Introductory Remarks for Ward Churchill at CU Academic Freedom Symposium

BY DON ERON

This guest post comes from remarks by Don Eron at the April 29 Academic Freedom Symposium at the University of Colorado Boulder. Don Eron is a retired University of Colorado Boulder writing instructor and a member of the national AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

The AAUP

I’d like to talk about the AAUP for a few minutes. I’ve often thought that being a tenured professor at a research university is the best job in America. Are there any tenured professors here? This is for you.

If you don’t already know, you might find it of interest that almost every privilege you enjoy as a member of the academic profession—the academic freedom and job security that comes with tenure, the control over pedagogy and curriculum that is the fruit of shared governance, and a professional status equivalent to that enjoyed by members of the medical and legal professions—stems from the AAUP.

Have you ever wondered how it became so much better than other jobs?  Did you think that early in the 20th century the trustees and the presidents and the public thought, “Gee, we really love the eggheads, we trust the eggheads, let’s give them complete control over the curriculum—what they teach our kids!—and more job security than anyone else has—including us! Let’s allow them to think they’re working for the good of society—not for us. Let’s let them yell about how terrible we are at the top of their lungs and fix it so there’s nothing we can do about it! That’s how much we like eggheads!”

Everything you like about your job is because of an idea that the AAUP and its membership advanced and enforced, until the 1915 and 1940 Statements on Academic Freedom and Tenure became the basis for institutional policy at every self-respecting college or university in the country.

The reason the AAUP was so successful is because of people like my father. My father was a full professor for over 40 years and won most every lifetime achievement award in his field. In those 40 plus years he never attended an AAUP meeting, he never voted in an AAUP election. But here’s the thing: he was a member. In a nutshell, that’s why you enjoy so much of what you have today. Because of my dad.

I have with me the original 1915 AAUP membership list of CU faculty. 25 members—about what there are today. I’m going to read some name. JB Ekeley, JD Fleming, FBR Hellems, JA Hunter, MS Ketchum, MF Libby, George Norlin, Francis Ramalay, JF Willard. Raise your hand if you see a theme.

Nine out of the 25 original AAUP members have buildings on the CU campus named after them. By this metric—and this metric only—if you join the AAUP you have a 36% chance of having a building named after you. Your grandchildren will be proud.

Actually, for some of you, by the time your grandchildren are adults there won’t be anything called tenure, at least as we know it today, unless a lot more faculty members become quite a bit more like my father.

I’m a member of the national AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Among many other things, we oversee investigations of institutions that fail to adhere to AAUP policies, and recommend these institutions for censure.. A couple of years ago we censured MD Anderson in Houston—not because of their cancer treatments, but because as a teaching hospital they eliminated tenure and replaced it with “term-tenure.” What “term-tenure” means is that you have tenure until the end of your term, and then you have to reapply for your job. Having to periodically reapply for your job is not really something that encourages one to challenge the status quo—they might not want you around for the next term. If you’re wondering how “term-tenure” might be distinct from multi-year appointments, it is reasonable to wonder.

My prediction is that, within another 25 years or so, unless faculty members become more like my father, tenure will still exist, but it will be “term-tenure.”

After I started challenging the status quo, sometimes through my participation in faculty government—I served on the Boulder Faculty Assembly (some of you may remember my “instructor tenure” initiatives with Suzanne Hudson) and for about ten years was on the Personnel Committee of the CU Faculty Council—I observed a conundrum. Whenever an initiative came forward I would try to apply AAUP principles. What I discovered is that many faculty participants in faculty government appear to despise the AAUP. Even though every AAUP policy is designed to protect faculty, these faculty seemed to feel (I take it) that the AAUP is radical, extreme, unyielding.

