Friday, June 23, 2006


Academic Freedom and Non-Freedom: The Case of Ward Churchill

Ward Churchill is somewhat out of the news these days. There’s a lot going on, as you might have noticed... Churchill’s perceivedBold lack of patriotism after 9/11 infuriated most of the right-wing of our right-est party. It also dove-tailed into the neo-McCarthyite attacks on schools, led by people like David Horowitz who has made a career out of being a born-again reactionary fighting against any and all international conspiracies out to overthrow this great country, etc., etc..

Immediately, pressure was put on the University of Colorado to fire Churchill. Colorado has never been known as a progressive or even semi-liberal state. And the state-supported schools have to get money out of the legislature, which is dominated by conservatives—who get most of their ideas from the far right.

The University went into a spasm of reaction and a committee detailed all kinds of charges against Churchill. They wanted to fire him.

Most of the charges boiled down to this: he told another version of American history, one where the white people actually went out of their way to destroy the Indians, as in genocide. He wrote and taught that the United States committed genocide on American Indians. Deliberately.

Churchill is very readable. He uses many sources for his points. Not all of his sources fit into the framework of euro-American intellectualism. He sometimes even uses oral traditions—the way information and philosophy has always been transmitted in indigenous cultures. That immediately raises the hackles of many scholars. Academic scholarship is a closed club with very stringent membership requirements. It’s male and it’s predominantly white male. Women’s studies, African-American studies, and American Indian studies are not particularly well-received. Colleges and universities offer them, but in terms of how they can be distorted to fit into the traditional academic structure. I know many American Indian graduate students who have bloody heads from trying to fit “Indian Studies” into their own culture, rather than that of white academics.

Here are a couple of postings about Ward Churchill and about academic freedom—and about academic biases. The first section is from my friend, Claudia, at Idaho.


University of Colorado sociology prof Tom Mayer makes some extremely interesting comments about both Ward Churchill ("hyperbolic but brilliant", thus hard to handle personally but well worth it intellectually) and the entire process of academic witch-hunting by conservative media-driven administrators: what indeed constitutes academic freedom? The paragraphs near the end address both these points very lucidly, I think.

I'm going to try to summarize the separate issues and confirm the link and then post on my LJ. You, however, not only correspond with far far more people but have a real blog -- ie readers -- so I'm hoping you will raise the issues for discussion. I think Mayer makes good points about the need to separate our personal responses to a person's style from acknowledgement that they do make an intellectual contribution by stimulating discussion ...

... To judge scholarship on its merits, within its genre, rather than misapplying standards from a different genre -- a Procrustean exercise predisposed by its nature to fault-finding. Even if we pretend that the meticulous, thorough, "even-handed" documentation and evaluation of every available source is possible, this type of scholarship -- a lit review, or overview -- is a completely different exercise academically than what Churchill does, which is to advance reasonable supportive sources for one's preferred theory of interpretation. Churchill is not doing an overview, he's advocating a theory of interpretation -- which is what 99% of scholars do in the humanities. "Adequate" and "good" use of supporting sources for one's theory of meaning has to be evaluated quite differently than the "literature review" standard this report's writers chose to apply...

Their dismissal of Churchill's reliance on oral literature and poetic interpretations is ethnically biased -- also, in fact, gender-biased. It harks back to the rationalist, scientistic, mechanistic epistemological choices of white male academic dominated western culture -- epistemological, in that it is a deliberate choice about what "kinds" of evidence are voted to be "truth." Since the vote is taken by those who are already invested in only the kind of "truth" it supports, the dismissal of oral, emotive, social, personal, felt, and other sorts of evidence is theory-laden and politically-biased. Feminist philosophers, philosophers of science, environmental philosophers, post-structuralists and postcolonial theorists have widely pointed out this flaw in western Cartesian thinking.

And finally, the fact that the CU commission -- taking their lead from conservative media hosts -- combed through more than a decade of Churchill's work to find discrepancies in citation and then made old and minor errors the stalking horse for new political hostility is, as the writer says, not only a scary violation of academic freedom's tenets, but a gigantic hypocrisy as well.


-------- Original Message --------
Indians, Ward churchill, and us all
Thu, 22 Jun 2006 10:30:35 -0300
Maurice Bazin
Science for the People Discussion List

Dear friends,
the politically motivated condemnation of Professor Churchill makes
us all potential "liars" if we cite any text we disagree with.
If Ward gets fired, as recommended by his University's Committee, we
all can be attacked in our bread earning jobs when denouncing the
makers of genocide, past and present. In the situation thus created
our (Science for the People activists) calling the Pentagon
Professors/Advisors "War Criminals" makes us commit 'academic
misconduct'. The official University word is at the University
of Colorado website.

The Report On Ward Churchill (
zig094.html )
by Tom Mayer

[Sociology Professor Mayer of the University of Colorado at Boulder
sent this text "to several local newspapers, but they all rejected
it because it was too
long." Our thanks to Louis Proyect and David Anderson who
brought this valuable contribution to Swans' attention.]

