The US Supreme Court has rejected Ward Churchill’s final appeal of his firing by the University of Colorado, and an ugly chapter in the history of academic freedom will now be left to the history books rather than the courts.
I commented at Inside Higher Ed in criticism of their coverage claiming that ”many” academics believe Churchill committed scholarly misconduct. This is hardly supported by the facts. As I wrote back in 2006 on Inside Higher Ed, the evidence of Churchill’s misconduct was very weak and poorly analyzed. There is a vast difference between mediocre scholarship deserving criticism and the extreme kind of scholarly misconduct that justifies the firing of a tenured professor, something that very few people who have honestly looked at the evidence could conclude Churchill did (and even the faculty committee did not endorse his firing).
Even a jury found that Churchill had been wrongly fired, and scholars such as Stanley Fish agreed.
The idea posed by Inside Higher Ed that the MLA is sympathetic to Churchill’s politics (and therefore would have defended him if he was not guilty) is absurd. Very few people in academia endorsed Churchill’s extremely stupid 9-11 essay, his dubious views of history, or his obnoxious personality. And his unpopularity is precisely why he was fired, and why so people stood up to defend the principle of academic freedom in his case.
In my book, Patriotic Correctness, I noted one irony of the Churchill case. University of Colorado president Elizabeth Hoffman, a lifelong Republican, was forced to resign on March 7, 2005, just four days after Joe Stengel, the top Republican in the Colorado House of Representatives, called for her immediate resignation. Hoffman told me that she had to resign because of the pressure caused by her refusal to fire Churchill right away. Instead, Hoffman put into motion the slow machinery of a very successful witch-hunt, relying on Churchill’s annoyed colleagues to punish his views. Hoffman deserves a great deal of the blame (or credit) for creating the academic pretense needed to fire Churchill in retaliation for his obnoxious views. If Hoffman had followed the demands of the far right and fired him immediately, Churchill would have been reinstated by court order and remained a professor at Colorado today, and Hoffman might still be its president.
The Colorado conference of the AAUP did a brilliant report on the Churchill case (and the Phil Mitchell case), written by Don Eron and Suzanne Hudson, and they deserve an enormous amount of credit for standing up in defense of an unpopular figure. For the national AAUP, the performance was far less impressive. Then-AAUP president Cary Nelson eventually came out in support of Churchill’s reinstatement, but the AAUP’s Committee A essentially failed to address one of the most prominent violations of academic freedom of the past decade.