Dismissing Professor Ward Churchill
Bill Long 8/4/06
A Different Kind of Angry Man
In the wake of substantial legal and social gains made by women and ethnic minorities in law, employment and public visibility in the last generation, many sociologists began to predict a "Male Backlash" of sorts. This backlash would happen, they said, as it began to dawn on men that some of the people occupying positions normally reserved for them were actually the minorities. Many of these same thinkers pointed to the conduct of George Bush the younger and his Administration as classic examples of what happens when the reactive white men, whom I will call Angry White Men, are put in charge of national government. They become hubristic, overreactive and insensitive. They want to assert their power again, throw their weight around and show the world what a real man can do.
Well, we are still living in the moral and legal morass brought about by the Bush Adminsitration (even if the economy is chugging along better than most liberals would like to admit), and the Angry White Men are all around us. But what the sociologists didn't predict in their backlash theory was that there would be a huge cadre of Angry Liberal White Men (including some minorities) who are angry not at the minorities for "taking" their jobs but at the other Angry Men for acting so "irresponsibly" in the world. What the strange case of Professor Ward Churchill shows us is not only how the University of Colorado still is trying to put itself back together (and none too successfully, as I argue below) but how Churchill really is representative of what I have gradually perceived all around me--normally peaceloving but now angry liberal men in their 50s and 60s with venom against the Administration dripping from their lips. This and the next essay explore the Ward Churchill case as emblematic of this second order of Angry Men that is loose in America today.
Catching Up on Ward Churchill
Perhaps you haven't heard his name or have forgotten it, but Churchill is a long-tenured professor, indeed the chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a man who appears, from his photo, to be in his late 50s/early 60s. Thus he is in the prime of his "Angry" years, in my theory. Well, he was unknown to all but a rather small coterie of scholars in ethnic studies and those in the Native Rights movement until he wrote a paper after 9/11 (which only came to light early in 2005) alluding to some of the World Trade Tower victims as "Little Eichmann's," referring to Adolf Eichmann, who was a leading lieutenant in Hitler's effort to eradicate the Jews in Europe during WWII. Rage, disbelief and calls for his firing rang out all, all, all over this land, land, land, land. Some people even wanted a hammer to do it.
But there was a problem. Even if Churchill spoke insensitive and inflammatory words, and even though he may have himself realized that he wasn't careful in putting together his thoughts, he is a tenured professor, and attempts to remove tenured professors who haven't slept with students or murdered someone is extremely hard to do. Tenure exists to protect professors who sometimes shoot off their mouths irresponsibly. Indeed, they might also have legal protections beyond tenure, though that isn't the purpose of this essay to explore.
In any case, in the wake of his comments, the University was aware that they couldn't "get" him for the words themselves on that occasion. So, what did the University do? It decided to go after him on other grounds---called "research misconduct." Research misconduct is a rather catchall term for someone who hasn't footnoted his work properly, has plagiarized, has manufactured evidence, or has deliberately (or seemingly so) turned research into polemic to the detriment of the profession.
So, in the Summer of 2005, the "inquiry subcommittee" of the 12-member permanent Standing Committee on Research Misconduct, "inquired" and found, by September 2005, that seven of nine allegations of research misconduct related to Professor Churchill warranted a full investigation. What did they do? Well, they then appointed a committee of outsiders, who met for several months to investigate closely the work of Professor Churchill to see if it represented the kind of shoddy and even dishonest scholarship that the allegations attributed to him. In May, 2006 this outside committee completed its 100+ page report which ended with the most severe sanction that could be recommended: dismissal of Professor Churchill. Now the matter has been "kicked upstairs," and I imagine that sooner or later he will be fired. If you think that will end the matter, you aren't very alert.
Why the Issue is Rather Laughable
You don't have to read between too many lines in the report (and, I admit, I didn't have the stomach to read the whole thing, nor will I probably ever read much of Professor Churchill's work), to realize a number of things. First, almost every person up the chain of command who will make a decision is listed as an "Interim." What does that mean? It means that the University of Colorado has temporarily lost the ability to govern itself. When you even have an Interim director of communications who is passing the report along, you know that no one is planning to stay around very long, including Professor Churchill.
Second, no matter how much the committee gives the impression that its work is being done in a "pure" and "non partisan" way, the timing of the report, in the wake of Professor Churchill's comments, makes it sure look as if this is a 21st century witch hunt. The committee recognizes the eerie timing of their report:
"Before addressing directly the contents of those allegations, the Investigative Committee (“Committee”) notes its concern regarding the timing and, perhaps, the motives for the University’s decision to initiate these charges at this time" (p. 1).
In other words, the committee says, 'we recognize that we might be perceived as being pawns in the process, that other than purely academic concerns are motivating this examination, that those most indecorous of emotions around universities (revenge, payback, destruction of someone's reputation) may be in the background of its work,' but it nevertheless plunges on. It recognizes the problem but thinks that the mere recognition exonerates the committee. In fact, it only intensifies the sense that this is, in fact, a witch hunt (sorry to the witches).
But, as is usual, I have more to say--in the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long