Ward Churchill Update

Savage Minds has been rather remiss in following up on the Ward Churchill affair and the results of the trial since Dustin’s post in 2007. I’ve mostly kept quite because it seemed that Maximilian Forte had the beat covered, but this recent Salon article got me thinking about it again. So here is a brief roundup of the latest news and reactions, in the interest of provoking some discussion amongst our readers and hearing what you all have to say on the matter:

  • A ($1) Win for Ward Churchill Inside Higher Ed reports on the verdict: “To find in Churchill’s favor, the jury had to determine that his political views were a substantial or motivating factor in his dismissal, and that he would not have been fired but for the controversy over his opinions” which they did. I’m happy about this because while many raised what seemed like legitimate complaints about Churchill’s scholarship, it was clear from the beginning that his firing was motivated by politics. Scott Jaschik’s article is (as always) quite thorough and well worth reading – including back links for those who haven’t been following the case.
  • Stanly Fish, in his NY Times blog post, writes that “if the standards for dismissal adopted by the Churchill committee were generally in force, hardly any of us professors would have jobs.”  But, writing in Salon, Gary Kamiya is much harsher, asserting that “Churchill’s academic misconduct is that it brought disrepute not only upon himself, but upon the field of ethnic studies in general and Native American studies in particular.” These discussions echo Dustin’s earlier contention that this “raises serious concerns about not just Churchill’s scholarship, but about everybody’s, especially in anthropology where quite often there are only a handful of folks with specialized knowledge of a particular area.”
  • In the blog devoted to the lawsuit, there is talk of whether Churchill will actually get his job back, as the university wants to pay him off to go away instead. “Churchill and his legal team have both declared emphatically that reinstatement is their sole objective.”
  • And Maximilian Forte has a post exploring the rhetoric by which Churchill’s critics built their case against him, focusing on the outrage of “Good Americans” who “think of their nation as a land of freedom, despite the many institutionalized inequalities.”

3 thoughts on “Ward Churchill Update

  1. Academics in every field make provocative claims in professional publications (I’m not referring to Churchill’s comments about 9/11 victims, but to his controversial claims about Native American history), and the usual assumption is that the validity of such claims is worked out by scholars in that same professional literature. We don’t call for Sahlins or Obeyesekere to be fired because one of them must be wrong about Captain Cook and his Hawai’ian hosts: we read their arguments and make the best judgments we can. Ivan van Sertima’s wacky work has been rejected by most authorities, yet one might argue that even this fringe-y scholarship has served the useful purpose of bringing a variety of issues to public consciousness and fostering debate on important subjects. In this regard I have assumed that Churchill’s more bizarre claims about Native American history will be subjected to similar scrutiny and will be accepted or rejected by his peers as scholarly issues, not legal issues.

    I was more troubled by the discovery that Churchill had cited in support of his claims at least two publications that he had ghost-written, and then in the trial made the further claim that this kind of practice is common in academic work. Really??? I’m sorry, but this seems unethical and dishonest to me. Not something that would get one fired, but most of my colleagues would be deeply embarrassed were it revealed that the sources they cite in support of controversial positions were sources they ghost-wrote. Does anyone on this list go around their campus leaving RateMyProfessors.com ratings on different computers – about themselves? Would that be ethical?


  2. Barbara: You strike right to the heart of the debate around Churchill’s work. Being right or wrong is not and should not be a standard for academic work — science advances by the wrongness of earlier science, after all! The problem in Churchill’s case is that the admitted fraudulent chain of references makes it impossible to evaluate any of Churchill’s arguments. He could be 100% right about every claim he’s ever made, but the uncertain provenance of the evidence he cites makes it impossible to trust his arguments. In some cases, the only evidence he supplies is work that, it turns out, was also written by him that cites, in turn, OTHER work also written by him. Unfortunately, “take my word for it” is hardly a compelling argument…

    What makes this more troubling is that much of Churchill’s work probably should be taken quite seriously. Like Vine Deloria, Churchill has raised provocative arguments that anthropologists and other social scientists should take quite seriously, regardless of whether the particular case they relate to can be verified. But by muddying the waters of his own trustworthiness so much, Churchill has undermined those arguments not only in his own work, but in the work of others who may well have more solid grounding for their critiques.

  3. Funny this should come up. Just the other night a friend and I reflected for the umpteenth time on an old story of mine in which I meet Ward Churchill as a young punk and aspiring activist. He acts like a big jerk. However, this most recent reflection finds me further along in life, and the academy. I conclude that his behaviour was pretty typical of academics and I should get over my grudge (finally). Not sure what that says about the academy, or what a younger self might think of where I’ve ended up…

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