I have finally finished a careful reading of the 124 page report
about the alleged academic
misconduct of Ward Churchill. Often, but not always, I have
been able to compare the statements in the report with the
relevant writings of Professor Churchill. Although the report by
the committee on research misconduct clearly entailed
prodigious labor, it is a flawed document requiring careful
analysis. The central flaw in the report is grotesque
exaggeration about the magnitude and gravity of the
improprieties committed by Ward Churchill. The sanctions
recommended by the investigating committee are entirely out
of whack with those imposed upon such luminaries as Stephen
Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Lawrence Tribe, all of
whom committed plagiarisms far more egregious than anything
attributed to Professor Churchill.

The text of the report suggests that the committee's judgments
about the seriousness of Churchill's misconduct were
contaminated by political considerations. This becomes evident
on page 97 where the committee acknowledges that "damage
done to the reputation of ... the University of Colorado as an
academic institution is a consideration in our assessment of the
seriousness of Professor Churchill's conduct." Whatever
damage the University may have sustained by employing Ward
Churchill derives from his controversial political statements and
certainly not from the obscure footnoting practices nor disputed
authorship issues investigated by the committee. Indeed, the
two plagiarism charges refer to publications that are now
fourteen years old. Although these charges had been made
years earlier, they were not considered worthy of investigation
until Ward Churchill became a political cause célèbre. Using
institutional reputation to measure misconduct severity
amounts to importing politics through the back door.

The report claims that Professor Churchill engaged in
fabrication and falsification. To make these claims it stretches
the meaning of these words almost beyond recognition.
Fabrication implies an intent to deceive. There is not a shred of
evidence that the writings of Ward Churchill contain any
assertion that he himself did not believe. The language used in
the report repeatedly drifts in an inflammatory direction:
disagreement becomes misinterpretation, misinterpretation
becomes misrepresentation, misinterpretation becomes
falsification. Ward may be wrong about who was considered an
Indian under the General Allotment Act of 1887 or about the
origins of the 1837-1840 smallpox epidemic among the Indians
of the northern plains, but the report does not establish that
only a lunatic or a liar could reach his conclusions on the basis
of available evidence.

The charges of fabrication and falsification all derive from short
fragments within much longer articles. The report devotes 44
pages to discussing the 1837-1840 smallpox epidemic. One
might think that Ward had written an entire book on this
subject. In fact this issue occupies no more than three
paragraphs in any of his writings. In each of the six essays
cited in the report, all reference to this epidemic could have
been dropped without substantially weakening the argument.
To be sure, the account given by Ward is not identical to that
found in any of his sources, but it is a recognizable composite
of information contained within them. The committee
peremptorily dismisses Churchill's contention that his
interpretation of the epidemic was influenced by the Native
American oral tradition. This is treated as no more than an ex
post facto defense against the allegation of misconduct. The
committee also discounts Native American witnesses who
support Churchill's interpretations as well as his fidelity to oral
accounts. The centrality of the oral tradition is evident in many
of Churchill's writings. His acknowledgments frequently include
elders, Indian bands, and the American Indian Movement. He
often integrates Native American poetry with his historical
analysis. Three of his books with which I am familiar, Since
Predator Came (1995), A Little Matter of Genocide (1997), and
Struggle for the Land (2002) all begin with poems. As a thirty-
year veteran of the intense political struggles within the
American Indian Movement, Ward Churchill could not avoid a
deep familiarity with the oral tradition of Native American

By addressing only a tiny fragment of his writings, the report
implies that Ward tries to overawe and hoodwink his readers
with spurious documentation. Anyone who reads an essay
like "Nits Make Lice: The Extermination of North American
Indians 1607-1996" with its 612 footnotes will get a very
different impression. Churchill, they will see, goes far beyond
most writers of broad historical overviews in trying to support
his claims. He often cites several references in the same
footnote. Ward is deeply engaged with the materials he
references and frequently comments extensively upon them.
He typically mounts a running critique of authors like James
Axtell, Steven Katz, and Deborah Lipstadt. Readers will see that
Churchill is familiar with a formidable variety of materials and
can engage in a broad range of intellectual discourses.

Ward Churchill is not just another writer about the hardships
suffered by American Indians. He offers a very distinctive
vision of what David Stannard calls the "American Holocaust."
According to Churchill, the extermination of Native Americans
was neither accidental, nor inadvertent, nor unwelcome among
the invading Europeans. On the contrary, it was largely
deliberate, often planned (sometimes by the highest political
authorities), and frequently applauded within the mainstream
media. "[A] hemispheric population estimated to have been as
great as 125 million was reduced by something over 90
percent....and in an unknown number of instances deliberately
infected with epidemic diseases" (A Little Matter of Genocide, p.
1). Moreover, Ward maintains that the American Holocaust
continues to this day. He thinks it is fully comparable to, and
even more extensive than, the Nazi genocide of the Jewish
people during World War Two. The endemic chauvinism and
Manichaean sensibility this process has induced within our
political culture helps explain Hiroshima, Vietnam, Iraq, and
other American exercises in technological murder.

