Revolution #92, June 17, 2007

New Assault on Dissent and Critical Thinking:

University of Colorado President Calls for Firing of Professor Ward Churchill

In a 10-page letter dated May 25, University of Colorado (CU) President Hank Brown called for the CU Board of Regents to fire tenured Ethnic Studies Professor Ward Churchill. His recommendation goes beyond the one-year suspension and demotion to associate professor recommended by the Privilege and Tenure Committee, the faculty committee that just finished their report of Churchill’s appeal. So Brown's letter will now go back to the P&T Committee for their response. The Board of Regents is expected to announce their decision at a public hearing some time in July.

Hank Brown, a former Republican U.S. senator, only became the president of the University of Colorado in the summer of 2005, months after the orchestrated right-wing witch-hunt against Ward Churchill was launched. He was brought in to replace President Elizabeth Hoffman after she was pressured to resign less than a week after she expressed concerns at a faculty meeting about a new “McCarthyism” in the storm whipped up against Ward Churchill. Brown, it turns out, is a co-founder with Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife Lynne Cheney of the right-wing academic watch-dog group American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).

ACTA published a report in May 2006 entitled “How Many Ward Churchills?” which treats Professor Churchill as both pariah and “template” for what this reactionary group feels is wrong with, and must be changed about, academia today. The general secretary of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Roger Bowen, wrote, “ACTA objects to courses that, in one example, stipulate that students ‘respect cultures and traditions that are not their own’; and it excoriates all courses dealing with ‘justice,’ whether environmental, social, or racial.” (“Ward Churchill, ACTA and Public Opinion,” The fact that one of ACTA’s co-founders was put in the position to determine the fate of Professor Churchill says a great deal about the dangerous assault on dissent and critical thinking that is in high gear in academia today.

Awareness of and opposition to this threat to critical thinking are growing among educators and others around the country as they come to recognize that CU’s investigation of Churchill’s scholarship was completely illegitimate and is being used to punish and make an example of him for other scholars whose search for the truth challenges the accepted myths about this country and its policies and actions historically and internationally. Petitions have been circulated, websites established, articles written and public statements issued in opposition to this case, and in defense of dissent and critical thinking, by scholars from many different fields of study.

In April an Open Letter Calling on the University of Colorado to Reverse Its Recommendation to Dismiss Professor Ward Churchill—initiated by 11 distinguished scholars, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Derrick Bell, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Rashid Khalidi—was published in the New York Review of Books. And later that month, an Emergency National Forum entitled “Why Ward Churchill Must Not Be Fired” was held in Boulder.

Many scholars sent messages of support to that event, including the distinguished public intellectual and Professor Emeritus of Princeton University Richard Falk. Professor Falk wrote: “All of us who value academic freedom should now stand in full solidarity with Ward Churchill. The outcome of his case at the University of Colorado is the best litmus test we have to tell whether the right-wing’s assaults on learning and liberty will stifle campus life in this country. Never in my lifetime have we in America more needed the sort of vigorous debate and creative controversy that Ward Churchill’s distinguished career epitomizes. We all stand to lose if his principled defense fails.”

This sense of urgency has now been underlined by DePaul University’s decision to deny tenure—the right not to be dismissed from the university without cause—to Professor Norman Finkelstein. Finkelstein—son of survivors of Nazi concentration camps—is an internationally regarded scholar and popular teacher whose criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and of its Zionist supporters in this country, has kept him from being given tenure anywhere and made him a constant target of U.S. and Israeli apologists such as Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who recently called Finkelstein “worse than Churchill.”

In Colorado ACTA is continuing to consolidate its control over the University of Colorado, with Brown appointing another ACTA member, Michael Poliakoff, as the new Vice President for Academic Affairs and Research. Another ACTA member, Tom Lucero, sits on CU’s Board of Regents. And former Colorado Governor Bill Owens, now on the U. of Denver faculty, is also a member of ACTA. The new Colorado Governor, Democrat Bill Ritter, immediately backed up Brown’s call for Churchill to be fired. "I've thought that for a long, long time, based on all his comments and…problems surrounding his writing…it was black and white for the university."

