The Firing of Ward Churchill: A Good First Step

Last week, the University of Colorado terminated the employment of Professor Ward Churchill, the head of the “Ethnic Studies” department. It is an exceedingly rare thing for a university to fire a tenured professor and it took Colorado two years of investigation and hearings to finally determine that his employment would be ended.

Churchill’s firing was perfectly justified, but in my view is only the first step that the University of Colorado should take if it is to be truly accountable to the people of the state.

The case is well known, but let’s review the facts.

Churchill first came to national prominence when he was invited to speak at Hamilton College in 2004. Several members of the Hamilton faculty and board of trustees decided to check into his background and found that he had a long trail of outrageous, incendiary comments about American society. Most infamously, he had written an essay shortly after the 9/11 attacks, saying that the people killed in the World Trade Center towers were “little Eichmanns.”

As an aside, I must say that the “little Eichmanns” comment manages at once to be the most stupid and most offensive thing I have ever heard. Adolf Eichmann was the Nazi officer charged with the extermination of Hungarian Jews. He was responsible for the murder of thousands of people. Among those killed on September 11, there were no mass murderers. They worked at a great variety of jobs, most involving commerce of some kind.

In the mindset of the far, far Left, the world of trade is bad, but even Karl Marx did not regard capitalists – much less their employees – as murderers. Ward Churchill, however, contends that they are all just as bad as the Nazi henchman. I wonder if Churchill would also say that if any of the Hungarian Jews sent to the concentration camps had been businessmen, they deserved what they got. Logic and dementia rarely dwell together, though.

Once the folks at Hamilton had finished examining Churchill’s record, they put up enough of a fuss that his invitation was revoked. Furthermore, the furor over Churchill’s writings caused officials at the University of Colorado to take a careful look at his record too.

Churchill’s association with Colorado began in 1991 when he was hired in the communications department and quickly awarded tenure. That was quite unusual because he had only earned an M.A. degree from little-known Sangamon State University in Illinois. Major universities usually hire only individuals who have already completed their doctoral work, and then they have to earn tenure over a span of several years through high-quality scholarship. Churchill’s meteoric rise was as if a baseball team took a sandlot player and gave him a no-cut contract with its major league team, completely bypassing the minor leagues.

The reason why that happened is the mania in American higher education for “diversity.” Colorado was in the midst of a big push to bring more “cultural diversity” to its faculty and Churchill claimed that he was part American Indian. Those were the magic words. The University was far more concerned with his ancestry (or alleged ancestry; it turned out that Churchill’s claim was bogus) than his capabilities. That’s what happens when you become fixated on the imaginary benefits of “diversity.” As Brooklyn College history professor K.C. Johnson has written, “Well before Churchill ever uttered his “Little Eichmanns” line, the University of Colorado – a Tier I research university – had hired, then tenured, and then promoted to department chairman a woefully underqualified academic charlatan. In this respect, the affair provides a case study of ‘diversity’ hiring practices gone awry.”

Precisely. Churchill’s talent was not in teaching or scholarly research and writing. His talent was in recognizing that, with some amazing chutzpah, he could play upon the university’s diversity obsession by claiming victim status for himself. In American higher education, he knew, there is one set of standards for individuals whose ancestry puts them into a “victim class” and a different, far more exacting set of standards for everyone else. Furthermore, Churchill knew that he could make it in a field such as “ethnic studies” where holding the right set of opinions is more important than searching for truth.

But once his foolish “little Eichmanns” comment came to light, people in and out of the University of Colorado began to scrutinize Churchill’s academic record. In September 2005, the university’s Standing Committee on Research Misconduct found that seven charges against him merited full investigation. The following May, the school’s Investigative Committee released a 125-page report charging that Churchill was guilty of several forms of academic misconduct, including plagiarism, fabrication and falsification.

The affair reached its pinnacle last May, when Colorado’s Privilege and Tenure Committee concluded its review and found that Churchill’s scholarship fell “below minimum standards of professional integrity and … requires severe sanctions.” On May 29, Colorado’s president, Hank Brown, recommended to the Board of Regents that Churchill be fired. Last week, in an 8-1 vote, the regents did so.

In explaining his stance in an article in The Wall Street Journal, Brown wrote that the case “is about far more than academic misconduct. It is about the accountability that public universities must demonstrate….Too often, colleges and universities tend to insulate themselves in ivy-covered buildings and have not been as diligent as necessary to ensure that the academic enterprise is conducted rigorously and honestly.”

Brown is right. That is why firing Churchill from his $96,000 per year position should only be the starting point. If Colorado University officials are going to act accountably to the people of the state, they should put the “Ethnic Studies” department under a magnifying glass. Looking at the department’s Web site quickly reveals a lot of disquieting information.

We are told, for instance, “A principal focus of our curriculum is the recognition and incorporation of multicultural definitions and values that can become part of the University’s mission.” That gives one the impression that “Ethnic Studies” is not about learning a particular body of knowledge, but rather about pushing a certain set of opinions.

The department’s Web site also states that it “encourages participatory, experiential, student-centered learning and empowers students to move beyond existing social, cultural and political paradigms to more inclusive paradigms in which they are the subjects of their own reality. Consequently, all students are encouraged to examine and analyze their own inherited political/economic and social/cultural background and identities.” If you doubt that the various sorts of “Studies” programs are mostly exercises in navel-gazing, that paragraph should erase the doubt.

What kinds of courses do students in “Ethnic Studies” take? Here are a few:

ETHN 1013: Ethnic Notions. Introduces first-year students to the study of contemporary issues in American society through the eyes of culturally diverse groups (Chicano/as, Afroamericans, Asians, and Native Americans) as expressed in film, the ethnic press, music, TV programming, and other cultural representations produced by members of these groups.
ETHN 3000: Race, Class and Gender. Examines the uses of race, sex, and class as instruments of domination in Western society.
ETHN 3013: Racist Ideology in American Life. Explores the origins and evolution of racism as a political and religious force in American life, beginning with Puritan ideology in colonial New England, proceeding through the era of Manifest Destiny, and ending with the present day. Special attention is paid to the history of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, and emergence of Christian identity doctrine.

Departments such as Ethnic Studies, Women’s Studies, Chicana/o Studies, African-American Studies, etc., are all recent additions to the university menu. They sprang up in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of demands by campus radicals for new courses and departments that would be “relevant” and would attract “minority” students. The question to ask is whether they are about teaching a body of knowledge — or preaching a set of political beliefs and attitudes. Since Colorado officials allowed an academic poseur with a big mouth and bad manners to be in charge, they ought to look closely at their “Ethnic Studies “ department and find out.