DENVER – A battle over academic freedom moved from campus to courtroom March 9, when a controversial Indian rights advocate vowed to fight to regain his professorship.
Ward Churchill, 61, was fired from the University of Colorado’s ethnic studies department in 2007, two years after public attention was drawn to an essay he wrote that seemed to blame 9/11 victims for furthering U.S. government policies that led to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
After the essay came to light, a former Colorado governor and prominent others called for Churchill’s dismissal and an investigation was begun into his background and publications. Following several levels of review and appeal, he was fired from his tenured position because of findings of research misconduct, triggering a firestorm of controversy over the limits of protected speech and tenure security in academia.
Now Churchill is asking a Denver District Court jury to find that he was wrongfully terminated, should be rehired and receive damages.
A distinctively Native thread runs through the protracted argument surrounding Churchill, who has been affiliated with the American Indian Movement and whose writings often center on the North American genocide, the legacy and structure of colonialism, the limits of peaceful protest, institutional racism, blood quantum and related topics.
“I think history is written by white guys in suits,” observed noted civil rights attorney David Lane, lead counsel for Churchill. “Ward Churchill gives a different aspect that affects and frightens white guys in suits.”
There is a controversial side to the man himself that has been used to color views about his scholarship.
Despite his claims, Churchill has been unable to substantiate a family belief that he has Native ancestry to the satisfaction of his critics, and after the public furor over his essay, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee said his associate membership with the band was honorary and did not confer enrollment.
CU officials said his alleged “misrepresentation (of his ethnicity) might constitute research misconduct and failure to meet the standards of professional integrity,” a charge that was not included in the formal reasons for his dismissal.
Although Churchill was initially regarded publicly as Indian and his writing attacked on that basis, later it was charged that he was not Indian and his views were therefore not those of most Native people as a whole.
“There was a lot of purposeful confusion – they (university officials) fostered the confusion in an attempt to drive Ward out, hoping he would just leave,” said Bob Bruce, co-counsel for Churchill.
“They asked around to other American Indian scholars – ‘If it turns out he is non-Native, does that make his scholarship less?’” Bruce said, noting “they couldn’t find any, so they dropped it as a formal attack.”
“The University of Colorado obviously disrespects American Indian studies,” he said, and one can draw one’s own conclusions as to whether “that means they disrespect Native people.”
CU policy permitted ethnic self-identification at the time Churchill was hired, officials said, but some of his writings about Indian history were called into question by the university’s Investigative Committee and its Standing Committee on Research Misconduct.
The committees contended, among other charges, that Churchill misrepresented circumstances surrounding smallpox epidemics among the Mandan in 1837 and among Wampanoag tribal members in 1614, and also that he erroneously attributed a blood quantum requirement to the General Allotment Act.
A notice of intent to dismiss Churchill in 2006 from Phil DiStefano, the university’s interim chancellor, said that academic freedom carries with it the responsibility for accuracy, among other things and that committee findings “have been focused on the research misconduct of one faculty member only,”
according to a CU news release.
The fact that Churchill alone was singled out for intensive scrutiny may lend weight to a defense argument that his firing was politically motivated and contrary to guarantees of protected speech in academia.
During the complex controversy, some have expressed that Churchill’s Indian stance fueled the initial furor over his 9/11 remarks, while others have condemned him as a careless scholar, a “wannabe,” or simply unpatriotic, while still others have seen him as a gifted educator, a strong advocate for Native people, and a victim of political and academic repression.
The predominantly non-Anglo jury of four women and two men is expected to hear testimony from as many as 30 witnesses, including the former state governor who called on Churchill to resign, CU regents, a former CU president and other university officials.