Retrospective: Truth and consequences for Ward Churchill (7.25.2007)

Editorial: Today we have articles #10 and #11 in the weeklong retrospective series here at CO9s. The twelfth and final one will come tomorrow, and then it’ll be back to regular posting.

This article was written this past summer, just after Ward Churchill had been fired. Even before his firing, I really believed that the main issue in the Churchill saga had gotten lost. People were merely choosing sides — the lefties taking Churchill’s side (see the Peter Kerstein reference in the main article) and the righties reflexively going the other way. But I didn’t believe, nor do I believe now, that this was the right way to see it all. The main point was that the man lied — about himself, about his research, in the research itself that he purportedly — and falsely — claimed he did. That he did so is on the public record and beyond dispute. That some would whitewash the fact by making him a martyr for academic freedom is as shameful as it is predictable.

I see the whole Churchill affair as just an extension of academic dishonesty, which I’ve already expressed my distaste for.

Truth and consequences for Ward Churchill

Originally posted: July 25, 2007


Ward Churchill has been fired:

More than two and a half years after Ward Churchill’s writings on 9/11 set off a furor, and more than a year after a faculty panel at the University of Colorado at Boulder found him guilty of repeated, intentional academic misconduct, the University of Colorado Board of Regents voted 8-1 Tuesday evening to fire him.

The vote followed a special, all-day meeting of the board, in which it heard in private from Churchill, a faculty panel and from Hank Brown, president of the University of Colorado System, who in May recommended dismissing Churchill from his tenured post. The regents emerged from their private deliberations at around 5:30 p.m. Colorado time and voted to fire Churchill, but they did not discuss their views and they quickly adjourned. A small group of Churchill supporters in the audience shouted “bullshit” as the board vote was announced.

While the firing is effective immediately, Churchill is entitled under Colorado regulations to receive one year’s salary, which for him is just under $100,000.

The university’s Board of Regents got it right by firing Churchill. Had they elected to fire him for his political beliefs and for his writing, it would have been a terrible violation of Churchill’s academic freedom and free speech rights. As appalling as one may find his views, he has the right to hold them and to publish about them. The reason Churchill was fired, instead, was because of “repeated, intentional academic misconduct” which included plagiarism, falsification of sources, and fabrication of data. If this were a student in a university, that student would have been shown the door long before this behavior got to the point that Churchill’s behavior did. No faculty member can be allowed to break the rules of scholarship so egregiously over such a long period of time, and tenure provides minimal protection, at best, to faculty from this kind of misconduct.

Peter Kerstein writes (in his blog in which all the comments are apparently closed), “This situation would never have occurred had he not defied conventional wisdom in his depiction of American casualties in a negative manner.” That is merely a partial truth. The whole truth is that situation would never had occurred if Churchill hadn’t plagiarized and falsified his work. Had Churchill applied the same standards of integrity that we expect from our students, no amount of scrutiny from any political camp would have produced anything actionable. It is not a violation of academic freedom to be punished for academic misconduct unearthed because your work attracted attention. Faculty do not have the right to be excused from the notoriety that their work brings them.

Faculty and students are free in a university to hold unpopular views and publish about them. But if a faculty member — who after all is a professional scholar and bound by the rules of the profession — does so, her/his scholarship must possess the strength and integrity necessary to survive scrutiny. And the more provocative your findings, the stronger your scholarship must be to back those findings up. This is a basic tenet of published scholarship. In my discipline of mathematics, claims about mathematical truth will undergo scrutiny, the intensity of which is proportional to the strength or boldness of the results — because mathematicians want to know the truth. (Ask my former Complex Analysis professor who claimed to have proved the Twin Prime Conjecture.) If a mathematician’s results draw attention to previous work in which there were errors or falsifications, you would never see people raising the hue and cry for their having been uncovered — again, because the primary thing is to know the truth, and as a corollary, to eliminate untruth where it occurs.

So ultimately this case is about whether the academy will accept false — indeed, falsified — attempts to uncover truth, and look the other way if they are found out of political concerns. CU says they will not. Churchill now plans to sue the university, so the story is not over yet, but I for one hope that the right thing continues to be done.

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Filed under Academic freedom, Academic honesty, Education, Free speech, Higher ed

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