Dismissing Professor Ward Churchill II
Bill Long 8/4/06
The Fate of the "Angry Man"
I argued in the previous essay that this case is more laughable than serious, even though lots of people are very angry over it, and some even take it as a sort of "test case" of whether the Universities will begin to "knuckle under" to conservative pressures from without.
The third reason for the laughable nature of it is that the University of Colorado waited decades (or at least a decade; I don't know when Churchill began to teach there) to "check up" on Churchill's scholarship but seemingly didn't do so until he made an inflammatory comment that made headlines. Where was the university when it granted him tenure or when it did his reviews before tenure? When I was at Brown in the 1970s, a very outspoken professor in my department critized this Ivy League university for "handing out tenure like popcorn," without really requiring its budding scholars to demonstrate their scholarship before lifetime tenure was awareded them.
In fact, I think that the requirement that one have written a "seminal article" or "two books" before tenure ignores the differences not only in maturation of people and in mastery of a field, but it forces a lot of people to write things that aren't very good. But, I think I can say the following without an accusation of prejudice: one of the most ill-kept secrets in the academy of the 1980s was that universities were "easy" on tenure in lots of departments, including ethnic studies departments, because of pressure from within the university (mostly from faculty members who wanted to explore the "post-colonial" world) to have full departments of ethnic studies. Thus, the university had to hire and grant tenure to loads of folks in ethnic studies who may not have had the academic credentials of many other departments. But, in the abstract, I have no difficulty wiht this. People are tenured in theater all the time, for example, without a Ph. D. Experience in the theater is considered to be of equal importance as "scholarly" publications. So an argument could have been made in the 1980s that "experience" in the "ethnic struggles" of the 1960s and 1970s would give a sort of "experience" credit to some ethnic studies professors when they were lacking the gilded Ivy League degrees of their colleagues in classics or history or chemistry.
But the University has only itself to blame when it finally discovers at this late date that Professor Churchill's scholarship isn't very good, in a number of instances. I think what would be more appropriate is what Bronson Alcott, one of America's first great educators, thought should be done when any student became a disciplinary problem in his class. Alcott thought that he should be whipped/chastised for student misbehavior. Why shouldn't the University of Colorado, rather than Churchill, be censured for its hasty decisions, poor oversight, buckling to pressures and general abandonment of its educational mission?
On Churchill as a Scholar
I think there is probably enough "out there" on the Internet reviewing Churchill's work to show that he isn't a very responsible historian, and that polemics really define the nature of his work. I don't think that just because someone is a polemicist that he ought to be dismissed, however. I knew several polemicists who were rewarded because of their "schtick," even when their footnotes consisted mostly of quoting themselves. But I think it is true that if almost any scholar had his/her work scrutinized with the care with which the committee examined Churchill's work that the scholar would be seen to be a careless, misinformed, inarticulate, and often polemical individual. Or, probably more to the point, most scholars' work would be dismissed as irrelevant, unimportant, pedantic, unnecessary or rather useless. Most scholars are kind to one another in reviewing their works because they know that if a searchlight were shined on their own works, they would be shivering without much protection. Nevertheless, I do support the basic distintion the reviewing committee made between polemics and scholarship, and it seems to me that professors at universities ought to be the first to know what original research and current canons of scholarship are. But usually the way you handle people who don't play the scholarly game very well is to ignore them and not cite them. If they truly are bad, their work won't stand the test of time.
What Should be Done Now
I think it probably is far too late for my suggestions of "where to go from here" to be implemented, but since I am not usually consulted for many things of which I write, I need not let that bother me. Lines have been drawn in the sand, and when that is done, when people are "entrenched" behind their barriers, then talk of reconciliation or mutual understanding is really out of the question. But I think that things would be a lot better if the University of Colorado would, instead of trying to fire him (he will win the case, by the way, even though U of Colorado is technically within its rights to fire him), apologize to Professor Churchill. Why? For not being more up front with him along the way, for not taking their oversight of his work seriously before it became clear to the world that their "oversight" was really a witch hunt.
You know what? If the University of Colorado apologized at this juncture to Professor Churchill, it would place him in an untenable situation, because it would remove his ability to fight an enemy and would leave him exposed to the world as not a very good scholar. His true identity as "polemicist" would be clear to all. The people of Colorado will just have to live with it for a few more years until he decides to retire but, guess what? His credibility would completely be in tatters. As it is, by dismissing Churchill, the University will give him a reason to keep fighting and will take the attention away from the real issue--whether anyone really should listen to Ward Churchill. If the University apologized, the onus would be on the Angry Man to decide how to live his life. Maybe he would learn some things about himself through the process.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long