The news today from Inside Higher Ed is that the University of Colorado Board of Regents voted to fire Ward Churchill. You may recall that in May 2006, a faculty panel at the university found that the tenured ethnic studies professor had committed repeated, intentional academic misconduct in his scholarly writings. You may also recall that the close scrutiny of his writings was sparked by an outcry at some of the political views he voiced (especially that the September 11th attacks were an instance of “chickens coming home to roost”).
The mix of factors here — a movement to remove a tenured professor at a public university because his views are judged politically objectionable, plus a finding of real problems with the integrity of his scholarship, not to mention a whole set of issues around shared governance and the appropriate process within university hearings (which I will leave to the people with a much better feel for org charts) — have made the Churchill case a Rorschach test. How people interpret what the case was about, and how they will judge the outcome, probably tells us more about their priorities and anxieties around higher education than it necessarily tells us about Ward Churchill himself.
Is this a case about academic freedom?
The close scrutiny of Churchill’s work was clearly prompted by public pressure owing to the political views he expressed. From today’s Inside Higher Ed piece:
Churchill has been working at Boulder since 1978 and has been a tenured professor of ethnic studies since 1991. In the years before 2005, he gained a reputation at Colorado and on the college lecture circuit nationally as an impassioned speaker and writer on behalf of Native Americans. Most of his speeches were attended by supporters of his views, so he did not attract widespread criticism.
All of that changed early in 2005, however, when Churchill was scheduled to speak at Hamilton College. Some professors there, who did not feel Churchill was an ideal speaker, circulated some of his writings, including an essay with the the now notorious remark comparing World Trade Center victims on 9/11 to “little Eichmanns.” Within days, the controversy spread — with Hamilton under pressure to uninvite Churchill and Colorado under pressure to fire him. Hamilton stood by its invitation, on academic freedom grounds, but in the end called off the appearance, based on threats of violence.
As the University of Colorado considered what to do, a series of accusations against Churchill started to come in that involved his scholarly practices. While Churchill repeatedly has portrayed his critics as conservatives, a number of those who brought complaints against him share his fury at the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans. The complaints included charges of plagiarism, of false descriptions of other scholars’ work or historical evidence, and of fabrications. The university first determined that it could not fire Churchill based on his statements about 9/11, but that it could investigate the other allegations of misconduct, which it then proceeded to do. Three separate faculty panels then found Churchill guilty of multiple instances of research misconduct.
Indeed, an official statement from University of Colorado at Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano emphasized the principle of academic freedom:
It often has been said that a university is a marketplace of ideas – a place where controversy is no stranger and opinionated discourse is applauded. Indeed, one of our most cherished principles is academic freedom – the right to pursue and disseminate knowledge without threat of sanction.
But, as is true with all liberties enjoyed by all Americans, with freedom comes responsibility. Appropriately, we in academe are held to high standards of integrity, competence and accuracy, at the same time that we freely engage in spirited, unimpeded discourse in the “marketplace of ideas.”
How we cast academic freedom may come down to just what it is we think academics are being free with — ideas, opinions, or knowledge claims. Arguably, everyone has an opinion (and I will spare you my high school English teacher’s colorful anatomical simile), and this practically ensures that for any given opinion a person holds, someone will disagree. What is supposed to distinguish the academic arena from the political arena (or at least, the worst caricature of the political arena) is that academics are pressed to provide reasons to back up their opinions. Failing that, we might expect academics to clearly identify their opinions as opinions rather than as claims with a firm factual basis.
Given that historians, like scientists, are in the knowledge production business, there’s an assumption that there are truths that are knowable (at least to a reasonable approximation), and that there is a burden of proof to display the evidence that backs up our knowledge claims. Where that evidence leads us should not be determined by a popular vote, but by scholarly standards.
To the extent that academics have opinions or hunches that don’t yet have evidence to back them up, even opinions or hunches that are unpopular ought to be OK provided they are not oversold as knowledge claims. (Indeed, I’ve noted before that there’s something irresponsible about presenting your hunch as a live hypothesis while ignoring a great deal of existing data that seems to undermine that hypothesis.)
So, if Ward Churchill were being fired for voicing certain political views, that would seem a clear violation of academic freedom. But academic freedom does not amount to being able to put forward any claim you like as knowledge. Indeed, the official offenses cited in the firing of Ward Churchill involve whether the “knowledge” he built as a scholar met the standards academics recognize.
Is this a case about academic misconduct?
Tuesday night’s vote to fire Churchill seems to have been the penalty phase of the process that followed the faculty panel’s finding that he had committed research and academic misconduct. The report on those findings is more than 100 pages long, so I will rely on the summary presented in a May 17, 2006 article in Inside Higher Ed:
The new report is an unusual mix of reflections on academic freedom and Churchill’s role at the University of Colorado, lawyerly analysis of specific accusations, and a mini-textbook into some aspects of American Indian history. The committee appears to be trying to give Churchill every benefit of the doubt, and takes note of instances where his critics overstated their complaints or where there is some rational way to back up a particular claim Churchill made.
But in damning example after example after example, the report documents instances in which it could not find any evidence to back Churchill’s claims and in which it did find overwhelming evidence to back those who filed complaints against him. The committee noted, for example, a number of similarities in an article Churchill wrote in 1992 with an article published the previous year by Fay G. Cohen, a professor at Dalhousie University, in Nova Scotia. There can be “little doubt” that large portions of the essay are from Cohen’s work, the report said.
