Ward Churchill Again

Jonathan Bellman

Associated Press, April 2, 2009:  A jury ruled Thursday that the University of Colorado wrongly fired Ward Churchill, the professor who described some Sept. 11 victims as “little Eichmanns,” a verdict that awards him $1—one greenback dollar—and a chance to get his job back. “What was asked for and what was delivered was justice,” Ward Churchill said outside the courtroom.  Here’s the Churchill Wikipedia article, for those new to the story, and here’s the UPI story on the recent verdict.

OK, so we might cackle gleefully at the $1 settlement.  Har har, he only got a buck.  I’m not laughing, because I tend to be an Old School guy with regard to a lot of educational issues; the settlement is, to me, entirely beside the point.  On what basis, may I ask, does Churchill—Masters only, no doctorate, a demonstrated plagiarist, a nakedly self-serving political ambulance chaser, a mannerist satire of the worst of hard-Left so-called thought, a non-Indian who made a career trumpeting the resentments of an imagined American Indian heritage—on what basis does a jury decide that the University of Colorado’s attorney did not sufficiently demonstrate that such a manifestly unprofessional, inappropriate character would have lost his academic appointment irrespective of his political beliefs?

Of course, jury trials always have a wild-card element to them, and perhaps the attorney did not, in fact, adequately demonstrate this.  Or perhaps he did but the jury got confused, threatened, and resentful because he used words of more than two syllables.  Or maybe CU, for all the current faculty resentment of this clown’s slovenly so-called scholarship, really would not, after all, have had the moxie to can him.  It is quite plausible, sadly, that they instead would have continued to pretend that Churchill was a forward-thinking intellectual jewel in their crown, and continued to pay him an inflated salary on his tenured-after-one-year position.  In which case, shame on them, but it is the faculty and students who pay the cultural price for this kind of thing—not to mention the Colorado taxpayers who pay this guy’s salary.  Oh, yeah, did I mention CU’s reputation?  I used to hear the morning guys on my rock radio station (from Boulder, where the CU is) savaging the university for its role in this…and CU is generally an object of pride in this state.

Unfortunately, it is the rare University administration that not only admits an error but accepts responsibility for it and for cleaning up the mess.  Administrators change, the department chairs who agitated most loudly for stupid decisions to be made (say, hires and “programs”) accept jobs elsewhere or leave in disgrace or “change their focus of interest.”  In music, say, they might go from hard-core Victim Studies (to the “concerned”: we disagree, and you know that already) to “Music and Healing.”  Those left holding the bag are always left with a bad choice.  On the one hand, there is the unfortunate business of owning someone else’s error and the painful process of rectifying it, and on the other is the PR damage that results from making a public acknowledgment that will imply that the University—any university, I’m not just talking about CU—has once again shown the same arrogance, foolishness, and infantile defensiveness shared by the rest of humanity.  Often, and especially when skittish administrators and Trustees and so on are involved, the decision is to keep shut, circle the wagons, and try to act like nothing’s wrong.  The wages of dissembling are bitter, but it’s a lesson almost never learned.

Perhaps that is not a surprise, but we wanly continue to hope that we are different, that wise, sober judgment has a permanent home here, and that we are not as susceptible as others to the randomly twirling weathervane of intellectual fashion and fad.  Instead, it seems that we are constantly confronted with the fruits of our own intellectual insecurity, vulnerability to bad decisions—in other words, our own posturing equivalent of what is really a lemming mentality.  I have mentioned before, I think, how much I love the phrase “the herd of independent minds” (Lawrence Summers?) to describe the professoriate, because it is so cruelly true.

The Ward Churchill fiasco is a seemingly endless story that makes no one look good at all.  There are myriad lessons to be learned here, and I have every glum confidence that—as with the oil crisis of the 1970s—we will instead forget it as soon as possible, sweep it under the rug somehow, and continue to make similar misjudgments.

As Ian Shoals of the Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater used to say, “I gotta go.”

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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6 Responses to Ward Churchill Again

  1. Toby says:

    You know, one of the advantages of the Internet is that one may, instead of offering dubious characterisations of the members of the jury, seemingly based on no evidence whatsoever, actually turn to in-depth coverage of the case from, say, the University of Denver Sturm College of Law: http://www.theracetothebottom.org/ward-churchill/ . Some might think that would show more intellectual integrity – not to say a more scholarly disposition – than suggesting that members of the jury, who have by necessity actually followed the case, disagree with your opinion – seemingly not based on any knowledge of the case – because they ‘got confused, threatened, and resentful because [UC-Boulder’s attorney] used words of more than two syllables’.

  2. glen says:

    I second that, Toby. Jonathan, what’s with the baseless vitriol? Been watching too much cable “news” or what?

  3. ben wolfson says:

    The question isn’t whether he was qualified in the first place, but whether his removal was politically motivated, no? No one seemed to be hankering to get him out of there before his comments, even if anyone would have been justified in doing so.

  4. Peter Alexander says:

    As a soon-to-be-Colorado resident and near neighbor of Boulder, I have been following this (in the Boulder Daily Camera online), with considerable mixed feelings. It’s easy to see Churchill as a fraud and a poseur; but it’s also suspicious that CU was willing to tolerate him until he became politically inconvenient. It looks to me like they had grounds to get rid of him for a long time, and they chose to act on those grounds when they did because of his political statements. So as you say, no one looks good in this situation. But there may well have been enough evidence to support the verdict without invoking the ignorance or prejudice of jury members.

  5. reviewstew says:

    The real unforgivable sin in this essay” Ian Shoales has an “e” in his name!

  6. AM says:

    The jurors were not asked to decide whether CU was right to give Churchill tenure in the first place (the answer is no; CU bypassed some of their own policies in his review). They were asked to decide whether he was fired because of what he wrote; the answer is yes. University administrations don’t routinely go after tenured faculty because of accusations of plagiarism or incompetent scholarship. Typically they only do it in high-profile cases with political baggage (Michael Bellesiles at Emory, for example. And after reading the faculty committee’s report, twice, I was never fully convinced that his false claims were academic misconduct rather than incompetence).
    CU only went after Churchill because he drew attention to himself with the inane things he wrote. Ergo, it was a politically motivated firing. In any case, Jonathan, it is possible to disagree with the jury’s findings without insulting their intelligence (“Or perhaps he did but the jury got confused, threatened, and resentful because he used words of more than two syllables.”) I mean, really.

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