JF: Please do.
WC: Okay, you may have noticed that that great champion of academic freedom, the AAUP, basically took a bleacher seat in my case. That’s always been the Association’s preferred seating arrangement where the targeting of radicals is concerned, so I wasn’t especially surprised, but it turns out that the reasons it did so in this instance may have been somewhat atypical. As former AAUP president Cary Nelson recounts in his book, No University is an Island, the Association’s general secretary, Roger Bowen, flat-out lied—that’s Nelson’s term, not mine—to the relevant committee for more than three years, claiming that I’d never requested that the AAUP take action in my behalf. Bowen, incidentally, is the bullshit artist who later, after he’d been removed from his position with the AAUP, published a letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal describing me as “intellectually dishonest.”
In any event, once Bowen’s deception was discovered in 2009, a staff attorney with the AAUP’s national office inquired as to whether I still wanted the organization to undertake what’s called a Committee A investigation. I responded in the affirmative, which seems to have been an unexpected development, inducing a considerable amount of consternation among those involved. Whatever the nature of their discussions, I was informed a month or so later that the committee members had decided it was “too late” to initiate such action.
Now it gets interesting. The Colorado Council of the AAUP seems to have been mightily upset by this second default by the national organization because, shortly after Committee A closed its books on the matter, Myron Hulen, the Colorado chair, contacted me to ask if I’d like them to investigate. For what should be obvious reasons, I really had no great expectations at that point—actually, I had no expectations at all, or at least none of a positive variety—but—why not?—I told him it was fine by me. And I must confess that I was quite surprised when they went right to work. Within a week, a couple of the people who’d taken on the job, Don Eron and Suzanne Hudson, touched down to assess the extent of the documentation I had in my possession and my willingness to make it available to them.
After that, they sort of drove me nuts for a couple of months asking whether I could provide copies of this, that, or another document, a situation we finally resolved by my turning over everything I had in electronic format, a massive trove coming to something over 17,000 pages, including transcripts of all the investigative hearings and the hearings conducted by the panel Morley was on, the pretrial depositions, the complete trial transcript, all the internal university communications I’d obtained on discovery, and all of the evidentiary submissions attending each phase of the process. I also provided several hundred pages of material in hard copy because I didn’t have it electronic format. I’m not sure what, if anything, the university made might have provided, but my impression is that it wasn’t especially forthcoming. It doesn’t much matter, though, since I already had all the documents the institution was legally-required to divulge and they were included in the material I turned over to the investigators.
Anyhow, there followed what seemed like an interminable silence. Really, I’d more-or-less written the whole thing off by the time—roughly two years later—I was notified that the committee’s report was finished. My initial reading left me with no questions at all about why it taken so long to complete. In fact, it left me in a lingering state of astonishment. It’s a remarkable document, to say the least, and it bespeaks a no less impressive effort on the parts of those who prepared it. I’m not sure whether I was struck more on that first pass by how closely they’d scrutinized the entire mass of material, or by how thoroughly they’d digested it. I’m still a bit amazed at how they picked up on things that even I’d missed, even though I’d not only read every page, many of them repeatedly, but held the additional advantage of having experienced everything in the transcripts first-hand.
To top it off, they mustered everything into a coherent, sustained, and utterly devastating critique of every aspect of the university’s performance. Eron is listed as principle author, Hudson and Hulen as coauthors, and together they did a truly masterful job. A substantial chunk of the report, which runs over 130 pages, including the span of more than 300 end notes, is devoted to detailing the university’s systematic violation of its own rules in the handling of the case from start to finish, a procedure transparently designed to produce the desired outcome. The analysis in this regard is spot on, and is exhaustively documented, as is the point-by-point deconstruction of the UC investigative committee’s findings which comprises the balance of the document. From there, the authors’ conclusions were to all intents and purposes unavoidable.
These were later summed up by Don Eron in a letter to the editor that the Denver Post quite predictably refused to print—after all, it’s still insisting that the opposite is true—“the CU investigation into Churchill’s scholarship was a sham” in which “the research misconduct panel convicted Churchill of academic crimes that he did not commit.” I don’t see how the matter could have been framed more clearly. The bottom line is that if I had to recommend only one item for people to read for purposes of understanding what happened in my case, it would be the Colorado Council AAUP report. It’s the best thing out there, hands down, and is of course easily-accessible on wardchill.net. It was also published in its entirety in the national AAUP’s on-line Journal of Academic Freedom, so it can be accessed there as well.
Another tangent, before we wrap this one up, okay? It seems to me that the initiative shown by the Colorado Council in conducting its own investigations when the national AAUP fails to act—and it’s done so not only in my case, but in a couple of others involving adjunct faculty members—might constitute an important breakthrough. I’m unaware of any state council ever having take such action in the past, so the example set by the folks in Colorado may well inspire others to follow suit at the state level and perhaps even at the level of individual campus chapters. That would certainly broaden the Association’s reach, tremendously so, and ending its monopolization of AAUP investigations might even be enough to jolt Committee A into finally getting its proverbial ass in gear. In the alternative, well, the Association can’t really continue its pattern of taking on only a handful of “safe” cases every year, without rendering itself completely irrelevant.
The Colorado Council reports, or at least the one pertaining to my case, might also provide an excellent template not only for those produced at the state and campus levels, but for those prepared by Committee A. I’ve read my share of Committee A reports, and even the best of them are downright feeble in comparison to what was produced by the Colorado investigators. Granted, my case was more complex than most—the university went to extravagant lengths to make it that way—but it still takes more than a 20-page summary to lay out the mechanics of what transpired in virtually any instance of academic repression you’d care to name. Since educating people about how these things work is a big part of the AAUP’s job, the kind of detail on exhibit in the Colorado Council report should be replicated as widely as possible.
JF: Do you think that any of the things you were describing towards the end will actually come to pass, and, assuming they do, why should we care?
WC: Wow! The answer to that could take a while. But I’ll try for the short version. As to whether such things will come to pass, who knows? But there are signs that things may be moving in that direction, beginning with the fact that the role of state councils in conducting AAUP investigations was the topic of a major debate during the Association’s annual conference last year. The old guard was of course strongly opposed to the very idea that entities other than Committee A assume such authority, but grassroots sentiment seems to have been exactly the reverse. So much so, in fact, that Eron and Hudson received the annual Tracy Award from the AAUP Assembly of State Conferences in 2012. The Tracy is bestowed upon the person—or in this case two people, jointly—viewed as having performed the greatest organizational service at the state level in any given year. I don’t know about you, but I see that as being a pretty clear statement of support and endorsement of their efforts.
It’s also propitious, or so it seems to me, that during the debate both Rudy Fichtenbaum, who was elected to replace Cary Nelson as AAUP president in 2012, and Hank Reichman, the new vice president, came out as strongly favoring state council investigations. Reichman even went so far as to assert in so many words that the AAUP’s national office “blew it” in my case and publicly thanked the Colorado Council for “belatedly saving” the Association from ending up “looking like wimps.” It appears that the pair weren’t just blowing smoke either, since—are you ready for this one?—among the first things that happened after they took office was that Don Eron was appointed to Committee A. Again, that’s a pretty strong statement. Where all this leads, I obviously can’t say, but it’s a hopeful situation, overall.
Now, with respect to why anyone should even care about this stuff, let me put it this way: Like it or not, the universities have become a central component in the shaping of consciousness in the U.S., and stand to become ever more so over the foreseeable future. They can either fulfill their purported social function of inculcating critical consciousness, or they can do exactly the opposite. Absent a bona fide critical consciousness among a significant portion of the population, genuinely constructive socioeconomic and political transformation is impossible. What you end with instead is the ability of frauds like Barack Obama to pass himself off as a “progressive,” and a “left” discourse dominated people on the order of Rachel Maddow, Ed Schulz, and the Rev [Al Sharpton: JF]. Or Michael Moore, for god’s sake. The superficiality and duplicity at issue were recently manifest in the Occupy movement.
