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Mar 20, 2005 7:15 pm

Signing Things, Like Petitions and Oaths ...

A professional colleague from Colorado asks that I post this letter about Ward Churchill and the Board of Regents at the University of Colorado. Subsequent developments have dated some of its information, but it is one national effort to influence CU's Board of Regents. Specifically, the University's Regents will convene an emergency meeting next week, during Spring Vacation at CU,"in which they will assess whether Women's Studies and Ethnic Studies have sufficient ‘intellectual rigor' to continue as academic programs." The Regents' decision about Ward Churchill has been delayed, but here's the"Open Letter from Concerned Academics." It has been signed already by over 400 people:
An Open Letter From Concerned Academics
March 2, 2005

URGENT: The University of Colorado Board of Regents will be making its recommendations about Ward Churchill in the week of March 7.
We call on all those who teach and research at colleges and universities to raise their voices in opposition to this inquisition. Sign and act on this open letter. Circulate it widely. Inform the media.
As an immediate step, we call on our colleagues to pass emergency resolutions in faculty and professional associations and send them to the University of Colorado Board of Regents. We offer the following as a template for such resolutions:
Resolved, that the attempt, escalated by government authority, to fire Ward Churchill and the trial by media which he is undergoing amount to a serious assault on dissent, critical inquiry, and academic freedom, and a heightening of the repressive atmosphere in American society overall. This attack is intolerable and must stop now. The precedents already set in this case - that a professor can be publicly pilloried and threatened with dismissal for what he writes - must not be allowed to stand. The University of Colorado Board of Regents must drop any effort to fire Churchill, cease its spurious investigation into his body of work and repudiate its actions up to now; and all colleges and universities must reaffirm, in word and deed, their commitment to defend critical thinking.
The past month has witnessed a chilling turn in American political and intellectual life. Ward Churchill, a tenured professor and former chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado, has been made the object of an unprecedented nationwide attack for an essay he wrote three years ago. Two governors, including the governor of Colorado, have called for his firing. The national and local media have not only misrepresented his work and views, but have increasingly vilified and slandered Ward Churchill himself. Some of Churchill's speaking engagements have been cancelled. Death threats have been made against him. In response, the University of Colorado Board of Regents not only"apologized" for Churchill's remarks - itself an utterlygratuitous and inappropriate action - but initiated an investigation into his entire body of work to search for mistakes and supposed evidence of"fraud." During the week of March 7, the Board of Regents will conclude its 30-day review of all of Churchill's writings and statements.
One must go back to the"scoundrel time" of the McCarthy years to find anything even close to this. And now, as an unmistakable sign of what this portends, just a week ago the University of Colorado at Boulder announced an investigation into campus records to make sure that every faculty member has actually signed his or her state-required loyalty oath!
All this is intolerable and must be reversed--immediately.
To be clear: the issues here have nothing to do with the quality of Ward Churchill's scholarship or his professional credentials. However one views his choice of words or specific arguments, he is being put in the dock solely for his radical critique of U.S. history and present-day policy in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001. Apparently, 9/11 is now the third rail of American intellectual life: to critically probe into its causes and to interrogate the international role of the United States is treated as heresy; those inquiring can be denied forums, careers, and even personal safety. And now Churchill's persecutors have gone further, repeatedly ridiculing his scholarly argumentation that the United States committed genocide against the indigenous people of this continent, and that the FBI systematically attempted to disrupt and destroy the movements and leaders of the 1960s. Rather than debate or disprove such theses, Churchill's attackers attempt to render them beyond the pale of respectable discourse. Through all this, new ground rules are being established: any criticism or even questioning of the institutional foundations of the United States, or of the motives and interests behind its policies, will be treated as essentially treasonous. Left unopposed, this trajectory will lead to a situation of uncontested indoctrination enforced by the state.
The Churchill case is not an isolated incident but a concentrated example of a well-orchestrated campaign launched in the name of"academic freedom" and"balance" which in fact aims to purge the universities of more radical thinkers and oppositional thought generally, and to create a climate of intimidation. While the right-wing claim that the universities are"left-wing dictatorships" is specious beyond belief, it is unfortunately true that the campus remains one of the few surviving refuges of critical thinking and dissent in this country. This is something to defend and strengthen.
It would be hard to overstate the serious nature of what has already happened, let alone what it would mean should the Regents fire Churchill. If this assault on academe succeeds, the consequences for American society as a whole will be nothing short of disastrous. The response from the academic world has thus far fallen short of what is required. Voices have been raised in opposition, but many have been intimidated. What is needed is an outpouring of faculty resolutions condemning this witch-hunt. Teach-ins. Protests.
We propose that emergency faculty resolutions be passed and sent to the University of Colorado Board of Regents (secretary:, cc: and major media outlets. We further propose that if the Colorado authorities continue their persecution of Churchill, we mount major nationally coordinated protests on campuses all over America - and internationally - as soon as possible, and that we begin to join efforts to reverse this dangerous direction in American political and intellectual life
The hour is very late; this case is nothing less than a watershed. We must act, and act now.
Initial Signatories:
Steven P. Best, Chair, Department of Philosophy, University of Texas-El Paso
Henry A. Giroux, Global Television Network Chair Professor in English and Communications, McMaster University
Ruth Y. Hsu, Associate Professor of English, University of Hawai'i at Manoa
Alan Jones, Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Pitzer College
Bruce Lincoln, Caroline E. Haskell Professor of the History of Religions, University of Chicago
Raymond Lotta, author and lecturer
Henry Silverman, Professor and Chairperson Emeritus, Michigan State University
Immanuel Wallerstein, Yale University
Allen W. Wood, Professor, Department of Philosophy, Stanford University