The goal of the AAUP has always been to protect the sanctity of tenure, and the organization has long been conflicted about non-tenure track faculty such as me. If I had not managed to regain my job on those occasions my program tried to fire me, I doubt the national AAUP would have stood up for me. (I like to think that my CU chapter would have huffed and puffed.) So here I was, someone about whom the AAUP was conflicted and had really never done anything, often fighting to strengthen the job protections of tenured faculty for whom the AAUP was responsible for most everything they valued about the best job in America, and these tenured faculty would resist, often vehemently. I had many heated discussions in faculty government, where I was trying to strengthen protections for tenured faculty, against the vehement objections of tenured faculty.

When the day comes that tenure becomes term-tenure, these guys are not going to fight for you. In fact, by then your protections may have become so compromised that no one will notice.

People are strange. That brings me to Ward Churchill. 

Ward Churchill

I’m going to talk now about the report of the research misconduct committee that found Ward Churchill guilty of numerous academic crimes. I’m also going to talk a little about the Colorado AAUP Conference’s “Report on the Termination of Ward Churchill.” Those of you who have read the report, or who know something about the Churchill case, will note that there are many things about the case that I am not going to say in the next few minutes, and many injustices that the research misconduct committee did to Churchill that I am not going to mention. You’ll have to read the report for the full story. As I only have a few minutes, I’m only going to mention a few examples that especially interest me today.

In October 2012, after the Colorado Supreme Court turned down Ward Churchill’s appeal, the Denver Post ran an editorial. The Post said “it was clear at the end of the day that Churchill wasn’t fired for his opinions,” but because of his “academic deceit.”

As the lead author of the Colorado Conference’s 136 page “Report on the Termination of Ward Churchill,” which had recently been published in the Journal of Academic Freedom, I felt burdened by this editorial, so I wrote an op-ed in response.

Here’s part of what I wrote: “’The Report on the Termination of Ward Churchill’ concludes that the research misconduct panel convicted Churchill of academic crimes that he did not commit. The panel declared a standard method of interpretation to be academic misconduct. It disregarded Churchill’s sources and then claimed he had no sources. It faulted him for citation practices that some on the panel use themselves. It contrived new charges against Churchill based on standards designed to protect scholars in his position. The AAUP report, based on careful study of over 17,000 pages of documentation, concludes that the CU investigation into Churchill’s scholarship was a sham. Many other scholars and experts…have reached the same conclusion.”

As one expert, Stanley Fish, declared in the New York Times, “If the standards for dismissal adopted by the Churchill Committee were generally in force, hardly any of us professors would have jobs.”

The Post didn’t print the piece, because, they said, in was written in response to a Post editorial. They said if they publish op-eds in response to their editorials, that’s all they’d ever publish. It’s on our Colorado AAUP web site, if you’re interested.

I recently clicked on the Journal of Academic Freedom and re-read the report, for the first time in several years. One thing that struck me was, toward the end of the report, my co-authors (Suzanne Hudson and Myron Hulen) and I seem to be throwing up our arms: How many different ways can we describe the permutations that this research misconduct panel went through in order to convict Ward Churchill of research misconduct?

For example, one guy on the panel, observing that Churchill had used the term “circumstantial evidence,” looked the term up in Black’s Legal Dictionary. It turns out that, as a term-of-art,  “circumstantial evidence” means something different than it does as a colloquialism, the way that Churchill obviously intended the term. This guy scrutinized Churchill’s evidence, and then adjudged that, in his view, it didn’t reach the legal threshold for circumstantial evidence. Thus, the panel adjudged, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Churchill had committed research misconduct.

Interestingly, this fellow conceded that this one incident of misconduct didn’t amount to all that much, but the panel was obligated to adjudge the charges and, taken together with the other charges (some negligible, some major) the panel detected a clear pattern of deceit where Churchill fabricated myths in order to advance his agenda of ideological propaganda.

He got it right that some of Churchill’s other “crimes” were negligible. For example, in some instances Churchill put a footnote at the end of the paragraph instead of at the end of the sentence. He also sometimes did not use pinpoint citations when, in the judgment of the panel, he did not have a good reason for not using pinpoint citations—and thus it was research misconduct. The reason he didn’t use them, according to the panel, wasn’t what Churchill said, but because, as a strategy of deceit, he wanted to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to verify that his sources were fabricated.