That’s where we are, and it’s a long, long way from where we need to be. Hell, it’s a long way from the point we’d managed to reach forty-odd years ago. The decline has been dramatic, and it’s occurred at an ever more rapid rate since the ’90s. There are a number of reasons for this, most of them policy-driven. The steady withdrawal of public funding from higher ed over the past several decades, is a really big one, correlated as it is to the twin evils of spiraling tuition costs and the growth of institutional dependence upon corporate subsidies.
It’s worth remembering that Reagan kicked off the tuition business at U/Cal back in 1970, mainly in retaliation for student activism in Berkeley and as a means of curbing an influx of black and latino students. Once the barrier was breached—U/Cal, like most state university systems, used to be essentially tuition-free, the premise being that an increasingly better-educated electorate was a public good—the right quickly figured out how to use the situation to ever greater advantage. For example, raising tuition rates allowed decreasing levels of state funding, and that, in turn, helped with the lowering of corporate tax rates and the rates applicable to individuals in the uppermost income brackets.
In some ways more importantly, it didn’t take them long to realize that if rising tuition rates were coupled to making a degree the entry-level requirement for most jobs that had previously required a high school diploma, young people would be forced to go to college for that purpose rather than “the pursuit of higher learning,” per se, and they’d be compelled to incur significant personal debt in the process. This has not only been rather profitable for the banks and other entities that plunged into the business of making education loans—all of them federally-guaranteed, of course—it’s provided corporate America with a labor force which, since federal law has been changed to preclude the retirement of student debt through bankruptcy, increasingly exists in a condition of veritable indentured servitude. The effect has essentially been that of a pacification program directed at students and workers alike.
Among the more insidious effects within the universities themselves has been that as students have been coerced into a trajectory of ever-greater preoccupation with making themselves more marketable to potential employers the demand for courses designed for exactly that purpose has steadily mounted while demand for courses intended to broaden general knowledge and hone critical facility has correspondingly diminished. This has positioned corporations to specify the kinds of courses—mostly managerial and technical in nature—they prefer, and, in no small part utilizing the windfalls accruing from the earlier-mentioned reductions in corporate tax rates, to increasingly offset reductions in public funding by “sponsoring” certain curricula at the expense of others, not infrequently to the point of dictating content in preferred areas while proscribing it elsewhere within recipient institutions.
Were this not enough, the process is being rationalized and facilitated by a whole slew of lavishly-funded rightwing organizations, the objective of which—although each of them casts itself as a champion of academic freedom and “excellence”—is exactly the opposite. What they’re after is the complete elimination of critical studies from the curriculum, along with ethnic studies, women’s studies, and any other field serving to extend appreciations of cultural diversity into domains beyond those taught during the “good old days” of the 1950s. And that, of course, entails purging the professoriate of what David Horowitz characterizes as “dangerous professors,” or at least to making a few prominent examples in order to chill the rest.
What you end up with, if they have their way, is universities that function as little more than glorified vo-techs. This is to say that emphasis will be placed upon the imparting of certain “useful” skill-sets, along with sufficient ideological indoctrination to blunt the potential of cognitive dissonance among most students with regard to the realities of American business as usual, and perhaps a basic grounding in triumphalist interpretations of western culture. In substance, they’re demanding that the institutions be reconfigured in their entirety along the lines of what the corporations have taken to subsidizing and, by any estimation, they’re making considerable headway. All you have to do is listen for five minutes to Obama explaining why higher education is important to get the picture. You might as well be listening to a spokesperson for rightwing “university reform” outfits like ACTA.
