BOULDER, Colo., Feb. 4 -- The University of Colorado staunchly defends its faculty's rights of free speech and open academic inquiry. Most of the time.
But Friday, interim Chancellor Phil DiStefano launched an "academic investigation" that could lead to the firing of Ward Churchill, a tenured full professor who ignited a national firestorm by applauding the 9/11 terrorist attacks and condemning the victims as greedy, arrogant and cruel.
In a commentary he says he wrote on 9/11, Ward Churchill called some victims "little Eichmanns."
(Mark Leffingwell -- The Daily Camera via AP)
In a rambling, acidic commentary he says he dashed off within hours of the attacks, the 57-year-old professor of ethnic studies described the bankers and stock traders who died in the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns." He called their deaths a "penalty befitting their participation in . . . the 'mighty engine of profit' to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved."
For years, those remarks went largely unnoticed. Indeed, Churchill was promoted to chairman of his department. He enjoyed a devoted corps of student supporters on the campus here and commanded four-figure lecture fees across the country for speeches on his academic specialty, poverty among Native Americans.
But then Ian Mandell, the 21-year-old editor in chief of the student newspaper at New York's Hamilton College, did the homework that nobody else had done.
With the professor scheduled to speak at Hamilton -- in a forum titled, aptly, "Limits of Dissent" -- Mandell googled "Ward Churchill" and found the phosphorescent 2001 essay.
One Web site version, available at www.kersplebedeb.com/mystuff/s11/churchill.html, has text under Churchill's byline saying that the trade center victims in New York were ignorant of the evil they did every day "because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it."
Mandell's story last week in the Hamilton Spectator drove conservative radio commentators into full-scale fury. The static from the airwaves, in turn, has prompted battles over academic freedom at Colorado, Hamilton and a few other schools that have pending invitations to Churchill for lectures.
At first, the colleges involved stood by the professor, citing the transcendent value of unfettered scholastic debate. "Prof. Churchill's comments have precipitated a discussion we ought to have," said Colorado President Elizabeth Hoffman. Chancellor DiStefano said, "I must support his right . . . to hold and express his views, no matter how repugnant." At Hamilton, Prof. Nancy Rabinowitz, who runs the forum where Churchill was to speak, argued last week that "the students should hear his whole argument before they boil it down to a few sound bites."
But in media-saturated America, a few incendiary sound bites can easily overpower esoteric discussions about the right of tenure and the value of free discussion. Hamilton President Joan Hinde Stewart announced Tuesday that the "Limits of Dissent" discussion would be canceled. She cited numerous threats of violence among the thousands of e-mails that poured in after Churchill's 9/11 commentary was lifted from its previous oblivion.
And Colorado's DiStefano, after an angry grilling from the university's Board of Regents -- an elected body dominated by conservatives -- reversed himself and announced a 30-day investigation of all of Churchill's lectures and publications. This is the first step, the chancellor said, in the legal process required to fire a tenured professor.
Meanwhile, there have been Web site calls for the resignation of Stewart for allowing Churchill to be invited in the first place.
Walking across the snowy Boulder campus this week, with his graying hair hanging to his shoulders, a cigarette hanging from his lip and a phalanx of students hanging on his every word, Churchill himself seemed less flustered than virtually anybody else about the uproar surrounding his opinions. He sounded almost amused as he described the "mass" of death threats he has received and the swastikas that were painted on his truck. Asked whether his job is in danger, Churchill hitched his thumbs into his jeans and drew a chuckle from the adoring student crowd by promising to sue if his tenure is violated: "They really don't want to do that unless they want me owning this university."
Still, Churchill did try to reduce the tension this week by agreeing to step down four months early from the administrative post of chairman of the ethnic studies department. That move reduced his annual salary from $115,000 to $94,000. It did nothing, though, to soften the bipartisan fury among Colorado politicians who had known little about the popular professor at their state's flagship public university.
Churchill is a Vietnam veteran who became a full professor in the field of American Indian studies without the benefit of a PhD -- he holds a BA and MA from the University of Illinois-Springfield. He has published several books. He was acquitted last month with other Indian activists on charges of blocking the Columbus Day parade in Denver. Jurors said they accepted Churchill's contention that a parade honoring Christopher Columbus amounts to "hate speech."
Students said Churchill makes a similar argument in his undergraduate course called "American Holocaust." His books, including "Fantasies of the Master Race" (1992) and "Colonization and Genocide in Native North America" (1994) regularly compare the American establishment to the Nazis, the same comparison he made about financial industry workers killed on 9/11.
At their meeting Thursday, university regents said they were determined to act against Churchill. The regents have gone through a tough patch in recent months, accused of inaction on a series of scandals that badly sullied the school's reputation. When the Boulder County prosecutor charged that Colorado football coach Gary Barnett was using "sex and drugs" to recruit 17-year-old high school football stars, the regents held endless meetings and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a detailed investigation -- and then decided that nobody needed to be disciplined.
A lawsuit by two undergraduates who say they were gang-raped by Barnett's football players and recruits is pending. After a student athlete was accused of referring to a female student by a four-letter slang term referring to part of the female anatomy, President Hoffman declared that this "c-word" can sometimes be a "term of endearment." Students and faculty denounced the president for "hate speech." The regents again took no action.
Accordingly, board members were clearly eager to act when they gathered Thursday to consider the Ward Churchill affair. Once again, though, the trustees lost control. Having issued an agenda for a "public meeting," the regents informed the packed auditorium that no students would be allowed to speak on the issue of free speech. This prompted a raucous outcry. The board members' discussion was almost completely drowned out by catcalls from the crowd: "This is 1984!" "This is McCarthyism!" "Worse than Saddam!" "Ward was using a 'term of endearment!' "
As the noise grew, the regents and the school president fled the room, and police in riot helmets cleared the audience, arresting two particularly noisy protesters. Afterward, a shaken Hoffman said the Churchill affair reminds her of a dark memory at the University of Colorado -- the treatment of former philosophy professor Morris Judd. At the height of the McCarthy era, in 1951, Judd was investigated and fired after anonymous students charged that his view of the Korean War sounded "communistic." More than 50 years later, the university held a lavish ceremony to apologize to Judd and create a scholarship in his name. "I hope we don't do anything now," the school president said Thursday, "that would cause future generations to have to apologize."