Interestingly, when it comes to not using pinpoint citations, the member of the panel who excoriated Churchill the longest and loudest did not use pinpoint citations, in one of her books, on 480 occasions. But she had a good reason. Her publisher told her not to.

The panel also convicted Churchill of more major academic crimes. All those were specious.

To get back to AAUP philosophy, if you were to look at the AAUP’s seminal documents, you might be surprised to find that they do not express the stellar defense of academic freedom you might expect. In fact, academic freedom, particularly individual academic freedom, is far from unlimited. Luckily, however, the limits to individual academic freedom are defined not by the donors or the trustees of an institution, the governor, the legislature, the public, or the Rocky Mountain News, but by the scholar’s field of inquiry. This is because the scholars in one’s field of inquiry are the ones who—unlike these other agents—can be expected to know what they are talking about.

Ward Churchill’s field is American Indian Studies. It is a field in which most scholars view Indian history through the lens of critical race theory and consider methods of statutory and historical interpretation as practiced by many scholars in other fields to be unreliable, not because scholars in AIS wish to create myths, but because the standard primary sources were often written by colonialists disingenuous in their concerns about the unfortunate plight of the Indian, or may be oral accounts from Indians who were terrified of offending the white man. You can’t trust these sources, they say, so they are challenged to devise more reliable methods.

There is a telling moment in the report of the Privilege & Tenure Committee. Eric Cheyfitz, a legal expert and leading scholar in AIS, has explained to the committee that one of the academic misconduct charges against Churchill regards a standard—and well justified—method of arriving at the truth as practiced by many scholars in Churchill’s field. According to the P&T Report, “Advocates of these views [such as scholar’s in Churchill’s field] might not find the evidence in favor of a finding of misconduct [against Churchill] as persuasive as we do.”

That was a remarkable moment in the history of academic freedom. The perspective of Churchill’s field—AIS—has been explained to this CU committee, and they admit that they privilege their perspective about what constitutes viable scholarly methods in Churchill’s field over the perspective of the scholar’s in Churchill’s field—and thus Churchill is guilty of committing an academic crime. What can you do in the face of such brazen sophistry, other than shout “No! No! Please! No! Their perspective is the perspective in defining the parameters of their field. You don’t get to do that. They do.”

I am not a scholar in the field of AIS, but I can tell you this: the report of the Standing Committee for Research Misconduct (SCRM) panel—which contained no scholars in Churchill’s field and has provided so much of the intellectual justification for the destruction of Ward Churchill’s reputation—is a dishonest report.

I doubt very much that the faculty members on this panel were motivated by dishonesty—with one possible exception, a specialist in American Indian law whose work is discredited by scholars in the field of AIS (they are distinct fields with conflicting perspectives) and who must have thought that he was getting away with murder because there was no one on the committee to dispute his authoritative proclamations as dubious—but the SCRM report that convicted Churchill was the inevitable result of a committee that was incompetent and arrogant.

This is a committee that was completely unfamiliar with the issues and methods of the scholars in AIS, and completely uninterested. When they were informed of those methods by the specialists in the field they decided that they knew better than the specialists in the field.

I know that some of you who are hearing me say this—who have read the SCRM report but not the Colorado AAUP report —may think that I am hopelessly biased. That I am “pro-Churchill.” If you’re determined to believe that, there’s probably nothing I can say to convince you otherwise. I’ll tell you this though: I found the report quite convincing when I first read it. With great conviction, they talk about the many times that Churchill footnotes sources for substantiation that do not back up his claims, and how, bending over backwards to give Churchill the benefit of the doubt, they undertook their own searches to locate sources, but that there are none. They talk about how, when he’s not footnoting sources that don’t support his claims, Churchill footnotes articles that he’s ghostwritten to give the appearance of independent substantiation, as a pattern of deception to advance his agenda of ideological propaganda—namely, that the native population disappeared as a result of intentional genocide by the white population.

