Monday, July 13, 2009

Round 4 of the Ward Churchill - University of Colorado Heavyweight Match Goes to the University

Round 1 of the title match went to Churchill by default. His 2001 intemperate remarks about the 9/11 victims, labeling them as “Little Eichmann’s” did not surface until 2005.

Round 2 was the University’s response, resulting in his termination as a tenured professor at Colorado after the University extended him extensive due process in 2007.

Round 3 occurred last April when a Denver jury ruled in his favor, awarding him $1 in nominal damages. The trial itself bloodied both sides in the public eye. Reputations were damaged.

Round 4 was decided last Tuesday when Colorado District Judge Larry J. Naves overturned the jury verdict and denied Churchill’s motion for reinstatement.

At least two more rounds in state courts and up to three in federal courts remain as neither side is willing to concede. Churchill has stated he will “continue to deal with it until the day” he “drops.” Rumors are that negotiations had broken done in the past over the amount of a settlement.

This match could go the distance.

Ward Churchill is an academic fraud. He was unqualified to be hired, promoted, tenured, or made a department chair. He lied about his ethnicity, falsely claiming to be Native American.

However, the University either knew, or reasonably should have known, all this, but consistently looked the other way. To some extent the University was hosted on its own petard when it stated Ward Churchill was not hired because of affirmative action.

Churchill’s remarks were especially untimely for the University of Colorado which was trying to dig itself out from scandals involving the athletic department/football team. The president (partially because of Churchill), chancellor, athletic director, and football coach all lost their jobs, and then Churchill brings more negative publicity to the University, an otherwise excellent university.

The University also had to concede for First Amendment purposes that Churchill was not terminated for his 9/11 statements, which are protected speech, but for academic misconduct, which should not have been a surprise to the University.

Judge Naves’ opinion is well-written and well-reasoned, but whether it is upheld through potentially 5 appeals remains to be seen.

I am not going to review it in depth, but simply point out some interesting aspects of it. First, Judge Naves held that pursuant to the $1 verdict, Churchill suffered no actual damages. He’s been off elsewhere getting paid to deliver speeches. Second, he did nothing to mitigate damages by seeking employment elsewhere.

The opinion spent little time on the underlying First Amendment issue: Was Churchill fired because of his remarks, which prompted the academic investigation?

Judge Naves believed that reinstatement would constitute an undue interference with the academic process, which is recognized by the Supreme Court as one of the essential features of a university.

Churchill’s own remarks came back to haunt him. He simply doesn’t know when to shut up. His comments about the University and the academic community would soil any attempt at a harmonious relationship.

His post verdict remarks included the University as having “degenerated to a not very glorified vo-tec, a trade school;” the University’s administration and witnesses as “the string of unprincipled liars the university called to the stand …:’ a statement “that a random group of homeless people under a bridge would be far more intellectually sound and principled than anything I’ve encountered at the university so far,” and a reference to the faculty as the “ostrich factory.”

He also filed and supported grievances against members of the committee that investigated him. He may have had the right to do so, but these petty, retaliatory acts clearly show an error in judgment.

Obviously Judge Naves found that “only a minuscule possibility that his return to the university will be amicable and productive” exists.

Ward Churchill and his supporters can blame his fall on the vast right wing conspiracy, turning Churchill into a self-proclaimed martyr. The real problem is that he cannot control his mouth. He may still snatch defeat from the jaws of first amendment victory.

For Churchill the issue is one of First Amendment and academic freedom. For the University, it’s academic integrity and faculty governance. For the state of Colorado, it’s a national embarrassment. For those of us in the Academy, it raises major questions of academic freedom and the power of tenure. For most Americans, it’s a sheer, spectator sport.

No comments: