We speak to the well-known academic and writer Ward Churchill about his future at the University of Colorado and academic freedom. A University panel recently determined that Churchill plagiarized and fabricated material in his scholarship and recommended his dismissal. Colorado Governor Bill Owens has called for his resignation. [includes rush transcript]
Our next guest has been steeped in controversy for more than a year. It began in February of 2005, with an article published on the front page of the Hamilton College newspaper, The Spectator. The college, had invited University of Colorado Ethnic Studies Professor Ward Churchill to speak at the school. The article highlighted statements Churchill made in an essay about the September 11th attacks. The essay was called "Some People Push Back; on the Justice of Roosting Chickens." Among other things, the article said that many of the people killed in the Pentagon and the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 were not innocent civilians. The passage that received the most attention was Churchill’s labeling of the people described as a "technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire" as "little Eichmanns." The controversy quickly spread with Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly repeatedly attacking Churchill on his television program. Soon after, Colorado Governor Bill Owens wrote a letter to the university calling for Churchill’s resignation.
A special panel at the university immediately conducted an investigation into Churchill’s comments. They concluded that he could not be fired for his statements, which were protected by the First Amendment. However, another panel later determined that Churchill plagiarized and fabricated material in his scholarship and recommended his dismissal. In June, Boulder interim chancellor Phil DiStefano announced that he wanted to fire Churchill — Churchill is currently appealing the committee finding. And Professor Ward Churchill joins me now here in Denver. Welcome to Democracy Now!
- Ward Churchill, University of Colorado Ethnic Studies Professor
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Churchill is currently appealing the committee finding, and he joins us now in the studio in Denver. Welcome to Democracy Now!
WARD CHURCHILL: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you agree with that summary of what you’ve been through over the past, well, about a year and a half now?
WARD CHURCHILL: Generally speaking, as sort of an abbreviated version.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your response to the panel finding at University of Colorado recommending — it was five people recommending — that you be fired? Two of them did not make that recommendation. They recommended suspension. But three did.
WARD CHURCHILL: Well, there’s several things I would make of it. First, the investigators, in their report, which is a published document at this point, committed egregious examples of everything they accused me of having done, including fabrications, suppression of evidence, disregarding of inconvenient facts, plagiarism, false assertion of authorship, and on and on and on.
AMY GOODMAN: How did they engage in that?
WARD CHURCHILL: Well, on plagiarism, basically by plagiarizing, just taking one of the essays that formed the basis of complaint from the interim chancellor, stripping of it its annotation, presenting it as their own. And that’s not simply a matter of doing it, but of saying that they had come up with the information that was in the original essay. That qualifies on AHA standards grounds and every other set of professional standards that I’m aware of that preside in the academy. You don’t assert co-authorship to a book that was written before you were born. You may have a hand in editing it. But you’re not a coauthor. That’s a false assertion of authorship.
Suppression of evidence, for example, with regard to the so-called Ft. Clark incident, the smallpox epidemic of 1837, I presented them with information that what I said had been said in print by prior authors. They’re right, they’re wrong. But I could not have invented what was already in print. They disregarded that altogether.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you explain that allegation that they have made, specifically that you fabricated evidence, that Native American leaders were given blankets infested with smallpox. They concluded that you had committed repeated and deliberate academic misconduct, saying that you were disrespectful of American oral traditions in your writing about the smallpox outbreak.
WARD CHURCHILL: Well, I don’t know what to say about that, other than just bald assertion. The problem that they had on that count was that I contended all along — this is the grounding that I come from, this is fairly well known, not a great mystery — that I’m coming from an indigenous perspective, lived experience, and directly from grassroots understandings of historical phenomena, events. They interviewed several people from a tradition of the peoples most directly affected by the 1837 smallpox epidemic, discovered to their dismay that the history of those peoples confirms essentially what I said.
AMY GOODMAN: And you said?
WARD CHURCHILL: I said that it was deliberately induced.
AMY GOODMAN: By?
WARD CHURCHILL: The United States Army. Probably a little too narrow a statement. It was the War Department, rather than the Army. But I understand the Army to be a subpart of the War Department, so there’s no inconsistency with reality there.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did they infect the people?
WARD CHURCHILL: Blankets. Possibly with garments, as well. There’s possibly more than one source of the infection, in the sense that various things were distributed over a two-week period of time that caused the smallpox to act in the particular ways that it did. We’re getting into details now. Maybe, maybe not.
