Deeper Into the Muck: Ward Churchill and the “Everybody Does It” Defense





Mr. DeWitt is a public historian and a doctoral student in public policy history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the principal editor of Social Security: A Documentary History (Washington, D. C., Congressional Quarterly Press, 2008).

In my prior essay on Ward Churchill I had a broader thesis I was arguing, so I didn’t go into much detail about what I described as Churchill’s “shoddy” and “unprofessional” scholarship. I gave one extended example (the pox-infected blanket story) but beyond that I did not really bother to document the kind of work that Churchill routinely turns out. This would not matter except that later that same week the New York Times published Stanley Fish’s vindication of Churchill. That Fish op-ed might seriously mislead people who have not themselves reviewed any of Churchill’s work. So I feel an obligation to once again put my fingers to the keys on the topic of Ward Churchill. I will provide chapter and verse of what I am talking about here; and if, after that, you still want to cheer for Ward Churchill, then be my guest.

Everybody Does It

The essence of Stanley Fish’s commentary on Churchill is the “everybody does it” defense. As Fish puts it:

I had read the committee’s report and found it less an indictment of Churchill than an example of a perfectly ordinary squabble about research methods and the handling of evidence. The accusations that fill its pages are the kind scholars regularly hurl at their polemical opponents. It’s part of the game. . . .

when academics assess one another they routinely say things like, “Professor A obviously has not read the primary sources”; “Professor B draws conclusions the evidence does not support”; “Professor C engages in fanciful speculations and then pretends to build a solid case; he’s just making it up”; “Professor D does not acknowledge that he stole his argument from Professor E who was his teacher (or his student).”. . .

In short, standard stuff....

It is impossible to get any real sense of the issues here from Fish’s glancing description of the case. So let me recap:

The Due Process

When the university began to investigate Churchill it initially did so through its Standing Committee on Research Misconduct (SCRM). It is this Standing Committee that makes the decision as to whether to forward a case to the Regents and what recommendations to make regarding the case. Their final report was a brief 20-page overview of the case, almost all of which was a review of relevant procedural and policy issues regarding academic misconduct in general. Fewer than two full pages of this report actually even described the alleged misconduct. 

The SCRM is composed of 11 University of Colorado faculty members from a mix of disciplines, none of whom were historians, ethnic studies professors, or scholars in other relevant fields. The SCRM in turn appointed an Investigative Committee (IC) to examine the case in depth. The IC was composed of five faculty members (three from the University of Colorado and two from outside universities) had two professors of law; one professor of ethnic studies; one historian; and one sociologist.

The IC spent nearly five months examining the evidence, interviewing witnesses (including multiple sessions with Professor Churchill), and assessing the allegations against him. Their 124-page report went into great detail on the seven specific allegations in their charter.

We should pause to note at this point that there were only seven instances of misconduct covered in the scope of the investigation because the investigation was the result of a complaint filed with the SCRM, and the complaint alleged nine specific instances of misconduct, two of which were determined to be non-academic in nature and so were dropped. So the scope of the investigation was artificially limited to seven instances of alleged misconduct. This certainly does not mean that these were the only potential examples of scholarly misconduct in the corpus of Professor Churchill’s work. Rather, these seven instances were in effect “proof of concept” test cases.

I think it also pertinent to note that the five members of the IC were noticeably sympathetic to Professor Churchill (unlike the Regents). The IC report goes out of its way to concede a great deal of leeway to Churchill, making it clear they share his general outlook and multicultural sensibilities (Cf. IC Report, pgs. 3-12). Despite these dispositions, the IC did draw one line in the sand:

Yet none of these features . . . should affect scholarly standards in research and teaching. Scholars in ethnic studies can and often do offer revisionary reappraisals of conventionally accepted social events and interpretations, but not by violating accepted norms of veracity. . . . The particular, distinctive, and welcome features of ethnic studies that entered the academy in the late 1960s and early 1970s were never intended to sanction misuse of the evidence, fabrication, plagiarism, or false attribution of academic work. Ethnic studies has now produced a large and distinguished body of scholarship and a parallel fine record of teaching to revise and correct an often distorted understanding of United States society and culture. That record should not be sullied by poor scholarly practices. (IC Report, pg. 6)

 The Seven Specific Examples of Misconduct

Allegation A: Misrepresentation of General Allotment Act of 1887

One of Churchill’s repeated slams against the American government’s treatment of Native Americans is the claim that in the General Allotment Act of 1887 the government introduced a “blood quantum” test for tribal membership, and that this is the same kind of hateful eugenics test as that used by the Nazis in identifying Jews, by the South Africans against the “coloreds,” and by the Israelis against Palestinian Arabs. (The “blood quantum” concept refers to the idea that one is a “full-blood” Indian, or a “half-blood,” or a “quarter-blood,” etc.)