"If there is one crucial pattern that most affects our
assessment," writes the committee, "it is a pattern of failure to
understand the difference between scholarship and polemic, or
at least of behaving as though that difference does not matter"
(p. 95). Taking away the negative imputation, I can agree with
the latter observation. Ward believes we are all in a race
against time. Thus the main point of historical scholarship is not
to recount the past, but rather to provide intellectual
ammunition for preventing future genocides now in the making.

Like most scholars, Churchill practices an implicitly Bayesian (a
statistical term) form of analysis. That is, he evaluates the
plausibility of assertions and the credibility of evidence partly
on the basis of his prior beliefs. That government officials
connived in generating the 1837-40 smallpox epidemic seems
far more plausible to Ward than to the investigating committee
precisely because he thinks this is what American governments
are inclined to do. He discounts many of the so-called primary
sources cited in the report because their authors despise
Indians or wish to conceal their own culpability in spreading the
epidemic. And contrary to what the report says (p. 96), many
first rate scholars focus on proving their own hypotheses rather
than considering all available evidence even-handedly. Einstein,
for example, spent the last three decades of his life trying to
disprove quantum mechanics while largely disregarding
evidence in its favor. This is not research misconduct.

Virtually all the mass exterminations of recent times have
evoked amazingly divergent historical assessments and
numerical estimates. This is true of the Armenian genocide,
Stalin's collectivization campaign and purges, the Nazi
holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Great Leap Forward,
Vietnam, Cambodia, and Rwanda. In some cases there is
dispute about whether the extermination even happened, and
even when mass killing is acknowledged, numerical estimates
sometimes differ by a factor of ten or even more. These
differing interpretations are almost never politically innocent
but, when honestly advanced, they do not constitute research
misconduct. Neither do Ward Churchill's assessments of
genocidal activities by John Smith or by the U.S. Army at Fort

The operational definition of academic misconduct used by the
investigating committee is so broad that virtually anyone who
writes anything might be found guilty. Not footnoting an
empirical claim is misconduct. Citing a book without giving a
page number is misconduct. Referencing a source that only
partially supports an assertion is misconduct. Referencing
contradictory sources without detailing their contradictions is
misconduct. Citing a work considered by some to be unserious
or inadequate is misconduct. Footnoting an erroneous claim
without acknowledging the error is misconduct. Interpreting a
text differently than does its author is misconduct. Ghost writing
an article is misconduct. Referencing a paper one has ghost
written without acknowledging authorship is misconduct. No
doubt this list of transgressions could be greatly expanded. I
strongly suspect that many people who vociferously support the
report have read neither it nor any book or essay Ward
Churchill has ever written. Perhaps this should be deemed a
form of academic misconduct.

If any of the sanctions recommended by the investigating
committee are put into effect, it will constitute a stunning blow
to academic freedom. Such punishment will show that a prolific,
provocative, and highly influential thinker can be singled out for
entirely political reasons; subjected to an arduous interrogation
virtually guaranteed to find problems; and then severed from
academic employment. It will indicate that public controversy is
dangerous and that genuine intellectual heresy could easily be
lethal to an academic career. It will demonstrate that tenured
professors serve at the pleasure of governors, political
columnists, media moguls, and talk show hosts. Most faculty
members never say anything that requires protection. The true
locus of academic freedom has always been defined by the
intellectual outliers. The chilling effect of Ward Churchill's
academic crucifixion upon the energy and boldness of these
freedom-defining heretics will be immediate and profound.

The authors of the report on Ward Churchill present themselves
as stalwart defenders of academic integrity. I have a quite
different perspective. I see them as collaborators in the erosion
of academic freedom, an erosion all too consonant with the
wider assault upon civil liberties currently underway. The
authors of the report claim to uphold the intellectual credibility
of ethnic studies. I wonder how many ethnic studies scholars
will see it that way. I certainly do not. Notwithstanding their
protestations to the contrary, I see committee members as
gendarmes of methodological and interpretive orthodoxy, quite
literally "warding" off a vigorous challenge to mainstream
understandings of American history. Confronted by the
evidence presented in this report, the appropriate response
might be to write a paper critiquing the work of Ward Churchill.
Excluding him, either permanently or temporarily, from the
University of Colorado is singularly inappropriate.

Ward Churchill is one of the most brilliant persons I have
encountered during my 37 years at this university. His brilliance
is not immediately evident due to his combative manner and
propensity for long monologues. Whenever reading one of his
essays I feel in the presence of a powerful though hyperbolic
intellect. The permanent or temporary expulsion of Ward
Churchill would be an immense loss for CU. In one fell swoop
we would become a more tepid, more timid, and more servile
institution. His expulsion would deprive students of contact with
a potent challenger of accepted cognitive frameworks. The
social sciences desperately need the kind of challenge
presented by Ward Churchill. His most strident claims may be
rather dubious, but they stimulate our scholarly juices and
make us rethink our evidence and assumptions. One of his
main objectives, Ward has often said, is "to bring consideration
of American Indians into the main currents of global intellectual
discourse." In this endeavor he has been a splendid success.

Maurice Bazin
Telefone: 48 3237 3140

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