Longform

Failure to Communicate

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That so much time had passed between Churchill penning "Chickens" and someone getting upset about it speaks volumes about how widely read he was prior to the objections from Hamilton. Nevertheless, reaction to a January 27 Rocky Mountain News article about the controversy was visceral and immediate, and CU was soon inundated with demands that it take punitive action against Churchill for a thought crime he'd committed more than three years earlier.

This conflagration was supposed to be addressed at a February 3 regents meeting in Aurora, but the gathering only added fuel to the fire. The regents, who asked interim chancellor Phil DiStefano to launch an investigation, seemed mostly interested in grandstanding: At one point they offered an apology for the prof's words to every man, woman and child in the U.S. But a gaggle of Churchill supporters didn't sit still for this ham-handed exhibition. They stirred up such a ruckus that the regents were forced to temporarily retreat to executive session, then rained catcalls on the officials upon their return. The session ended with two Churchill boosters under arrest and the regents on trial for incompetence in the court of public opinion.

7. March 2005: When It Leaks, It Pours

With so many details from the grand jury report making their way to reporters' desks, it was inevitable that the entire document would eventually turn up -- and Channel 9 was the lucky winner of the leakers' lotto. The station based a February 28 CU package on the report and gave a copy to their partners at the Denver Post. As expected, the jurors were highly critical of Hoffman, Barnett, Tharp and Byyny, which helps explain why university types had lobbied so strenuously to have the report sealed in the first place. But the buffaloes were out of their pen, and it was too late to close the gate.

Michael Byram, president and CEO of the CU Foundation, a non-profit organization that raises private funds for the university and had been given particular scrutiny by the grand jury, didn't care. On March 2, he informed the populace that the foundation was suing Channel 9 and reporter Paula Woodward for defamation. 'The lawsuit asserts that Ms. Woodward selectively chose excerpts from the leaked report and manipulated the order of words in accusing the CU Foundation of 'malfeasance,' which she defined to be an 'illegal act,'' Byram maintained, adding, 'We expect the media to quote accurately and take responsibility for misstatements or manipulation of fact.'

The foundation's suit hit at the least opportune moment; it made Byram seem more concerned that CU had been caught with its pants down than he was with why the belt had been loosened in the first place. Perhaps that's why the foundation quietly dropped its complaint against Channel 9 on March 23 -- three weeks later, and lots of dollars short.

8. March 2005: A Not-So-Capitol Idea

On the same day that the CU Foundation ballyhooed its lawsuit against Channel 9, Byram joined President Hoffman at the State Capitol for what was billed as an aggressive defense of the university. The notion may have looked good on paper, but it was a fiasco in execution. Hoffman invited questions during the press conference, and when those that greeted her were edgy and difficult, she grew flustered and fled, her hurried departure captured by a slew of television cameras.

If Hoffman had initially been eager for her close-up, she quickly lost the desire. She resigned on March 7, saying, 'It appears to me it is in the university's best interest that I remove the issue of my future from the debate so that nothing inhibits CU's ability to successfully create the bright future it so deserves.'

If only it were that simple.

9. March 2005: Ancestor Worship

Thanks to bloviators such as Fox News's Bill O'Reilly, the Ward Churchill affair became news from coast to coast -- and had placekicker Hnida's performance been as powerful as CU's knee-jerk reactions, Coach Barnett would have showered her with praise.

On March 24, for example, interim chancellor DiStefano had to admit that Churchill couldn't be sacked for his 9/11 remark, because of a little obstacle known as free speech. To compensate, he came up with a whole bunch of other accusations for a standing committee charged with researching bad faculty behavior to investigate. Plagiarism and fraud were the biggies, but also making the roster was the question of whether Churchill is actually a Native American, as he has long held.

This last subject is a ticklish one. In 1994, Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt, representatives of the national American Indian Movement, had asked CU to explore Churchill's family background, under the theory that he'd falsely earned tenure by claiming to be someone he isn't. At the time, university types brushed off the Bellecourts by saying that it recognized "self-identification" in regard to ethnicity -- and because Churchill said he was a Native American, that was good enough for the university. By flip-flopping ten years later, CU may have provided Churchill with all the ammunition he needs to fire back legally should the school ever let him go.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts