On Saturday, April 29, former professor Ward Churchill will return to the University of Colorado Boulder, the institution that fired him ten years ago in what the author of a report that blasted CU's actions calls "the most notorious academic freedom controversy in a generation."
Churchill is scheduled to speak at the Academic Freedom Symposium, an event sponsored by the American Association of University Professors' Colorado conference — the same organization that issued "Reports on the University of Colorado's Terminations of Phil Mitchell and Ward Churchill," which we previewed in November 2011. The document concludes that the dismissals of Churchill and Mitchell, a non-tenured history instructor who said he'd been targeted for his conservative views, were so egregious that profs looking for a job should consider one at CU Boulder only as a last resort.
To recap the Churchill case: When a damning essay he wrote immediately after the 9/11 attacks came to light in January 2005, years after the fact, a storm of bad publicity followed, with Governor Bill Owens, assorted state legislators and relatives of 9/11 victims castigating him in chorus. The following March, CU Boulder launched an investigation into academic misconduct allegedly unrelated to the essay — and its findings were used to justify his firing by the university's board of regents circa July 2007.
In response, Churchill sued the university and won in 2009, although his cash award for damages totaled a single dollar. His subsequent, years-long efforts to be reinstated at the institution failed, despite the conclusions at the heart of the aforementioned report, penned by Don Eron, a CU writing instructor.
"We found that he did not commit academic misconduct," Eron told us in 2011, adding, "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."
Today, Eron, who's now retired from CU, says that Churchill "was censored by the administration, he was censored by the regents and he was censored by the state legislature, at least indirectly. And I think the faculty itself got into a situation where they were in over their heads. They were incompetent and arrogant, but I don't think they intended to censor him. It was the objective of the governor and the regents, but I don't think it was the objective of the faculty."
According to Eron, Churchill subsequently relocated to Atlanta "and he's basically retired from teaching. But he certainly hasn't retired as a scholar." Indeed, Churchill has written two just-published books. He's the sole author of Wielding Words like Weapons: Selected Essays in Indigenism, 1995–2005, which is being promoted via blurbs of praise from left-wing icons Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, and he's listed as co-writer (with Michael Ryan) of Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America, Third Edition, the latest version of a work whose roots stretch back to the mid-1980s. And a third book collecting Churchill essays from 2005 to 2015 is expected by year's end.
Eron says this last tome will include pieces that tackle Churchill's ouster from CU Boulder and the fight that followed — and he expects the subject will also be addressed at the symposium.
CU Boulder is the location of the event, Eron notes, but not the sponsor — and while the university's School of Education is officially playing that role, "I don't know that they necessarily want to be associated with Ward Churchill." Nonetheless, Eron doesn't expect CU Boulder representatives to kick up a fuss over Churchill returning to the campus, even if what he has to say about the university is condemnatory.
"He has a great interest in the historic suppression of speech for radicals," Eron points out. "And I think he very much sees himself on that continuum."
The Academic Freedom Symposium will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the 29th at Kittredge Central Multipurpose, CU B, on the university's campus. Click for more details.
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