Civil Liberties

Ward of the State

Why the state of Colorado was right to sack Ward Churchill


"I mean, c'mon man. Do you know who Adolf Eichmann was?" Of course, I said. He plowed ahead anyway, offering a canned history of the Holocaust interspersed with a CliffsNotes recapitulation of Hanna Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. Interrupting, I offered that I, too, had read Arendt's book. "Look, one guy [at a debate] insisted that he was the commandant of Auschwitz! I mean, most of these people, like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, haven't a clue who Eichmann was."

I was loath to agree with Ward Churchill, the now-infamous professor of ethnic studies who compared the victims of 9/11 to the Nazi "desk killer" Adolf Eichmann. He was probably right, though the point was irrelevant. Regardless of what Fox News anchors know of Holocaust historiography, his comparison remained grotesque. And while Hannity might not understand the supposed depth of Churchill's reference, the blow-dried cable host can, after a protracted phony war, finally claim victory.

Last week, the University of Colorado Board of Regents voted 8-1 to dismiss Churchill for trading in "falsified… and fabricated history." And while the university had previously adjudicated in his favor, correctly ruling that his rambling Eichmann essay was protected speech, the more serious charges of academic misconduct stuck. It was, he explained, the attack dog "corporate media," led by people like O'Reilly, that forced his ouster.

The waves of protest that followed the media onslaught were understandable enough; a visceral reaction to an academic who cared more for ideological bomb-throwing than dispassionate scholarship. To Churchill, his professorship clearly functioned as a state-funded pulpit from which he could loudly denounce the evils of capitalism and expose the tawdry history of empire. To those unfamiliar with campus politics, his very employment was shocking. And one needn't be David Horowitz to take exception to his views.

But to the defenders of academic liberty, there was an issue of greater importance than an incoherent Nazi analogy. Following Churchill's termination, Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE) co-founder Harvey Silvergate wrote dismissively of his academic work, but defended his right to engage in crassness and intellectual frivolity. The "little Eichmanns" essay, Silvergate said, was "the sort of nonsense for which post-modern leftist academics have become famous and (in some quarters) popular, and which makes a mockery of serious liberal criticism." But as FIRE pointed out, "From a legal standpoint, there can be little doubt that even Churchill's most controversial political statements are protected by the First Amendment."

(Churchill himself has decidedly mixed feelings on free speech. When attempting to get a Columbus Day celebration banned from the streets of Denver, he implausibly argued that the Ninth Amendment of the Constitution superseded the First Amendment, thus protecting Native Americans from "incitement to genocide" by those celebrating the holiday. "To argue you have a First Amendment right to engage in genocidal advocacy on Columbus Day," Churchill told the Boulder Campus Press, "is a violation of my Ninth Amendment right.")

According to Churchill, his dismissal had nothing to do with academic standards and everything to do with abridging his right to free speech. Because of the media attention, the 9/11 essay had become a public relations nightmare for the university, forcing them to sacrifice the loony professor: "The pope died—remember him?—and the paper had me on the front page. There were 400-odd significant news stories in the [Denver] metro area press—Rocky Mountain News, Denver Post, Boulder Camera—in barely 60 days. These reporters haven't a clue. This one journalist asked me how to spell Noam Chomsky's name. I mean, the guy had never even heard of him." To Churchill, the press was both clueless and malevolent—and, to paraphrase Chomsky, they were manufacturing public discontent. "[The Eichmann piece] was never meant for that audience," he told me.

To be sure, Churchill's strained moral equivalence between the stock broker's laptop—people, he told me, who were ultimately responsible for the deaths of Iraqi children—and the exterminationist's rubber-stamp precipitated the investigation of both his academic work and his claim to Native American ancestry. But regardless of what prompted the blogger and media investigations—and it was clearly ideological opposition—it forced a long overdue academic review of both his published work and his claims of American Indian ancestry, which helped him secure his position at the university. (Churchill told me that his supposed Native American heritage was a hindrance in the hiring process; a claim belied not only by his very hiring, but his appointment as department chair). Indeed, Churchill encouraged his opponents not only to read his books and articles, but to scrutinize them. As one academic told the Rocky Mountain News, he "put the noose around his own neck and urged somebody to kick the chair out from underneath him, so [the firing] was inevitable."

But Churchill is disingenuous (or naïve) when expressing surprise that politically-motivated hatchet men would scrutinize his academic record. He is, after all, a political activist both in his private time and in his classroom. Fair or not, insert yourself into a contentious political debate, and expect to be treated like a politician.

Just ask Michael Bellesiles, author of the discredited book Arming America. Those who criticized the integrity of Bellesiles's book—which argued that the conventional wisdom regarding America's colonial gun culture was a mere "folk tale"—did so, the author harrumphed, for ideological reasons. His critics were engaging in rank "McCarthyism" and, as Professor Joyce Lee Malcolm wrote in reason, Bellesiles complained that the book had been "subjected to unfair, unprecedented scrutiny." But an Emory University commission disagreed, ruling that the book was marred not only by errors and distortions, but also phantom (i.e. invented) evidence. After the report was made public, he was fired and previous sponsors, like the National Endowment for the Humanities, pulled support. Bellesiles denounced it as a "political decision that should send chills through academics everywhere and is clearly intended as a warning to any scholar who dares to work on a controversial topic."

Churchill and his legions of online supporters grumble that the investigations of his work began only after the Eichmann kerfuffle. This is true, but so what? If you think cubicle jockeys are fascists, or if your scientific research is underwritten by Phillip Morris, you should be ready to justify your work. And for those in the unenviable position of casting judgment on Churchill, this was the nut of the issue. Committee chairwoman Marianne Wesson, professor of law at CU, told me that "If colleges and universities are to maintain a community of scholars that polices itself and justifies public confidence in our system of higher education, there must be faculty-led processes for the investigation and adjudication of claims of misconduct."

And this was the judgment of Churchill's academic peers. UCLA professor Russell Thornton, a Cherokee tribe member whose work was misrepresented by Churchill, said "I don't see how the University of Colorado can keep him with a straight face," calling his material on smallpox a "fabrication" of history, and accusing him of "gross, gross scholarly misconduct." Real American Indian history, he told the Rocky Mountain News, is vitally important, not "a bunch of B.S. that someone made up." R.G. Robertson, author of Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian and another scholar who has accused Churchill of misrepresenting his work, says that he's "happy that [he was fired], that he's been found out, and by his peers—meaning other university people—and been called what he is, a plagiarizer and a liar." Thomas Brown, a professor of sociology at Lamar University who has also investigated Churchill's smallpox research, said his work on the subject is "fabricated almost entirely from scratch."

Even after losing his job, and with an academic reputation in tatters, Churchill is unrepentant about the article that started it all. When I ask him if he has any regrets about the "little Eichmanns" piece, he doesn't pause: "The only thing I regret is that I didn't take a harder line."

Michael Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.