Here is where their incompetence and arrogance is at play. Churchill makes a claim, in a few paragraphs spread over several essays devoted to other issues, about the General Allotment Act of 1887. He says that the GAA called for a blood quantum test for Indians to prove that they are eligible to receive the benefits of the Act. To test Churchill’s claim, the research misconduct committee ran the GAA through a word check and could detect no literal requirement, in the language of the Act, calling for a blood quantum test. Then they went to his sources, none of which substantiated that the language of the Act literally called for a blood quantum test. Thus Churchill was guilty of a major act of fabrication—one so brazen that everything that followed, no matter how negligible it might appear—and I’ve given you some examples—in the judgment of the panel fleshed out Churchill’s pattern of deceit.

The problem with this finding is that Churchill never claimed that the language of the Act literally required a blood quantum test. However, as numerous AIS scholars testified to the research misconduct committee, a standard approach to statutory interpretation is to take into consideration not only the language of the law, but the law’s implementation and effects. After all, there are many racist laws in which the literal language of the law does not betray the intention. In the view of these scholars, a contextual interpretation elicits a truer understanding than just reviewing the literal language of the statute. That was Churchill’s approach, obviously—and when this standard scholarly method is taken into consideration, suddenly his sources support his claims. Nonetheless, because Churchill used this normative method of statutory interpretation, the research misconduct committee convicted him of falsification and fabrication regarding the GAA of 1887.

It would be akin to convicting a scholar of academic misconduct for claiming that Trump’s travel ban is anti-Muslim, because the language of the ban does not literally say so.

If there are legitimate issues with the normative methods in the entire field of American Indian Studies, if those methods are controversial, they should be debated in an academic setting, and not in a disciplinary hearing with only side of the controversy represented among the inquisitors.

People are strange. The research misconduct committee was explicit that one reason they were so severe in their assessment of Churchill was that he wouldn’t back down.  He wouldn’t accept that he was wrong when they told him he was wrong. He wouldn’t, as Stanley Fish said, “denounce himself.” Even though it might have saved his job, he wouldn’t defer to the findings of this panel composed of one Indian law specialist and four others who were unfamiliar with and uninterested in the methods and issues common in American Indian Studies and who, as is obvious from the transcripts, at every step presumed Churchill to be guilty as charged or a liar, and who, based on their report, were more interested in mansplainin’ than in deferring to the AIS scholars who testified to the rationality and validity of Churchill’s methods.

Perhaps Churchill did not back down because he did not believe that they knew what they were talking about.

I’m not much good at predicting the future, but I’ll predict one thing. In his speech today Ward Churchill will not back down. Ladies and gentlemen, Ward Churchill.

One thought on “Introductory Remarks for Ward Churchill at CU Academic Freedom Symposium

  1. I’m looking to be set straight. Unless I’m informed otherwise tenure was originally established (when?) to protect professors whose scholarship for purely arbitrary reasons, might displease their employers, the ruling elite. In short to protect the free speech of the professor but more importantly to protect the pursuit of truth. Galileo comes to mind and there are likely better examples. But what do we do when the protected professor goes rogue and himself fails to meet the accepted standards of scholarship, or who decides to become and advocate of some cause based upon a controversial interpretation of scholarship, or even fails to practice cutting edge scholarship and devotes his/her time to politics or advancing his own version of facts to the exclusion of competing interpretations of the same facts? Cornell West comes to mind and there are likely better examples. Cornell West was run off from his post at Harvard by the then president who challenged his dedication to his scholarship and teaching, as I recall. Why does it make sense for a professor to gain tenure by publishing scholarly works and attaining a certain standing in his field of study, and then decide he can slack off, do as he like with his time all in the name of his protected status. Sure doesn’t work that way in any other profession with which I’m familiar.

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