But a general understanding that I presented on several occasions in my written work is entirely consistent with Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa. That’s the three peoples most immediately affected in the epidemic. It conforms to their history, to historical understanding. That’s not convenient, so basically glossed the point that there was ample interpretive data to support what I had said and announced that I was disrespectful to the tradition that I represented. This, after hearing representatives of the people say that they were glad that I said it, because it is how they understand the situation.
So basically you have an assertion of orthodoxy. It’s all well and good to tell schoolchildren that smallpox blankets were used by the United States, leave it vacuous, dangling, unsupported. No one knows where or when. And so long as you leave it in that kind of an ambiguity, it’s okay. That’s scholarship. But tie it down in consistency with an actual indigenous oral tradition, and that’s fraud.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Churchill, the whole controversy that has swirled around your genealogy. Now, I think the committee actually threw that out.
WARD CHURCHILL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But the national American Indian Movement has said that Ward Churchill receives an associate membership from the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma. He was not eligible for tribal membership due to the fact he does not possess certificate of degree of Indian blood. What about this whole controversy? Then, the news publications going after you. I think it was the Rocky Mountain News that identified 142 direct forebears of you that turned up no evidence of a single Indian ancestor among them.
WARD CHURCHILL: Well, you have binary choices that are allowed when someone else is recording your ethnicity. Okay? If you’re of part-dissent Indian and part-dissent white, and there’s land issues involved, often people would be recorded as white. On the other hand, if you happen to be of any dissent black, the rest of you could be Indian, and this eugenics formulation that we’re dealing with here, under the one-drop rule you would be simply recorded as black.
Basically it’s the imposition of a completely alien mechanism of identifying members, in accordance with a eugenics code that is employed to the benefit of those doing the imposing. And those doing the imposing were not Indians. Indians are not simply a racial group, in fact may not be a racial group, per se, at all. Culture, nation, allegiance, membership — a very complex system — reduced to blood quantum with someone else doing the recording, according to their standards.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the fact that AIM is saying this, the American Indian Movement?
WARD CHURCHILL: We’re the American Indian Movement. You’d be talking to a couple of other people. The American Indian Movement is a very decentralized, organic community-oriented movement, not an organization. What you’re talking about is a nonprofit corporation chartered under the state of Minnesota, purports to be the representative of somebody else’s nation. There’s 400 indigenous nations. So I don’t know what national AIM purports to be representing in national terms. Somebody else’s country, a colonizing country. We’re a national liberation movement.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Churchill, what happens now? The committee made the recommendation. Are you receiving support from your colleagues?
WARD CHURCHILL: From some. It’s a mixed reaction. Frankly, the bulk of my colleagues are trying to make up excuses to get out of the line of fire themselves. And I find that to be a somewhat understandable situation, but not really something that is in conformity with adherence to the principle of academic freedom, the protections of tenure. The whole structure that allows autonomous scholarship to occur is in jeopardy, when they can take a senior professor and run this kind of a charade in order to revoke tenure, to silence, when it’s transparently the case that the entire investigation was convened to scrutinize speech. And they made no bones about it. DiStefano made the announcement. He said, "We’re going to examine every line he’s ever written, everything he’s ever said, at least insofar as it’s been recorded, to see if we can find evidence that he has crossed a line."
AMY GOODMAN: And the charges of plagiarism?
WARD CHURCHILL: Charges of plagiarism are themselves fraudulent.
AMY GOODMAN: Because?
WARD CHURCHILL: Well, number one, because the person supposedly plagiarized refused even in the course of the investigation to say that she believed that I did it personally. I’ve denied it. The un-contradicted evidence is the fact that it was done probably by a committee. I copy edited the material when I was asked to do it, and it was sent in. That was all. Copy editors are not responsible for going back and seeing if someone else has said what it is that’s included in the text. If you did that every newsroom copy editor in the country would probably be up on some kind of plagiarism charges.
AMY GOODMAN: Will you fight to keep your professorship at the University of Colorado–Boulder?
WARD CHURCHILL: Absolutely, insofar as that professorship at the University of Colorado represents something much broader than the immediacy of my job. It represents a set of principles that have to do with the protection of the activities of scholars to engage in interpretation at their own discretion without fear of consequence and retribution. The constraint of discourse to approved parameters is something that we can ill afford, particularly at this historical juncture, to allow to happen in this country. And I’m not the only one who’s been targeted. I simply am the most visible at this particular point.
AMY GOODMAN: And when will the final decision come down?
WARD CHURCHILL: Well, they’ve got various cliché slogans out there about when the game’s over. And it’s not over until the last juror has cast the last vote on this one.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ward Churchill, I want to thank you for being with us. We are broadcasting from Denver. He’s professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado–Boulder.