E-mail this letter to colleagues, as well as people and institutions in other walks of life. Please get back to us with your ideas and let us know what you are doing. Send us copies of resolutions and statements. Add your name to this Open Letter:
E-mail to:

I'm not a big signer of petitions and probably won't sign this one, but I promised to make it available to Cliopatria's readers. There probably is reason to believe that a program like Ethnic Studies at CU needs a close examination by responsible authorities. I'm prepared to await CU's own internal review of the accusations against Ward Churchill. They are many and some of them fairly serious ones. Other departments at CU had declined to become a home for him. He became chairman of Ethnic Studies, which has no long history of disciplinary standards and practices by which he would be peer reviewed.
Update (Sunday 20 May): The report that Colorado's Regents will be in emergency meeting this week to evaluate ethnic studies and women's studies at CU appears to be a false report. Thanks to Scott Jaschik for the tip.

On the other hand, the Regents' review of Ethnic Studies and Women's Studies should not be taking place amidst a fury of political controversy. And all of us ought to feel a sense of solidarity with our colleagues in the Colorado state system. They are being required to update their personnel folders with current loyalty oaths. When another professional colleague there asked me if I thought he should sign the bloody thing, I said"yes." So far as I know, he has no current plans to overthrow the government of Colorado or the United States and any loyalty worthy of the name is a critical loyalty, in any case. The obligation to sign the oath is obnoxious, but it has survived legal tests. These are trying times in which we live.

This, however, is a petition that I would sign. C-Span's foolish notion that one can balance a presentation by Deborah Lipstadt on the Holocaust with a presentation by David Irving, the Holocaust denier, is ludicrous on its face. It's encouraging to see that 200 prominent historians across the country have signed the protest against C-Span's folly. If you look at the list, moreover, its extra-ordinary demonstration of solidarity across a very broad ideological range is heartening in these polarized times. For Lipstadt's explanation of the situation, see her article on HNN's mainpage, as well as her blog, History on Trial.

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More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 3/19/2005

But, David, doesn't your logic mean that anyone who misrepresents himself to his students, commits plagiarism, violates copyright, and misrepresents historical information can win our absolute commitment to defend his wretched professional conduct by offending the public's sensibilities so abrasively that they whip up a howling mob that demands his scalp?

David Timothy Beito - 3/19/2005

I agree that sometimes, like or not, we have to defend the rights of the other guy in the ditch, not matter how much we dislike him. For this reason, I am have signed petitions defending Churchill's academic freedom such as this one:

I can not, however, sign the petition shown above. Some of the wording seems almost calculated to drive away any potential conservative, libertarian or even moderate support. It shows an arrogant disregard for the many cases in which leftists have quashed free speech on campus via speech codes in such cases as Hans-Hermann Hoppe at UNLV and Steve Hinkle at Poly Cal. If the author's of this petition truly want to ensure Churchill's academic freedom they would make a conscious effort to build coalitions with people on the right as well as libertarians.

