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CU's treatment of Ward Churchill, Phil Mitchell makes it questionable employer, report finds

A new report by the American Association of University Professors' Colorado Conference concludes that CU-Boulder's dismissals of professor Ward Churchill and untenured history instructor Phil Mitchell were unjustified -- but that's not all. The document also concludes that its actions were so egregious that profs looking for a job should consider one there only as a last resort. Below, lead report author Don Eron explains why.

Churchill's case is by far the best known. When a damning essay he wrote after the 9/11 attacks came to light years after the fact, a storm of bad publicity followed, as did an investigation into academic misconduct allegedly unrelated to the essay -- and its findings were used to justify his firing. In response, Churchill sued the university and won, although his cash reward for damages totaled a single dollar.

Thus far, Churchill's efforts to be reinstated at the institution have failed to bear fruit -- but the report hardly portrays the evidence against him as damning. "We found that he did not commit academic misconduct," Eron says. "I wasn't surprised by finding that the university caved in under public pressure, because there was something phony about seeking alternative means for firing him. But I was very surprised by the report by the Standing Committee for Research Misconduct. Before the report came out, there was considerable faculty support for Churchill, but afterward, it was widely perceived that he was a fraud, even though our conclusion is that what they called academic misconduct was actually a normative practice used by numerous experts in the field -- and even by some people on the committee itself.

"That tells me they felt under enormous pressure to act as they did," he continues. "Clearly, they were trying very hard to reach the conclusions they reached. My guess in going over the transcript is that at every step, they either presumed that Churchill was lying or guilty."

Phil Mitchell in a 2005 file photo.
Phil Mitchell in a 2005 file photo.

Mitchell's case is different, and trickier. "He was not a tenured faculty member," Eron points out. "Instead, he was continued faculty -- an at-will employee who had to periodically apply for his own job. And those kind of employment conditions don't usually encourage people to speak to power."

Nonetheless, Mitchell went public in 2005 to say that he felt his teaching contract had not been extended after more than two decades at the institution because of his conservative Christian views. After former Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi shared these assertions, Mitchell appeared on a slew of national outlets, including The O'Reilly Factor. But the press attention drifted away in part because Mitchell wound up with a contract to teach throughout the 2005-2006 school year -- a development that his supporters chalked up to the attention his plight had garnered. But he was let go in 2007 after what the report calls an "extraordinary amount of observations." The implication: CU types wanted him gone and kept looking until they cobbled together just enough info to justify his ouster.

In 2007, "one of the official causes for his firing was that he hadn't followed the instructions of his supervisor, although that's belied by the evidence," Eron says. "And the first time he was fired, it was because they assumed he was proselytizing in the classroom -- but they didn't have any evidence of that, either. They had one student complaint that was quickly dispelled. But they assumed it was true, we think, and fired him as a result."

The treatment of Mitchell and Churchill is hardly unprecedented, and Eron says "I don't doubt for a second that other universities might have acted in a very similar fashion. Most universities will never be tested the way the University of Colorado was in the Churchill case, particularly -- the Mitchell situation is far more common. But CU failed that test, and unless they're called on it, they will keep getting away with it."

Read the entire report here:

Mitchell Churchill Report

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More from our News archive: "Ward Churchill wins...a dollar."


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