Our View: Reviewing academic credibility

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The University of Colorado Board of Regents was right to take 30 days to review the academic work of tenured professor Ward Churchill, not because of Churchill's remarks about Sept. 11, 2001, victims but because of serious questions about Churchill's academic credibility.

Churchill always has been controversial in Boulder. But had it not been for protests last month at a small college in upstate New York where Churchill was to speak, the professor and his hate-filled theories likely would have remained out of the public eye. The protesters at Hamilton College were responding to a paper Churchill wrote shortly after the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks in which he referred to the "technocrats" working in the Trade Center as "Little Eichmanns."

The paper -- "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens" -- sparked outrage. Gov. Bill Owens called on Churchill to resign. So did the state House, the state Senate and a number of Colorado congressmen. Churchill was an easy and deserving political target.

But even though we disagree vehemently with what Churchill wrote, those words alone are not enough to oust him. Our college campuses should be places where ideas are exchanged freely, including those we disagree with. Professors should not fear that the ideas they express in their writings could cost them their livelihoods. That is the essence of tenure.

Although we defend Churchill's right to express his incendiary rhetoric, we question his wisdom in doing so. Although Churchill should not be fired for his Sept. 11 comments, they have led to an examination of his academic record that ultimately could cost him his job.

There are serious questions about Churchill's work. In the weeks since the Hamilton College episode, what we have learned is that Churchill's writings include factual inaccuracies and distortions. He has been accused of plagiarizing other academics. Even his self-proclaimed American Indian heritage appears to be in doubt.

Consider the opinion of Churchill's colleague, CU law professor Paul Campos. Writing in the Rocky Mountain News, Campos called Churchill "a grotesque fraud -- a white man pretending to be an Indian, an intellectual charlatan spewing polemical garbage festooned with phony footnotes, a shameless demagogue fabricating imaginary historical incidents to justify his pathological hatreds (and) an apparent plagiarist who steals and distorts the work of real scholars."

Although he is tenured, Churchill can be dismissed for "demonstrable professional incompetence." If half of what Campos and others now think about Churchill is true, the Board of Regents would be absolutely justified in letting him go.

But as the Board of Regents debates Churchill's future, it also needs to take a closer look at the past. One of the most important questions to rise out of this fiasco is how someone with credentials as dubious as Churchill's got hired in the first place, much less granted tenure and named the leader of the school's Ethnic Studies Department.

The Churchill controversy is only the latest in a string of embarrassing episodes for what is supposed to be the state's premier university. Sadly, the university has only itself to blame on this one. Universities should be thorough and discerning in determining the qualifications of their academic leaders. Had that happened in the case of Ward Churchill, most of us, thankfully, never would have heard of him.

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