As it happens, the claim is factually false. There is no language anywhere in the General Allotment Act of 1887 making any reference to any concept like that of a “blood quantum” to assess tribal membership. The Committee’s assessment of this allegation concluded: “We find . . . that most of the details and embellishments of that claim made by Professor Churchill are historically inaccurate or literally incorrect.” (IC Report, pg. 22)

But perhaps this was an honest mistake. But then how does Churchill document this claim, if in fact there is no such provision in the Allotment Act? He uses one of three techniques: 1) He footnotes the Allotment Act in general, without citing any section or sub-section of the Act, or any page numbers or other referential pointers so that others may check his claim; 2) He cites apparent third-party sources who make the same claim, but in every instance the references turned out to be to articles Churchill himself wrote and had published under other names; 3) He cites an actual third-party source who he says makes the same claim, but this actual source said just the opposite.

The IC Report: ”. . . this general reference to an apparent independent source in its entirety [is] frequently employed by Professor Churchill to create the appearance of independent support for his claims, while simultaneously . . . making [it] far more difficult [for] other researchers to check his claims . . . it was part of a pattern and consistent research stratagem to cloak extreme, unsupportable, propaganda-like claims of fact that support Professor Churchill’s legal and political claims with the aura of authentic scholarly research by referencing apparently (but not actually) supportive independent third-party sources.” (IC Report, pg. 23)

 “The two . . . apparently independent third-party sources . . . turn out not to be independent sources at all but, rather, to have been ghostwritten in their entirety by Professor Churchill. This action provided him with apparent independent sources that he could and did in fact cite to support otherwise insupportable claims of legal and historical fact.” (IC Report, pg. 24)

 “. . . our review of the McDonnell book indicates that it does not support Professor Churchill’s description of the General Allotment Act of 1887 . . . Worse still, the book actually explains the . . . blood quantum point [differently], devoting the entirety of a lengthy and illuminating chapter to that topic. Professor Churchill referenced this book in the footnote by again referring to the entire book. . . . [this] creates the appearance of support without providing a reader the appropriate tools to rapidly check his authority. . . . this citation to the entirety of the McDonnell book masks the fact that he has simply misstated the contents of his sources and therefore falsified support for his historical claims and fabricated the embellished details of those claims.” (IC Report, pg. 25)

Allegation B: Misrepresentation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990

In this case Churchill has written that this law contains a provision forbidding under penalty of law anyone from selling art as “an Indian” unless they are certified by the federal government as meeting a one-quarter “blood quantum” requirement.

Here again, this is a factually and demonstrably false claim. And here again, Churchill deploys the techniques of citing the entire Act, of pretending that his own ghostwritten work is that of third parties, and of citing third-parties who do not say what he claims. He even provides a fabricated quote supposedly from the Act (hence the need to provide only the general reference).

IC Report: “Our Committee has reviewed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act carefully and finds that there is no “blood quantum” requirement specified within it as Professor Churchill claims, and that his seeming quotation from the Act above is not a quotation at all. . . .[readers] will conclude from that essay that a major act of the federal government requires that Indians demonstrate, directly to the federal authorities, that they have one-quarter Indian blood before they can be certified as Indian artists. In truth no such federal requirement exists, and Professor Churchill knowingly evaded that truth in his essay. . . . Moreover, Professor Churchill has again compounded this misrepresentation by citing his own writings as if they were independent third-party sources written by others. He has also distorted the scholarship of distinguished scholars to his own ends. We conclude that this misrepresentation was not scholarly error but serious research misconduct and part of a general pattern of such misconduct in support of his political views.” (IC Report, pgs. 29-31)

Allegation C: Captain John Smith and Smallpox in New England, 1614-1618

The claim here is that there was an epidemic of smallpox among the Indians in the period 1614-1618, that Captain John Smith caused the epidemic by introducing smallpox to the Indians, and that Smith did this as an intentional act of genocide against the Indians.

IC Report: The Committee finds . . . that Professor Churchill misrepresented his sources in two essays when describing Captain John Smith and smallpox, a form of falsification. We conclude also that he fabricated his account, because no evidence—not even circumstantial evidence—supports his claim. (IC Report, pg. 38)

Allegation D: Smallpox Epidemic at Fort Clark and Beyond, 1837-1840

This is the smallpox-loaded blanket story discussed in my first essay. The IC devoted more attention to this question than to any other, using 43 pages in its report to research the issues involved, even providing its own summary of the historiography. The conclusion was that some aspects of Churchill’s claims, while unproven, were well within the realm of debatable questions. However, other aspects of his writing on this topic were not.

