Faculty and administrators say that the result of a battle over the firing of a controversial University of Colorado professor has legal implications on the firing decisions made at the 5Cs.
On Apr. 2, the Denver State Court ruled that the university had fired former Ethnic Studies Professor Ward Churchill for political reasons. Churchill was fired for a 2001 essay in which he called the people working in the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks “little Eichmanns,” referring to a Nazi involved in the Holocaust.
While lawyers for the university had deemed that Churchill violated the principle of academic misconduct in his essay, a court ruled that he had been fired because of his more progressive approach to academia. With controversial work focused primarily on the American treatment of Native Americans throughout history, Churchill was allegedly subject to attack from the American Council for Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) who allegedly dislike his approach.
Claremont McKenna College government professor John Pitney said that this case highlights important issues for faculty and administrators at the 5Cs.
“There is a lesson for administrators and a lesson for faculty,” said Pitney. “For administrators: in any kind of disciplinary action, observe due process. For faculty members: in your research, don’t make stuff up.”
Some 5-C students have said that this is a victory for autonomous education.
“It represents a victory in the fight for keeping political agendas out of our education system,” said Will Harris PI ‘12. “This is clearly protected by freedom of speech.”
Brian Burkhart, a Pitzer College Native American studies professor who was not rehired, compared Pitzer’s decision to not rehire him and CU’s decision to fire Churchill. Burkhart was denied the position of comparative or non-western philosophy after a national search. Burkhart said that there are connections between his case and Churchill’s.
“When Native American academics attempt to do research that really reflects Native American worldviews, these academics are seen as trouble-makers, activists, and/or just bad scholars,” said Burkhart. “One of the things that this case can teach us at the 7Cs is that this kind of bias, as powerful and pervasive as it is at the Claremont Colleges and elsewhere, does not stand up to the vetting of a jury of ordinary citizens and should give us pause as to why it still seems to carry so much weight in the isolated and insulated ivory tower, as it played a key role in my review at Pitzer as well as Ward’s at CU.”
Although the case did not involve a faculty member at the 5Cs, Pitzer College Dean of Students Alan Jones was preparing to testify on Mar. 16 when the judge dismissed him for “not having the proper expertise.” Jones alleges that members of ACTA were instrumental in firing Churchill and that members of ISI have been trying to implement their traditional educational policies within CU. ISI sponsors 117 newspapers throughout the country, including The Claremont Independent at Claremont McKenna College.
“I was contacted by Churchill’s defense team in September and was asked to testify as an expert witness as to the particular role that partisan organizations like ISI an ACTA played in the Churchill case and I agreed,” Jones said. “I was scheduled to testify at the trial in March and flew to Denver to do so. In court, the University’s attorney requested a ‘voir dire,’ a motion that my testimony was not expert since ACTA and ISI were irrelevant to the outcome of the Churchill investigation.”
In 2004, Hamilton College invited Churchill to participate in a panel. A teacher at the institution did opposition research and discovered Churchill’s essay, which had until that point not been widely publicized. Shortly thereafter, Churchill resigned as chair of the ethnic studies department, for what he calls “liability issues” arising from the allegations. However, he continued to teach at the institution.
In February 2005, then-Governor David Owens, a founding member of ACTA, called for Churchill’s resignation from the university. After Churchill refused, Owens approached then-CU President Elizabeth Hoffman about firing Churchill, according to her testimony in court.
After her refusal to fire Churchill, Hoffman resigned from her position. Owens then appointed another founding member of ACTA, Hank Brown, as president of the university.
Churchill then asked Brown to recuse himself from the question of Churchill’s dismissal because he had a vested interest in ACTA. However, Brown refused, saying that he had not been part of ACTA “for a while,” and that he had a right to participate in the negotiations. Brown mounted a campaign within CU to fire Churchill. Although the Privilege and Tenure Committee only recommended suspension for a year, during May 2007, Brown recommended that Churchill be dismissed from his position at the university entirely. Following the recommendation, the Board of Regents at the University of Colorado voted to dismiss Churchill in July 2007.
Churchill now says that he wants to return to the university and begin teaching again.
“Since it was found by the jury that I was wrongfully fired…I want reinstatement,” said Churchill, in a DailyCamera.com interview.
Pitney thinks that Churchill should not return to his post at CU.
“A judge is going to decide whether he should either receive reinstatement or back pay,” said Pitney. “I’m not a lawyer, so I cannot offer a judgment on what Colorado law requires. I do think, however, that his blatant academic dishonesty renders him unfit for any faculty position.”