JF: Let me stop you right there for a moment. I seem to remember that ACTA played a major role in your own case. Assuming that it did, could you explain how, and maybe give us a little more background on the organization?
WC: Oh yeah, ACTA was a major player from the get-go. For those who may be unfamiliar with the acronym, it stands for American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization founded in the mid-90s by the rabidly reactionary Lynne Cheney, along with Hank Brown, at the time a paleoconservative Republican senator from Colorado, and everybody’s favorite “liberal Democrat” cum Likud lapdog, Joe Lieberman. It’s instructive, I think, that the whole thing was underwritten by the Olin Foundation, established during the early-50s by a cryptofascist munitions-maker named John Olin to pump what would amount to about $380 million into what he described as “counter-intelligentsia” operations before it declared its mission accomplished and closed its doors in 2005.
Olin is just one of the foundations involved. The Bradley and Sarah Scaife Foundations support such activities on a comparable scale and ACTA has received substantial funding from all three, as have the so-called David Horowitz Freedom Center, Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch, and a number of similarly ugly organizations. And that’s to say nothing of the often hefty contributions made by individual donors like the Koch brothers and the annual tithes contributed by the at this point literally scores of lesser foundations that have followed Olin’s lead. This is what I meant when I said these organizations are lavishly-funded. They’ve been so since their inception, ACTA perhaps most of all. It’s undoubtedly the most influential and effective of the lot, although all of them might be said to wield undue influence.
In any case, one of ACTA’s signature initiatives, once it had gotten itself organized, was to publish an academic blacklist in 2001. I wasn’t on it, but it was a precursor to the approach taken by the organization in my case four years later. In the latter instance, however, they added an element I mentioned earlier, that of making a prominent example, publishing a screed titled How Many Ward Churchills? wherein I was cast as the “poster boy” for why an ideological purge of the academy would be justified. Of course, having thus projected me in the role of exemplar, it was necessary for ACTA’s purposes that I actually be purged. For things to have worked out otherwise would have been embarrassing, to say the least. That’s where things get a lot more hands-on in terms of their involvement.
In retrospect, I can see where they’d worked out the script well in advance, beginning with the fact that I was at the University of Colorado, an institution with which ACTA had an exceptionally potent web of connections. I’ve already mentioned that Hank Brown was an ACTA founder. By 2005, he was head of the Daniels Fund in Denver, one of UC’s major cash cows. ACTA’s founding president, Jerry Martin, who became the organization’s chair in 2003, was formerly chair of the philosophy department on my own Boulder campus. Regent Tom Lucero was openly involved with ACTA, and at least three other board members, although they denied it at trial, were no less aligned with it. Even the state’s Republican governor, Bill Owens, who at more than one point threatened to cut the university’s budget unless I was summarily fired, was an enthusiastic participant in the ACTA governor’s project. In sum, if there was a state best suited to making the sort example ACTA was after, it was Colorado.
Then there’s the matter of ACTA’s role in kicking off the Great Controversy from which my case arose. The “discovery” of my by then four-year-old “little Eichmanns” piece in January 2005 has been consistently misattributed to a student editor at Hamilton College, where I was scheduled to give a talk in February. Actually, the information was fed to him by a poli sci professor named Ted Eismeier, who was a member of the National Association of Scholars and heavily involved in a rather vicious ACTA-sponsored campaign to seize control of the board of trustees and expunge the school’s supposed “leftwing bias.” There was an obvious utility to making the Eichmann piece an issue at the local level, but the idea that it might be transformed into something much more was just as obviously in play right from the start.
