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Is Ward Churchill a Conservative?

Nicholas Johnson

Daily Iowan

February 28, 2005

For a commentary on the wider implications of the Ward Churchill controversy that contains links to some of the basic, related documents, see Kevin Simpson, "Sacred Cow of Tenure Laid Low?" Denver Post, March 13, 2005, below.

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers is under siege for speculating why some women do poorly in science and math.

CNN executive Eason Jordan, distressed over journalists in Iraq killed by "friendly fire," comments off the record about it and has to resign in the face of unfriendly fire.

And then there's Ward Churchill. When he characterized those who died on 9/11 as "little Eichmanns," the best one can say about his remarks is that they were counterproductive.

In each instance, however, individuals are threatened with loss of employment for speech. Not speech plus action and certainly not advocacy of "imminent lawless action." (Death threats against Churchill obviously weren't his idea.) Just speech.

Moreover, the complaints are directed more to the expression than to the subject matter -- and, in the case of Summers and Churchill (a University of Colorado professor), ideas expressed in academic communities devoted to intellectual inquiry.

To illustrate my point, here's a little midterm exam for those Daily Iowan readers outraged by Churchill's comments. It's five quotes from four individuals, accompanied by two questions: Which is the quote from Ward Churchill, and who are the other three individuals?

1. "What happened on 9/11 was a result of interventionism. Interventionism is the cause of terror. It is not a cure for terror. To help democratic institutions in every region in every nation on earth is a formula for permanent war."

2. "The Iraq conflict ... has become a cause for extremists ... who will leave Iraq experienced in ... urban terrorism ... a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups, and networks."

3. "We were attacked over here because the United States' military and political presence is massive over there."

4. "If U.S. foreign policy results in massive death and destruction abroad, we cannot feign innocence when some of that destruction is returned."

5. "War with Iraq increases Muslims' hatred and terrorists' recruiting. What benefits from war in Iraq exceed the costs of increased terrorism here?"

The statements, while not identical, have a lot in common, don't they?

Churchill's comment is No. 4. It was part of an explanation by him of his earlier statement.

No. 2 is from President Bush's CIA director, Porter Goss, testifying before a U.S. Senate Committee on Feb. 16.

Quotes numbered 1 and 3 are from a staff aide to former President Richard Nixon, the conservative talk-show regular and occasional Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, on "Meet the Press" on Feb. 13.

The last quote comes from a guest opinion of mine in the DI on Feb. 4, 2003, before the war in Iraq began. It contained a number of predictions, made by others as well, which have sadly proven accurate.

So what's the point?

Each of these statements deals with the widespread concern that the Iraq war generates hostility toward America among Muslims and others, increases the recruitment and training of terrorists, and increases the likelihood of future attacks on Americans at home and abroad.

So why is it that Buchanan is so popular with conservatives, and CIA Director Goss receives bipartisan praise for his testimony, and there's a groundswell to fire tenured Professor Churchill?

Ask yourself: Were you one of those who was critical of Churchill and then had second thoughts when you found out Buchanan and Goss made similar points?

Some speech can be punished: copyright violations and plagiarism, defamation, fraudulent advertising, stalking or sexual harassment, and incitement to violence. And all speech is subject to a critic's evaluation, disagreement, or a loss of social status. Some individuals are so convinced everyone is disparaging them that they're insulted even by your praise. Misunderstanding is common.

But when loss of employment is the punishment we urge for an idea because it's expressed in a way we disapprove, and when we'd rather shoot the messenger than listen to the message, all America is lessened -- not just the academy.

Nicholas Johnson, the former director of the War Shipping Authority and an FCC commissioner, teaches at the UI College of Law and maintains

Sacred cow of tenure laid low?

Kevin Simpson

Denver Post

March 13, 2005

[Note: This article is copyright by the Denver Post and is reproduced here as a non-commercial "fair use" for educational purposes only. Any other use may require the permission of the Denver Post.]

In both shouts and murmurs, the Ward Churchill controversy has echoed through universities across the country amid the escalating clash of politics and academic freedom.

Even before the furor over the CU professor's writings - he compared some of the Sept. 11 victims to a top Nazi - some college faculty had sensed an erosion of liberty to broach provocative or unpopular views.

Churchill put a face on those concerns.