The passage I have in mind is this:

"The Churchill case is not an isolated incident but a concentrated example of a well-orchestrated campaign launched in the name of "academic freedom" and "balance" which in fact aims to purge the universities of more radical thinkers and oppositional thought generally, and to create a climate of intimidation. While the right-wing claim that the universities are "left-wing dictatorships" is specious beyond belief, it is unfortunately true that the campus remains one of the few surviving refuges of critical thinking and dissent in this country. This is something to defend and strengthen."

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/19/2005

I see your point Ralph.

I honestly think that holding onto our integrity is extrememly important in all of this; so you must follow your conscience. The more I hear of Churchill, the less I want him to be a standard-bearer for much of anything.

However, this is playing out in an ugly ritualistic sort of way in which anything we say or do, honest or dishonest, someone will try to twist to serve something sinister.

In short, I think we may all get chucked into the same ditch whether we like the company or not.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/19/2005

Unfortunately, the victims of assaults on academic freedom are rarely angels and are often irritating to their colleagues or just plain scoundrels. In that regard, we don't get to pick and choose, and neither does the AAUP.

On the other hand, there are wiser ways to respond than to say, "Stop the investigation(s)" or, in the case of loyalty oaths, to simply refuse to sign the blander version that passed constitutional muster (as opposed to the California version that didn't). The fact that one signs a loyalty oath doesn't mean that one has to sign JUST the loyalty oath. You could be creative and append extra language about the critical loyalty that Ralph talks about in this blog entry--and, in retrospect, I'm kicking myself that I didn't do just that when I signed the Florida version. With some luck, I hope they lost my loyalty oath and need me to sign another one. That would be much more fun than sending to my alma mater for another official transcript because my administration needed one for accreditation and had lost the one I originally sent years ago (along with transcripts for dozens of colleagues).

Some allegations do deserve investigation, and it's normal for programs to undergo review. The key thing (for reviews) is that program reviews are conducted by professionals in the field under a normal schedule and not under political pressure. (And, if Colorado doesn't have such a system of regular program review, that's to its shame--a separate issue, though.)

Ralph E. Luker - 3/19/2005

I suspect that you're probably right about that, Jonathan. It does seem to me that one has to pick the ditch in which you're going to die in these struggles and I'd rather not go into battle over an embarrassment like Ward Churchill.

Jonathan Rees - 3/19/2005

All I meant is that if they didn't have Ward Churchill to kick around, the enemies of academic freedom in Colorado would have come up with another crazy liberal to make us all look like bomb-throwing anarchists. CU will likely be better off without him, but we both know that Churchill's head on a fencepost outside the walls of Boulder won't satisfy these people.


Ralph E. Luker - 3/19/2005

Jonathan, I don't think that you've conjured with the full range of accusations against Churchill. If he has misrepresented himself as a Native American, if he has violated copyright by mirroring the art of another person for financial gain, if he has committed plagiarism, if he has misrepresented the smallpox epidemic among the Mandan, and so forth, to say simply "I don't think Ward Churchill is hurting anybody" or even "I know that Ward Churchill is hurting everybody who teaches at a Colorado higher educational institution, but it's really not his fault" -- what _would_ constitute fault? As I say, I'm prepared to suspend judgment on these things so the authorities can make a more informed decision, but you can't declare his a priori innocense at this point. We've seen sufficient evidence to know that there is fault. The question of degrees of fault, appropriate punishment, etc, remain to be decided, but Ward Churchill bears some responsibility for becoming the academic that the Right loves to hate; and the Left has _no_ obligation to defend plagiarism, copyright violation, misrepresentation of the self, etc.

Jonathan Rees - 3/19/2005

You did make me feel much better about signing.

I'm the loyalty oath colleague, and although I indeed have no plans to overthrow anything I still find the idea that they are passing out the loyalty oaths on campus incredibly suspicious. It's been Colorado law since the 1960s, yet the administration just starts checking for them now.

I've written before here that I don't think Ward Churchill is hurting anybody. Now I know that Ward Churchill is hurting everybody who teaches at a Colorado higher educational institution, but it's not really his fault.


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