March 14, 2007

Professor’s Essay Sparks Free Speech Debate

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On September 12, 2001, Prof. Ward Churchill, ethnic studies, University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote the essay “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” Primarily a criticism of U.S. foreign policy, the essay proclaimed that the 9/11 attacks were a justified military response to America’s actions in Iraq and compared the victims in the World Trade Centers to “Little Eichmanns.”

At the time of publication, there was little response to the essay. However, after Churchill was scheduled to speak at Hamilton College in 2005, a Syracuse newspaper called attention to the controversial piece. The essay soon gained national attention and resulted in Colorado Governor Bill Owens (R.) calling for Churchill’s dismissal from UCB, a request that was eventually deemed a violation of free speech.

Now — five years after the essay was published — Ward Churchill’s job is at stake due to charges of research misconduct. However, many members of the academic community including some Cornell professors, claim that these charges are merely a method of covering up the true issue of academic free speech.

“They couldn’t get him [for his 9/11 essay] because the canons of academic freedom protected him, so they tried another tact,” said Prof. Eric Cheyfitz, English and American studies, who spoke in defense of Churchill before the committee on privilege and tenure at UCB in January.

In a 124-page report concerning the charges of research misconduct, the six member Investigative Committee of the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct at UCB focused on “Four allegations that draw attention to Professor Churchill’s use of sources and references.”

The report draws attention to six pages of Churchill’s work, which includes over 20 books and 100 articles.

According to Cheyfitz, the report lacks credibility.

“In the first place … They took an incredibly small portion of his work,” Cheyfitz said. “Secondly … he was hired with tenure in 1991. He was promoted to full professor in 1997. They had all of his work before then for 14 years … Once a university has reviewed your work and then [to] suddenly charge you with research misconduct … is the academic version of double jeopardy.”

Cheyfitz notes that no external sources raised the allegations. All charges were brought by interim chancellor Phil DeStefano, who proceeded to serve as both judge and jury of the case.

“[This is] forbidden by Boulder’s own academic standards,” Cheyfitz said.
In addition, Cheyfitz noted that the actual charges of research misconduct did not qualify as examples of plagiarism.

“You can’t call something plagiarism unless you can tell there was intent to defraud or intent to gain,” Cheyfitz said.

According to Cheyfitz, the instances of research misconduct specified in the report fell outside these guidelines.

“The most you can accuse him of is sloppiness I guess … People are looking for ways to make a case when there is no case.”

In a statement concerning the Churchill controversy, the American Association of University Professors suggested that the research misconduct charges may be politically motivated.

“The credibility of those [misconduct] charges should be investigated … in order to protect faculty against politically motivated witch hunts,” the AAUP stated. “We believe that a central mission of the university should be defending academic freedom by protecting faculty members from vindictive attacks and maintaining a presumption of innocence for faculty members who are accused of misconduct until investigations are concluded. This was not done in the Churchill case.”

“On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” is not the first instance of a controversy surrounding Churchill. An expert in Native American studies, Churchill has argued that the actions taken against Native Americans qualify as genocide and that the Nazi Holocaust was not a unique event in history.

“Churchill … is polemical,” said Prof. Dominic Boyer, anthropology, who has also voiced his support for Churchill. “He questions things in a language that’s blunter so he makes a good target.”

For numerous members of the academic community, this case is indicative of a political climate based on the suppression of dissenting beliefs and represents a threat to the academic freedom of speech.

“[If Churchill is dismissed] This kind of precedent could be used for further suppression of academic free speech,” Boyer said. “If our ability to present alternatives and critical readings of common sense is taken away from us, I don’t think the role of the professor in society will be a very important one.”

An open letter to the New York Review of Books signed by 11 professors from various institutions, including Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Richard Falk of Princeton University, proclaimed that the UCB’s actions against Churchill represent “the ethos that is currently threatening academic freedom.”

According to the letter, “The voice of the university and intellectual community needs to be heard strongly and unequivocally in defense of dissent and critical thinking.”

Though individual professors have responded to the case, according to Cheyfitz, “there has not been … a concentrated response by universities.”

Thus far, the only organized group to take a stand against UCB’s decision is the Faculty Assembly of the Indiana School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University – Purdue University, Indianapolis, who demanded in a letter to chancellor, vice chancellor, and Colorado University regents, that UCB “rescind their decision [to fire Churchill] immediately.”