IC Report: “We do not find academic misconduct with respect to his general claim that the U.S. Army deliberately spread smallpox to Mandan Indians at Fort Clark in 1837, using infected blankets. . . . We found serious problems in the following areas: a. Professor Churchill misrepresented some of the published sources he cites, which do not in fact support his accounts. b. Because neither his own statements nor our investigation produced evidence to support some of his more detailed claims, we conclude that Professor Churchill has created myths under the banner of academic scholarship.”(IC Report, pg. 81)

Allegation E. Plagiarism of a Pamphlet by the Dam the Dams Group

In a volume he edited in 1989 Churchill included the full text of a pamphlet by an environmental group called Dam the Dams, apparently without their authorization, and listed himself as co-author of the pamphlet. In subsequent books published in 1993 and 2002 Churchill republished the same material, in an expanded version, listing himself as the sole author.

IC Report: “We find . . . that Professor Churchill’s misappropriation of the contents of the Dam the Dams pamphlet was academic misconduct in the form of plagiarism. The steps that must have been taken to appropriate language from the pamphlet and incorporate it in the later works lead us to find that the misconduct was not accidental, but deliberate. (IC Report, pg. 87)

Allegation F: Plagiarism of Professor Rebecca Robbins

Here Churchill was accused of plagiarism when an essay which appeared in a volume edited by his wife, with the by-line of professor Rebecca Robbins, was subsequently published in several forms by Churchill under his own by-line. Here Churchill had a novel defense: he claimed to be the author of the original work, and hence could not be guilty of plagiarizing himself!

However, in the course of his discussions with the IC, Churchill admitted that on numerous occasions he had published work he had written, under other names, both made-up pseudonyms and the actual names of real persons, living and dead. This then led to another issue.

IC Report: “We find that the publication of one’s own scholarly work . . . under another name constitutes . . . [academic misconduct]. The failure is aggravated when the name used belongs to another actual person, especially one working in the same field, whether or not the other person consents to this use of his or her name. The failure is particularly egregious when a misattribution of one’s own writings to another actual person is then exploited by the author by using the misattributed work as apparently independent authority for claims that he makes in his own later scholarship, as Professor Churchill has done. . . . Moreover, a reader of Professor Churchill’s work . . . cannot help but encounter other instances of his citation to these works as authority. This sequence of events permits the author to create the false appearance that his claims are supported by other scholars when, in fact, he is the only source for such claims.” (IC Report, pgs. 89-90)

Allegation G: Plagiarism of Professor Fay G. Cohen

In this case, Churchill edited a collected volume of essays in 1991, including one by Professor Fay Cohen. In 1992 Churchill’s wife edited another volume of essays and Churchill asked Professor Cohen for permission to reprint her essay in his wife’s volume. Professor Cohen declined. Nevertheless, the essay was re-published and the by-line was credited to The Institute for Natural Progress, of which Churchill is one of its only two members, and in the About Contributors section of the volume his wife (who one presumes ought to know) indicated that Churchill had been the sole author on behalf of the Institute.

IC Report: “Professor Churchill’s close association and identification with the Institute of Natural Progress, and his claim of credit for the essay in his Faculty Report of Professional Activities, give some support to a finding that he committed plagiarism in his misuse of Professor Cohen’s work. But even if this was not an act of plagiarism, it certainly constituted a misappropriation of the work of another and thus constitutes ‘failure to comply with established standards regarding author names on publications,’ a form of research misconduct under our Research Misconduct Rules.” (IC Report, pg. 93)

General Conclusions of the IC Report: “The conventions of scholarly attribution are not empty forms of etiquette; they are central to the progress of scholarship and the accountability of the scholar. Professor Churchill’s disregard for them is therefore troubling. . . . If there is one crucial pattern  [here] . . . it is a pattern of failure to understand the difference between scholarship and polemic, or at least of behaving as though that difference does not matter. . . . the Committee has found repeated instances of his practice of fabricating details or ostensible written evidence to buttress his broader ideological arguments. While his general claims may be correct, it is unacceptable scholarship to create fictitious support for them.” (IC Report: Pgs. 95-96)

In other words, it is not okay to lie because your political aims are laudable. This is a blatant form of what I have called Political Postmodernism, and of Multicultural Postmodernism. The idea is that truth and objectivity in scholarship do not matter because of the supposed nobility of one’s political or multicultural agendas. Thankfully, some in the academy still agree that this is a form of academic misconduct.

Everybody Does It?

