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Ward Churchill responds to dismissal with lawsuit threat

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BOULDER, Colo. – Ward Churchill is threatening a lawsuit in response to a dismissal notice issued June 26 by the University of Colorado at Boulder. The university sanction and his response brings the prolonged controversy over the combative polemicist on Indian issues to what might be its final phase.

University Interim Chan-cellor Philip DiStefano announced June 26 that he had chosen the sanction of dismissal from the faculty as the response to university committee findings that Churchill had committed repeated and serious research misconduct. The punishment was the most severe of several recom-mended by the university’s Standing Committee on Research Misconduct, although three of the five committee members said dismissal was justified.

The Standing Committee based its recommendations on a lengthy May 23 report from an Investigative Committee, which reviewed Churchill’s academic work on nine specific charges. The investigating panel, composed of three UCB faculty and two well-known outside scholars, charged Churchill with a pattern of falsifying and fabricating evidence, plagiarism and misuse of author attribution.

Churchill issued an unrepentant response June 27, charging his investigators with “academic misconduct” of their own. “As regards the allegations of fraud,” he wrote, “whether what I wrote is true or false is irrelevant. The ONLY relevant consideration is whether I had reason to believe it was true.

“On this score I did and still do, and the panel proved nothing to the contrary,” he continued. “This is amply reflected in the evidence the panel left largely unaddressed in its report. Much the same pertains to my having supposedly ‘invented’ historical incidents, and the alleged implications of my ghostwriting.”

Churchill said he was being fired “not for what I did, but because I refused to recant.”

Churchill accused DiStefano of “blatant conflicts of interest, not to mention the political nature of his biases.” He said he would appeal the chancellor’s dismissal notice to the Faculty Senate’s Committee on Privilege and Tenure, the next step in the university process.

Churchill’s attorney, David Lane, previously said his client would “absolutely” sue if fired, and Churchill indicated that his case would wind up in court even if he received support from the Privilege and Tenure Committee.

Lane told the Colorado press that the academic charges were a pretext to punish Churchill for a belatedly famous Internet diatribe against the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. University officials insisted that that essay had been ruled out as an issue because it was political speech protected by the First Amendment. Members of the committees noted, however, that the university started the academic review only after an intense political controversy last year when conservative writers and talk show hosts retrieved the essay and publicized an inflammatory passage comparing some 9/11 victims to Nazi Holocaust bureaucrat Adolph Eichmann.

In announcing the notice of dismissal, DiStefano also responded to some implicit criticisms of the university. He promised work to restore the reputation of the university’s Department of Ethnic Studies, chaired by Churchill until the controversy erupted last year. “At no time,” he emphasized, “has the work of the other faculty members of the ethnic studies department been called into question.”

A university spokesman said that the chancellor would meet with the Ethnic Studies Department later in the summer or early fall to hear its concerns.

DiStefano also said the university was following through on the committees’ recommendations for stronger review of faculty appointments and promotions. Both committees bluntly criticized the fast-track promotion of Churchill, even though he lacked advanced university or law school degrees.

The Investigating Committee, in particular, said the embarrassment of the affair was of the university’s own making. It wrote, “We believe that the University of Colorado may have made the extraordinary decision to hire Professor Churchill, a charismatic public intellectual with no doctorate and no history of regular faculty membership at a university, to a tenure position without any probationary period in part because at that moment in the institution’s history, it desired the favorable attention his notoriety and following were expected to bring. This notoriety was achieved to some extent by the publication of some of the very essays that have now come under scrutiny because of their scholarly shortcomings.

“For us, the indignation now exhibited by some University actors about Professor Churchill’s work appears disingenuous, as they and their predecessors are the ones who decided to hire him.”

The panels refused to consider a charge that Churchill had fraudulently advanced his career by claiming to be American Indian, when his only tribal affiliation was an honorary membership. They noted that several Native leaders had made this complaint to the university in the mid-’90s and had been disregarded.