Skip to main content

Colorado U caught in fracas

  • Author:
  • Updated:

BOULDER, Colo. - As a deadline passed for a report that could determine the
future of University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill, the fracas
claimed yet another academic victim: the president of the school itself.

Elizabeth Hoffman, five-year CU president, submitted her resignation in a
March 7 letter to the Board of Regents. Although a long-running series of
scandals in the athletic department might have done the most to undermine
her position, it appeared from her letter and the sequence of her recent
remarks that the Churchill affair pushed her over the edge.

Her resignation came as a deadline passed for a report from a panel of
school administrators on whether Churchill, a self-proclaimed Native and a
leader of the Colorado American Indian Movement, had committed academic
misconduct serious enough to warrant his removal from his tenured

Churchill has been a favorite bete noir of right-wing radio and television
for more than a month since the resurfacing of his 2001 essay "On the
Justice of Roosting Chickens," which appeared to applaud the Sept. 11, 2001
terrorist attacks. But the university review is expected to focus on issues
of his academic writing and his disputed claim to Native ethnicity which
has concerned his American Indian critics for over a decade.

Press interviews with his university colleagues and documents from his
personnel file, released to Indian Country Today under a Freedom of
Information Act request, suggest that his unusually rapid rise to a
highly-paid tenured post resulted in part from his claim to be a
fully-enrolled tribal member.

At the beginning of his employment at the university in 1979, Churchill
submitted a 10-page resume stating his "tribal heritage" as
"Creek/Cherokee." He was hired as acting director of the American Indian
Equal Opportunities Program.

In 1991, after several administrative jobs, he took a big step up. He was
appointed associate professor in the Communications Department, with
tenure, at a salary of $39,000.

According to the university's "Affirmative Action & Services Data
Collection form" dated Aug. 19, 1991, 11 of the 39 applicants for the post
were American Indian. Only two were interviewed, both from the Indian pool,
and Churchill was the one who got the job.

After his appointment as associate chair of the Department of Ethnic
Studies, Churchill elaborated on his Indian background in his curriculum
vitae. "I am of mixed blood/mixed heritage (Metis) Creek and Cherokee
descent, enrolled in the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees (Roll Number
R7627)," he wrote. In recent days, in rebuttal of Indian scholars and
researchers who say they have not found any evidence he had Indian
ancestry, he stands by his claim to Keetoowah membership.

But, as previously reported, the Keetoowah Band enrolled Churchill in 1994
as an honorary associate member - a program set up by then Chief John Ross
and disbanded soon after Churchill joined. Recently inaugurated Chief
George G. Wickliffe issued a statement saying the Band "has no association
with Churchill in any capacity whatsoever." A spokesman for the Band
confirmed the statement on March 9 but added that it was not clear whether
Churchill had been informed when his honorary membership was discontinued.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

The spokesman said he couldn't say what sort of genealogical review Ross
had conducted since Churchill's file was missing. He said the current
government was still searching for it in the archives. But, he said of
Churchill's family history, "If he produced it once, he ought to be able to
produce it again."

Another Keetoowah Band member who was present at Churchill's investiture
said it had nothing whatsoever to do with his lineage: it was strictly

Several investigative reporters have done extensive research into
Churchill's genealogy. Although they found no direct Indian line, they did
turn up evidence of complex interactions between his 18th century European
ancestors and tribal neighbors.

Churchill has cited a possible Indian ancestor six generations back on his
mother's side named Joshua Tyner, born in 1767. According to the Rocky
Mountain News, Tyner's mother Abigail and several siblings, said to be
European, were killed and scalped by Creek Indians in an apparent family
feud. His father Richard later remarried to a Cherokee woman. In a military
pension application, Tyner said he served "as a spy and private, ranging
the frontier against the hostile Indians." When he died in southern
Illinois in 1838, one account said he was buried "Indian style."

Although researchers believe the direct ancestors were white, they do
appear to have been part of a hybrid Euro-indigenous culture which was
taking root along the old frontier until it was destroyed by the Indian
removals of the 1830s and '40s. They do not, however, support his claim of
one-sixteenth Cherokee heritage.

Churchill himself has denounced blood quantum as a device to extinguish
Indian rights, and the issue is significant for the Colorado review mainly
because it raises the question of academic fraud. Did Churchill obtain his
highly-paid positions by claiming to be someone he was not? (As chairman of
the Ethnic Studies Department, he drew $114,032 a year. Upon his
resignation as chairman earlier in the controversy, he took a pay cut to
$94,242.) The answer could be even more embarrassing for university
administrators, who ignored repeated warnings about Churchill from
nationally-known Indian leaders, than for Churchill himself.

The review panel, which was supposed to issue its report first on March 3
and then during the week of March 7, consists of interim school Chancellor
Philip DeStefano, Arts and Sciences Dean Todd Gleeson and Law School Dean
David Getches. An authority on American Indian law, Getches describes
himself on his Web site as the "founding executive director of the Native
American Rights Fund." Several published reports speculate that the
committee's findings were delayed by negotiations to buy out Churchill's
contract at a potentially huge expense to the school.

In the meantime, pressures from left and right buffet the school. A letter
signed by up to 200 faculty members protested what it said was an intrusion
into Churchill's academic freedom and right to free speech while
administrators of the public university have had to fend off calls for
budget cuts from the state Legislature, where Churchill is a hot political
issue. Just days before her resignation, Hoffman went to the state Capitol
to give a positive picture of the university's progress.

But she was already tottering from an entirely separate issue: long-running
scandals in the school's athletic department. Recent charges of an
unreported "slush fund" and sexual assaults had brought critical scrutiny
from the state treasurer and attorney general. Out-of-state applications
were dropping by 20 percent at a school becoming known mainly for alcohol,
rape and Ward Churchill.

Her departure vindicated the stand of another famous scholar, with
impeccable Indian credentials. Retired CU professor Vine Deloria Jr.,
refused to accept an honorary degree from the university last May in a
reaction to the administration's handling of the Athletic Department

"A university is supposed to reflect the highest values and beliefs that
our society can achieve," he wrote to Hoffman. "The recent actions indicate
that the university is groveling in the mud, displaying a lower standard of
ethics than the citizens of the state."