In one instance, it found a footnote of more than 100 words that was “identical to the keystroke,” except that Churchill used an acute accent over the e in one tribe’s name while Cohen left the e without an accent.
In numerous other cases, the report faulted Churchill for citing sources that did not say what he said they said. Generally, the report found that Churchill claimed particular atrocities, death totals, etc., to be greater than others had found them to be. In other cases, the report found that Churchill was in effect citing himself. Throughout the controversy, Churchill has claimed that his critics are uncomfortable not only with his political views, but with his emphasis on the many documented wrongs committed by the United States against Native Americans. Many of the instances cited by the report, however, concern cases where scholars whose work was distorted were in fact writing about the terrible things done to Native Americans, but their numbers were not as high as Churchill later indicated or the motives of various players were not as clear as he suggested.
For example, a lengthy section details Churchill’s writings about a smallpox epidemic that spread to the Mandan Indians, living in what is now North Dakota, in 1837. Churchill charged that the Indians were deliberately infected through blankets given to them — something that the report noted was attempted in other cases with Native Americans. Churchill cites as a footnote to back up part of his claim a work by Russell Thornton, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles and a Cherokee who has written extensively about the horrors of U.S. treatment of Indians.
The only problem, as Thornton has said previously and as the report found, the footnote doesn’t match anything Thornton wrote and Churchill could not produce any evidence to back his claim. The committee found that because Churchill repeatedly listed works that had names suggesting them as “legitimate sources,” but they in fact did not back up what he said, he was falsifying sources.
The report made repeated reference to the repeated nature of Churchill’s errors, the fact that he never made corrections or responded to critics, and that he brushed off suggestions that he was getting key points wrong. In several instances, the report said that such a pattern provided strong evidence that the misconduct was intentional, not the sort of honest mistake many scholars make from time to time (and correct).
There’s a lot going on here.
First, the evidence of plagiarism. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: plagiarism is bad. It is a form of lying, and it is (and ought to be) a sanctionable offense. Period.
Next, the claims in Churchill’s work “supported” by cited sources that, on examination, seem not to support the claims in question. Here, things are somewhat less clear. One can imagine instances where scholars read the same source and draw different conclusions from it. In those instances, evaluating a citation on the basis of whether the scholar citing the source drew exactly the same conclusions you drew from that source seems pretty dangerous. Whose reading is normative here? (Is it the reading of the author of the original source? Is this something we’re prepared to carry over to, say, the interpretation of novels, and if so, who’s going to tell the English department?)
On the other hand, if you’re citing a source to back up your claim that 500 people were killed in a particular event, in a particular place, on a particular date, and the source you’re citing doesn’t make that claim, it looks an awful lot like you’re using a footnote to hide a fabrication. If it’s brought to your attention that the source you cite to back your claim doesn’t include the information you claimed it contains, it seems like you’d want to correct the mistake and locate the real source of that information. Acting like it doesn’t matter what the real source of that information is amounts to asking the rest of the scholarly community to take your word for it.
That’s not how scholars roll.
Some have argued that the frequency of the instances of misconduct in Churchill’s scholarly work are quite low given the volume of his scholarly output, and that it must have taken serious effort coming through all that work to come up with these examples of wrongdoing. It may not surprise you that I don’t view this as a ringing endorsement of Churchill’s scholarly integrity. To hold him forward as someone who only plagiarized a little, or who only fabricated a few facts, or only lied about a little support for his claims does not render him a producer of reliable knowledge in his field. Knowing someone thinks it’s OK to bend the truth in certain circumstances within the scholarly discourse within his field makes me think it’s a bad bet to trust him on anything.
Would Churchill’s academic misconduct have been discovered if it hadn’t been for the outcry over his political views?
It’s hard to know. But even if it had remained undiscovered, misconduct is still misconduct. Presumably other scholars in Churchill’s field had already noticed some of the problems that came out in the university’s investigation. Did they bring these to the attention of the university? If so, did the university investigate?
I would hate to think that a university — an institution whose very mission depends on a serious commitment to scholarly integrity — wouldn’t pursue all complaints of academic misdeeds fairly and vigorously even in the absence of political pressure from outside the institution. As well, any university worth its salt must be willing to apply the same standards of scholarly integrity fairly across the board, regardless of how popular or unpopular the views of the scholar (and without regard to little details like how much money the scholar is bringing into the university).
The feds wanted to prosecute Al Capone for his gangland criminal activities but ended up nailing him for tax evasion. The forces who were most vocal early on in calling for the firing of Ward Churchill went after him for his political views, but the basis for his firing is the academic misconduct. The motivation for the prosecution does not change the fact that the target was caught doing something wrong. If you don’t want your political enemies to have firm basis to call for your firing, it helps not to have committed other firing offenses.
The big lesson worth carrying forward, I think, is that scholarly discourse plays by a different set of rules than political discourse, and scholars must show themselves to be committed to those rules, both individually and as a community. Those rules are what’s supposed to separate knowledge claims from mere opinions, and scholars have to be scrupulous about that distinction. Indeed, scholarly integrity is one of the core values that defines the academic community.
Wrapping yourself in the banner of “academic freedom” doesn’t work if you’ve already abandoned the academy’s standards for honest scholarly work. If you’re prepared to sacrifice the truth when it’s inconvenient, you’re not really part of the community.
Update: Go read Mike Dunford’s take.