Lessons from the Ward Churchill case.

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.


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I read into the account that the investigators were not on a witch hunt. If the accusations were correct, and it appears that they were found to be so, some kind of action had to be taken. But ...

It has been said that a cop can eventually find a legitimate reason to pull over a suspicious person who is driving by simply following and watching, because sooner or later every driver violates some aspect of some traffic law. If Churchill were singled out for intense scrutiny because of his public statements while others go free for the same offense, the process itself is tainted. I don't know how common Churchill's behavior is among historians or other scholars. I suspect we will never know that, because I suspect most such behavior goes unreported and uninvestigated.

Mark, I suspect you're correct that others have done the same sorts of things that Churchill has done and gotten away with them. To my mind, though, this means that scholarly communities ought to make a bigger deal about transgressions against the truth -- to really hold their members accountable and make them the kind of thing scholars would not do. Doing it and just hoping you won't get caught is an affront against the community. Knowing that someone else has violated the trust of the community and letting them proceed undetected is also an affront against the community.

The serious violations aren't just serious when someone's watching.

More telling (IMHO) is that a number of folks, in & out of academia, had previously complained about Churchill's academic misconduct. At least, I'm pretty sure I'd read about the complaints in the local (Colorado) MSM well before 9/11. For some reason or another, the CU administration chose not to investigate the complaints at the time.

What the furor over Churchill's 9/11 essay really accomplished is that it forced CU to seriously look at all the allegations that they'd brushed off for years.

commenter upthread is pretty sure they'd read about something in the local papers.I'm presuming either the Post, or the Rocky Mountain News but can't produce a citation.I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Churchill made himself a target in a state that's now transitioning from rock-ribbed republican red to sort of an unspecified blue trouble is the power structure left behind- including former republican Senator Hank Brown still believes it owes fealty to the party rather than any objective truth.Witch hunt pure and simple Heritage Institution(Coors money) and former repub governor/ operative Owens in the lead.

By donquixotesrocket (not verified) on 25 Jul 2007 #permalink

Since there is no "misconduct police" in academia, it is usually one act or another of the fraudster that get the limelight to shine on him/her. It is not just natural that those who get the most attention are scrutinized more closely, it is also desireable, since the ones in the limelight are many a time become the leaders in their field. Lance Armstrong was scrutinized for his outstanding performance in the Tour de France just as the work of a potential Nobel Laurate is scrutinized. If Lance would be found guilty of doping all his accolades would go down the drain and his ability to compete would be taken away from him. Churchill opened his mouth, received the attention he desired and thank to that attention he was discovered to be a fraudster. Halleluyah!

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 25 Jul 2007 #permalink

You know, Shania Twain is a fake Native American too, but at least she has the decency to say it was by adoption and not genes.

As for Ward Churchill... well, with friends like these, who needs enemies, right? As I've said a few times to some of the more overzealous snarkmongers at Fundies Say The Darndest Things, if you're going to make yourself look like a fool, the Left doesn't need you. We want the high ground, but we want to earn it so we can't get it picked apart from under us.

I'm sorry, but if he plagiarized 15 years ago and they only managed to catch it now, it says to me that some of academia doesn't care too much about standards. Until someone presents disagreeable political views, then they get hung out to dry.

I have to say that this essay is the most balanced and considered about the Churchill case that I have read (and I've read a lot from across the spectrum of views).

The regrettably named "coathangrrr" says more than s/he intends when pointing out that it takes a lot of time to find, or to care, about academic misconduct. The probability is high that a lot more shaping of history to a personal agenda goes on than is sought out and punished. This probably has more to do with the costs of such work, the exposure to liability, and the "old-boys/girls" networks in colleges than a lack of knowledge of the sloppy or simply untrue work being done.

On the one hand, Churchill has been exposed as a common garden-variety charlatan -- long overdue. On the other, he is evidently loving every minute of it since it raises him from an obscure faker into a national cause celebre, something his "work" was never capable of doing. Everybody wins here, except perhaps the reputation of academe.

By Van der Leun (not verified) on 01 Aug 2007 #permalink

So how does this all compare with the Duke University administration and faculty's virtual lynching of the lacrosse team players long before any real evidence or facts were sorted out. To my knowledge no facultly members have apologized for condemning the players so far in advance of the working out of the truth as to only be judged absolutely reckless with their condemnation. Are THEY protected by "academic freedom" also? Or, is the freedom to a rush to judgment a one-way street in the academic world?

By Everett Call (not verified) on 06 Aug 2007 #permalink