I mean, let’s get real about this. That the author of an op-ed appearing in an obscure e-journal several years earlier has been invited to speak at a small college in upstate New York isn’t ordinarily the stuff of national news, no matter what was said in the op-ed, much less the trigger for what’s usually been described as a “media firestorm.” In this instance, the “story” went from its first appearance in a campus newspaper to saturation coverage at the national level in roughly 72 hours, and, for that to happen, a considerable amount of orchestration is necessary. There’s some indication, at least to the extent that Colorado’s sleazebag Republican congressman Bob Beauprez claimed on Denver talk radio that he’d spoken with George Bush about me and had been assured that Bush’s “people” would “look into” the matter, that Karl Rove’s crew may have been involved at some point. Beauprez’s purported discussion with Bush would’ve occurred after the so-called firestorm commenced, however, so I’ll just say that ACTA’s own liaisons with the rightwing media are plainly first-rate, and let it go at that. They really didn’t need help from the White House to get the ball rolling.
It gets better. After the media furor had established the predication for an “emergency meeting” of the regents, and the Boulder campus administration laid out its plan for addressing said emergency—that took all of a week—things threatened to go a bit awry from the ACTA point of view. First, some 200 hundred tenured faculty members at Boulder signed on to a full-page ad in the local paper demanding that the investigation of my work be halted immediately—they were of course ignored—and then, in March, university president Elizabeth Hoffman denounced what was going on as evidence of “a new McCarthyism.” Viola! She was gone within days. Message thus sent to the faculty, which thereafter remained mostly silent, the regents moved very rapidly to set the proverbial railroad car back on its tracks by hiring none other than Hank Brown to replace Hoffman. So now we had a certified ACTA heavy presiding over the university system as a whole.
One of the most immediate outcomes of Brown’s installation was that the Daniels Fund, which had been withholding grant money pending “resolution” of certain “problems” on the Boulder campus—and which, as I mentioned earlier, Brown himself had been running—released the cash. That was of course a cue for other rightwing donors to ante up, which they did to much fanfare, especially after Brown brought in another ACTA notable, Michael Poliakoff, principle author of the organization’s Teachers Who Can: How Trustees Can Ensure Teacher Quality, to serve as vice president for academic affairs. As chancellor of the Boulder campus itself, the selected G.P. “Bud” Peterson, whose ACTA profile, if any, was far less prominent, but whose major initiative during his stint in the position was to try and establish a formal chair in “conservative thought and policy.”
Cutting to the chase, as president of the university, Brown was the last stop in the institutional chain of command before the regents, which is the only body authorized under Colorado law to fire a tenured professor. In effect, they would act on his recommendations, so, as a matter of form, citing among other things How Many Ward Churchills?, I requested that he recuse himself because of his ACTA affiliation. The prez himself never deigned to respond. Rather, he had Poliakoff write me a letter denying that Brown hadn’t been involved with ACTA for years, which was a patent lie since, among other things, he’d teamed up with the governor, Bill Owens, to provide an ACTA workshop/retreat for the board of regents only a few months before the balloon went up in my case.
Brown then submitted his recommendation that I be fired for cause, overriding a majority of the faculty investigators’ recommendations in the process, but providing the pretext necessary for Lucero and his pals to do what they’d openly pledged to do in the first place. Having thus finished the job he was brought in to do, Brown promptly “retired.” More accurately, he took on the less demanding role of teaching the occasional poly sci course in a dedicated slot in the senior faculty at UC/Boulder. Poliakoff, for his part, hung around for another couple of years, until, ironically enough, his position was eliminated as a result of cuts to the university budget imposed by Colorado’s rightwing legislature in 2009. A year later, he was hired as ACTA’s vice president for policy, a position he still holds.
A lot of what I’ve been talking about is covered very well by Jeff Dodge in a piece titled “Who is pulling the strings at CU?” Dodge was editor of the Silver and Gold Record, the university’s faculty newsletter, and was one few reporters in Colorado who did a decent job in covering my case. Actually, his reportage was good enough that the administration closed the publication down, so he’s now a freelancer doubling as an editor of an alternative rag, the Boulder Weekly. In any case, the article lays out how Judge Naves essentially ruled the whole ACTA question out of bounds during the trial, even to the extent of preventing one of my experts from testifying about the organization. Of course, Larry the Knave also barred Derrick Bell from testifying with regard to academic freedom as a legal concept, so it came as no great surprise when he did the same with a mere expert on ACTA’s methods.
