Ward Churchill, the controversial University of Colorado ethnic studies professor who likened 9/11 World Trade Center victims to "little Eichmanns," has finally lost his job. CU regents voted 8-1 this week to fire Churchill after a lengthy investigation that revealed a long history of academic misconduct by Churchill, including plagiarism.
But Ward Churchill's story says as much about the university as it does about the man. The wonder isn't that Churchill was fired but that he was ever hired in the first place.
Churchill first came to CU to work in the university's American Indian affirmative action program as an administrative assistant and later lectured on campus for more than a decade. In 1991, the university hired Churchill as a tenured professor in the communications department, even though he did not have a Ph.D.
The university bypassed its usual 6-year process to award tenure because administrators were anxious to have an American Indian on the faculty. But then some Indian groups began to question whether Churchill was actually an Indian after all, which didn't stop the university from appointing him chairman of the Ethnic Studies Department in 2002, again largely on the basis of his putative ethnicity. Churchill finally conceded in 2005, "I have never been confirmed as having one-quarter blood and never said I was."
Nonetheless, Churchill's whole resume is built on race. His official biography posted on CU's website mentions little else but his Indian-ness -- his tribal membership, his work on Indian causes and issues -- as if ethnicity sufficiently qualified him to teach at one of the top state universities in the country.
But apparently, from CU's perspective, ethnicity not only justified whom the university should hire but also the basis on which it should award degrees to some students. In 1997, the university created an Ethnic Studies Department, whose faculty Churchill joined. The department's mission, according to its website: "encourages participatory, experiential, student-centered learning and empowers students to move beyond existing social, cultural, and political paradigms to more inclusive paradigms in which they are the subjects of their own reality."If it's possible to earn a B.A. in Ethnic Studies at CU after spending four years as the subject of one's own reality, should we really be surprised that the faculty teaching in those programs might create their own reality as well? Of course, that is exactly what Ward Churchill did.
Churchill's fraud was simple and straightforward: He invented facts, falsely claiming, for example, that the United States adopted a racial code to categorize Indians similar to the infamous Nuremburg Laws enacted by the Nazis. He misrepresented others' scholarship, alleging that one scholar had produced evidence that the U.S. Army gave smallpox-infected blankets to Indians in 1837 when the work he cited said nothing of the sort. He plagiarized, copying sections of a pamphlet by a Canadian environmental group in a piece he wrote on Canadian water issues without attribution. He also published articles under false names so that he could then cite them as independent sources for work he published under his own name.
CU is by no means alone. A report entitled "How Many Ward Churchills?" by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni suggests, "In colleges and universities across the country, in both traditional disciplines and new-fangled programs, the classes offered and the faculty who teach them are displaying an ideological slant that is frequently as uniform as it is severe."
After the regents' decision to fire Churchill was announced, a group of CU students donned T-shirts proclaiming, "It's not about scholarship . . . It's about politics." The students meant the slogan as an indictment of the process that led to Churchill's firing. But the irony is the words more accurately describe why CU and many other colleges hire the likes of Ward Churchill in the first place.
Editor's note: Linda Chavez is a graduate of the University of Colorado (B.A. 1970).