So, that is what Ward Churchill does in his academic work. Does everyone do these sorts of things? I certainly hope not. I know I don’t. And I doubt that Professor Fish does either. It is unclear which report Fish read in preparation for his NYT column, perhaps he did not himself fully grasp the nature of Churchill’s actions. So we have to ask: Has Professor Fish ever written something; put someone else’s name on it; then cited it in his subsequent writings as third-party support for his thesis? Has he ever published something under his own name that was written by someone else because they refused to let him republish it? Has he taken a pamphlet written by an advocacy group and published it under his own by-line? I don’t know how it works at Florida International University, but at the university I attend these actions would be grounds for expulsion.

In the light of all this, Stanley Fish’s rather glib dismissal of the charges against Churchill is unfathomable, and no one should think that his op-ed vindicates Churchill.

We should also understand what the jury verdict does and does not prove. The jury did not find that Professor Churchill was innocent of the charge of academic misconduct; they only found that he was not fired for this reason. He was fired out of political correctness; that is, because his views on the 9/11 attacks were politically embarrassing for the University. And the jury found that the documented instances of Churchill’s academic misconduct were a cover story for this political motivation in his firing.

I agree with the jury. But the fact that Churchill is a serial perpetrator of academic misconduct begs an important question: why did the University not document this misconduct years ago, and fire him years ago on these real grounds? The short answer is: when his views were politically correct the academy did not want to inquire into his methods, and when his views became politically incorrect, suddenly his methods became the only way to get rid of him.

Now the University finds itself in a dilemma of its own making: it will likely be forced to rehire a professor whom the University has now documented as unworthy of a place on its faculty. Talk about being hoist on one’s own petard.

What should happen next, by the way, is that the judge should make an unexpected ruling: he should rule that the jury was right to find Churchill’s firing to have been invalid, and he should uphold the damages award of $1. Then he should also find that multiple instances of academic misconduct have been documented on the part of Churchill, and he should rule that Churchill cannot, therefore, be reinstated at the University. In other words, the judge should now fire Churchill himself, and for the right reasons. But I doubt this will happen. Judges, after all, have their own forms of political correctness.

So, there you have it. That is the sorry saga of Ward Churchill, in excruciating detail. If you can look upon all this with equanimity, and still champion Churchill because you agree with his politics, then there is little more I can say to you. But please, have the integrity to admit what you and Churchill are doing. Stop pretending that Ward Churchill is innocent of academic misconduct; and, please, stop assuming that everybody does it.


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Thomas Ford Brown - 4/16/2009

Goodwin is not a good parallel to Churchill, for the simple fact that she acknowledged her plagiarism and paid restitution to her victims. Nor is she a tenured professor.

Churchill, on the other hand, still insists that his misconduct is either perfectly acceptable, or that someone else did it -- not him.


Louis Nelson Proyect - 4/16/2009

Odd that Doris Kearns Goodwin is still teaching at Harvard despite her plagiarism. Maybe if she wrote a controversial essay about 9/11, she would have gotten the boot. Of course, her whole career has revolved around writing things that flatter the American power elite so it is doubtful that would ever happen.


Thomas Ford Brown - 4/13/2009

"We do not find academic misconduct with respect to his general claim that the U.S. Army deliberately spread smallpox to Mandan Indians at Fort Clark in 1837, using infected blankets."

This statement from the Investigative Committee shows just how far they bent over backwards to give Churchill the benefit of the doubt. Churchill was unable to produce any evidence of Army presence at Fort Clark, and alluded to "oral history" only after he was caught out making up details about what supposedly happened at Fort Clark.

After four years, Churchill at trial was still unable to produce any evidence of Army presence at Fort Clark. Instead, he cited a children's book and a Buffy St. Marie song.


Harry L. Watson - 4/13/2009

This is not the first time that Stanley Fish has trivialized the historical enterprise in the pages of the New York Times. His 1999 op-ed piece on biography declared that any effort at biographical interpretation or explanation was inevitably false. His conclusion logically applies to any historical explanation:

"Biographers, on the other hand, can only be inauthentic, can only get it wrong, can only lie, can only substitute their own story for the story of their announced subject. (Biographers are all autobiographers, although the pretensions of their enterprise won't allow them to admit it or even see it.)"

Fish's insistence that any biographical explanation is a lie presumably applies to broader historical explanations as well, and does a lot to explain his indifference to the lies of Ward Churchill.

See Stanley Fish, "Just Published: Minutiae Without Meaning," Tuesday, September 7, 1999; <http://www.nytimes.com/1999/09/07/opinion/just-published-minutiae-without-meaning.html?scp=1&;sq=&st=nyt&pagewanted=1>


John D. Beatty - 4/13/2009

NOT everyone does it. NOT everyone so muddies already controversial waters in American history, but enough do it to trash the field for another generation or so. And all it took was ONE.