One thing Dodge doesn’t touch upon, however, is that because my request that Brown recuse himself specifically because of his ACTA connection was part of the record, Naves was stuck with the issue in that regard. So my lead attorney, David Lane, was able to interrogate Brown on the matter. Well, guess what? Brown repeated the denial Poliakoff had earlier proxied for him, saying he “could remember” no involvements with ACTA. Moreover, he said he “didn’t think” he was an ACTA founder, despite the fact that—as Lane pointed out to him—he was listed as such on the organization’s website and elsewhere in its literature. Brown went on to claim—I kid you not—that while he’d “heard of” ACTA, he really “didn’t know very much” about it. Seems to me that there’s a fancy legal term for giving false testimony under oath. Something beginning with the letter “p,” I think. But, whatever. I guess that’s what passes for “intellectual integrity” on the right.
Oh, by the way, Hank Brown’s presently heading up ACTA’s national campaign to retool university accreditation. Seems like an appropriate note on which to end this response. Even if its not, I’ve already gone on far longer than I meant to about it, so, in the immortal words of Tom Horn, that’s my last word on the matter. Fair enough?
JF: Absolutely. It seems to me that you weren’t really finished with what you were saying at the point I broke in with the ACTA question, so would you like to wrap that up? Also, I indicated earlier that I’d like to follow up on the badjacketing issue. Since we’ve been at this for quite a while already, though, would you like me to hold those questions for another time?
WC: Yes, and yes. To take the last part first, yeah, let’s hold the badjacketing questions for another time because, although the matter’s clearly related to what we’ve been discussing, it would probably require as much time to really get into it as we’ve already spent. I’m simply not up for it right now, and I doubt that your readers will be either.
Now, with respect to what I was going to say before we went off on the ACTA tangent, as best I can reconstruct it, it was that there’s a deeper history to all that “universities as vo-techs” stuff the “reformers” are currently pushing, and that its rooted in a fundamental misconception of what constitutes a university, as such, that’s predominated in the U.S. since at least as far back as the 1860s. Ordinarily, that would be well worth running down, but in this instance I think it’d be best if I simply referred anyone interested in pursuing the matter to Thorsten Veblen’s The Higher Learning in America. They’ll get the drift.
More directly on target for my purposes at the moment is that what I think we’re witnessing fifty years on is consolidation of precisely the kind of entity extolled by then-U/Cal Berkeley president Clark Kerr in his 1963 book, The Uses of the University. For those unfamiliar with the tract, Kerr likened what he preferred to call “multiversities” to governmentally/corporately-owned factories—albeit, “knowledge factories”—wherein managers such as himself employed to oversee a worker force—the faculty—whose job it was to convert raw material—that is, students—into the finished product or products desired by the owners, all with maximal efficiency. Sound familiar? Well, it didn’t at the time.
The vision set forth in The Uses of the University, probably more than any other single factor, triggered the so-called Berkeley student revolt in 1964. But now? I don’t expect we’re going to see a resurgence of the Free Speech Movement, much less of Carl Davidson-style student power politics, any time soon. Do you? Absent that, anything people like Eron and his colleagues can do to put some teeth into the AAUP and maybe even turn it into something resembling what it was supposed to have been all along is to be not only applauded but supported. The right is obviously very well organized on this front and, just as obviously, we’re not. The AAUP’s hardly the only game in town for purposes of cohering some viable means of opposition to what’s happening the academy, but every little bit helps. Or at least it does if there’s any value at all in the proposition that universities contain sites of critical resistance that, as Marcuse once put it, might “provide the Archimedean point for a broader emancipation.” I still believe there is, or at least could be.
JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. He is author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, both published by AK Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.