Sometime in early 2009, the Denver District Court will begin to hear testimony in Ward Churchill’s lawsuit against the University of Colorado.

It will be a very different national political climate than the one in which Churchill’s reference to Hannah Arendt’s classic study of the banality of evil*, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) set in motion events that led to his termination on charges of “plagiarism” and “research misconduct.”

The processes of shared governance at the University of Colorado’s flagship campus will themselves be on trial. The result may raise questions about the integrity of those processes not just at UC, but at many other campuses with similar (or lesser) degrees of faculty participation in decision-making.

My own views** are consistent with those of the national American Civil Liberties Union, and Eric Cheyfitz, Cornell’s Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters.

Cheyfitz, who examined the investigating committee’s report and testified about it before a UC panel, concluded that the charges were “fabricated” and “fundamentally baseless,” and flow from “problems in the investigating committee’s own flawed scholarship.”

The “research misconduct” charge is that Churchill didn’t provide enough evidence relating to his account of the origins of a 19th century smallpox epidemic. Whether or not one agrees with Churchill’s account, I found in reading the investigators’ report that I had to share Cheyfitz’s opinion that “what is properly an academic debate about the relationship of Native peoples to United States history was turned into an indictment…. The research misconduct charges disappear when you start looking at them closely.”

The use of the “research misconduct” charges to discredit Churchill should be particularly troubling to all of us–as Churchill supporters made clear by promptly filing “research misconduct” charges against the investigating committee, using the same standards for “misconduct” that they employed against him (and which future observers may well find more convincing!)

The “plagiarism” charges are 1) that the prolific Churchill cited articles that he had ghostwritten, 2) published a piece in which a co-author’s name was omitted by an editor and 3) copyedited a piece in which another person, unknown to him, had plagiarized. Of course there can be serious disagreement about these choices and the degree of personal responsibility that Churchill bears for them.

But the plain fact is that neither the investigating committee or the appeals panel felt that they merit dismissal. And it’s fairly clear that neither committee was stacked in Churchill’s favor. Indeed, the constitution of the committees will likely represent a key element in the lawsuit.

What I like about Cheyfitz’s analysis, as reported by Daniel Aloi for the Cornell Chronicle, is that it connects the elements of political retaliation in the case to the climate of intellectual fear produced by the larger attack on tenure and faculty self-governance under corporatization:

Cheyfitz said the case against Churchill is “linked up to other witch hunts, like that in the Columbia University Middle East studies department,” where scholars were accused of anti-Semitism because of their critical view of Israel, though they were ultimately exonerated of those charges.

“When you couple this with the Patriot Act, Homeland Security, the whole atmosphere of the war on Iraq and the war on terror, and the actions of the Bush administration … to undermine the Constitution, [it can] lead to an atmosphere where people can feel threatened,” said Cheyfitz, noting that the case is not just about Churchill and limiting free speech.

“It is an attack on tenure, too, which is the bulwark of academic freedom,” he said. “Academia has changed over the last 30 or 40 years because of a movement we can call corporatization. Nationwide, 65 percent of academic positions are nontenured and nontenure-track labor. That has tremendous implications for academic freedom. That change is very, very significant because it enables the attacks from the right wing. This structural change has gone on apace and has serious consequences for the profession.”

As the case goes to trial, the question will be: what should organizations like the AAUP and disciplinary organizations like the American Historical Association do?

Whether or not Churchill has asked them for help or not, can they afford to sit on the sidelines?

My personal view is that the AAUP must weigh in on this case.

What do you think?

*While not everyone agrees with Arendt’s portrait or Churchill’s application of it to the attack on the World Trade Center, the reference to “little Eichmanns” called upon the widely-accepted understanding that much human evil is furthered not by psychopaths, race-haters or sadists, but by unimaginative careerists obeying both orders and law out of a strong sense of duty, often with the support of the academy and cultural mainstream. (Arendt’s scholarship in her profile of Eichmann has been questioned, sometimes sharply, but she was never accused of “research misconduct.” )

**As should be manifestly clear, while I am an officer of the AAUP, I am not speaking for the organization, but sharing my individual views and soliciting input from members of the academic community.






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