Churchill originally became the target of a nationwide witch-hunt in January 2005, when his invitation to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York was cancelled because of an essay he’d written shortly after 9/11 entitled “Chickens Coming Home to Roost.” In that essay he included a very provocative formulation about how not all the people, but those people who worked particularly as functionaries for the large corporations with offices in the World Trade Center, were “Little Eichmanns”—comparing them to the functionaries of the Nazi regime. The governors of New York and Colorado called for his firing, and CU Chancellor DiStefano launched an investigation into “everything he had ever written” to see if he could be fired—or jailed—because of the content of his writings. After receiving some public advice from David Horowitz, self-described “battering ram” for the right wing assault on critical thinking in academia, DiStefano switched the form of attack and called for an investigation of Churchill’s scholarship instead.

A faculty investigative committee was formed—this time to examine charges of alleged research misconduct against Churchill—charges brought by the same Chancellor DiStefano. Their controversial report, issued in May 2006, claimed to have found serious research misconduct by Professor Churchill and called for him to be suspended. DiStefano, now acting as executioner, quickly recommended that Churchill be fired instead. In the past month, two different faculty groups have written to the CU administration calling on them to rescind this investigative committee report. Each has since brought formal research misconduct charges against the committee members who investigated Churchill. In a May 28, 2007 press release, one of the groups—made up of 7 scholars and attorneys from the U.S. and Canada, most of them indigenous—charged the investigative committee with “misrepresenting, fabricating, or suppressing evidence in their report.”

A close study of the P&T Committee’s report reveals some stunning admissions. They conclude, by the “preponderance of the evidence,” that Churchill is right in arguing “that but for his exercise of his First Amendment rights, Professor Churchill would not have been subjected to the Research Misconduct and Enforcement Process.” In other words, the only reason for the investigation of charges of alleged research misconduct was a result of his exercise of his First Amendment rights.

Another “bombshell” hidden in this report is the fact that the person picked to head up the investigation of Churchill’s scholarship—law professor and former prosecutor Marianne Wesson—had already expressed her animosity toward Churchill at the time the attack on him was first launched. In a February 2005 e-mail, she wrote:

“I confess to being somewhat mystified by the variety of people this unpleasant (to say the least) individual has been able to enlist to defend him. I know people say it’s the principle, but we aren’t all out there defending Bob Guccione’s first amendment rights, though God knows he has them. I thought that us middle-aged feminists, at least, had learned not to all fall into that trap… the rallying around Churchill reminds me unhappily of the rallying around OJ Simpson and Bill Clinton and now Michael Jackson and other charismatic male celebrity wrongdoers (well, okay, I don’t really know that Jackson is a wrongdoer)—the tortured defenses (the cops planted the blood, 'it depends on what you mean by sex'), the claim that we have to defend the principle, the idea that if 'they' get him, then 'they' will come to get you next.”

This e-mail was sent to the CHAIR of the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct—who did not question his appointment of Wesson to head the investigation, “forgot” that he had received the e-mail, and failed to notify Churchill of it. Churchill, unaware of the e-mail at the time, objected to her appointment on the grounds that a former prosecutor shouldn’t be put in charge of a neutral fact-finding body, but was denied. Her comments in the e-mail are reduced to “unflattering remarks” that are dismissed because the other members of the committee reported that she didn’t seem to be biased!

In a recent letter to the editor of the Denver Post, Tom Mayer, professor, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote:

“The case against Ward Churchill is without intellectual substance and without ethical merit. The firing of Ward Churchill would be an immense blow to academic freedom and to the educational quality that academic freedom protects. It would also be an immense loss to the intellectual community at the University of Colorado. I will continue to do everything within my power to prevent this from happening.”

We all owe it to the future of critical thinking and dissent in academia to join Professor Mayer in doing nothing less.

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