"It's like the old Dylan line - you don't need a weather vane to know which way the wind is blowing," said Robert Polhemus, English professor and chairman of the faculty senate at Stanford, paraphrasing the singer's "weather man" line. "For a generation, professors took both tenure and academic freedom for granted in a way that won't be possible in the next decade."

Legislators in at least eight states, including Colorado, have entertained bills or resolutions in the past several months reflecting the conservative push to balance what they claim is an overbearing liberal bias on campus. And tenure has long been open to attack on the grounds that it too thoroughly insulates even incompetent academics.

CU is just the latest skirmish.

At the University of Iowa, the faculty senate parried what it fears to be a politically charged challenge to free speech in academia by rattling off a resolution urging the CU regents not to use Churchill's controversial essay to damage his academic career.

"I think (the controversy) is being seen across the country as an effort to use ideas that very few people would agree with, and the expression of those ideas, as a wedge issue," said Katherine Tachau, professor of medieval history and president of the faculty senate.

Churchill, a tenured professor and then-chair of CU's ethnic studies department, recently came under attack for the essay he wrote on Sept. 11, 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks. Several legislators and Gov. Bill Owens have called for his removal.

Churchill subsequently stepped down as department head but retained his $94,000 annual salary. Meanwhile, CU initiated a review of his academic work scheduled to conclude this week, but a financial settlement to ensure the professor's departure remained possible.

"But that leaves the problem that a politically motivated attack from outside the university resulted in somebody being treated in a manner that explicitly attacks their ability to say and publish what they want," said Tachau. "A best-case scenario would be for the university and governor to affirm that we do not like what he says, but we defend his right to say it."

But Polhemus said that settlements in conflicts like this are "what universities do."

"Universities hate to have huge rifts or conflicts because they depend upon donors, and people have to work together," he said. "If they can possibly solve it amicably so people's interests aren't run roughshod over, they'll do that."

Not a hot topic at ASU

Although academics from coast to coast have followed the headlines, faculty at Arizona State University haven't found the Churchill matter a hot topic at the water cooler, said Doug Johnson, chairman of the personnel committee of ASU's academic senate.

The subject hasn't come up at meetings on tenure or faculty governance, and Johnson figures most professors might regard the CU circumstances as an extreme case of pushing the rhetorical envelope.

"I don't see that this is such a hot button that people immediately respond," he said. "We don't feel our ability to speak on an issue is threatened. It's more of an anomaly than anything else."

Essay & statements

Click here to read Ward Churchill's essay, "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," as posted by a third-party political website. (The Denver Post does not endorse the website or views it expresses; the link is provided only as a reader service.)

Click here to read Churchill's Feb. 1 statement on the controversy.

Click here to read the University of Colorado Board of Regents' Feb. 3 resolution on the controversy.,1413,36%7E53%7E2691701,00.html

Click here to read the Colorado House of Representatives' Feb. 2 resolution condemning Churchill.,1413,36%7E61%7E2688100,00.html

Click here to read Gov. Bill Owens' letter on Churchill.,1413,36%7E53%7E2686241,00.html

Click here for Churchill's academic webpage on the CU Department of Ethnic Studies website.

At Boise State University, civil engineering professor George Murgel said he senses a similar attitude, but while immediate reaction to the Churchill controversy has been somewhat muted in Idaho, Murgel doesn't minimize the possible ramifications - particularly where the touchy issue of faculty tenure is concerned.

"If he has problems in his work, and it's been glossed over for years in evaluations, that would be a more stinging indictment of the overall system than just him," said Murgel, also president of the faculty senate. "It could trigger a look all around the country at review systems, and could push the argument to do away with tenure altogether.

"That could be your worst- case scenario in all this."

Questioning motivation

But some question the motivation for the review of Churchill's work and wonder if such a politically influenced move - particularly one advanced from outside the university itself - can be trusted.

"We're not trying to eviscerate tenure of having responsibilities," said Iowa's Tachau. "But the way there's been political pressure brought to bear on the university, and (opposition to tenure) has been taken up as a cause célèbre outside of academe, we're suspicious of the fairness of any process he's going through."

The Churchill drama has captured rapt attention in some corners, such as the nationwide law school faculty e-mail group to which Judith Wegner subscribes.

Wegner, a former dean of the University of North Carolina law school and current chair of faculty, said most people in her field are watching developments closely and fitting them into a larger context.

"I'd say there's a pretty broad awareness, a concern not just about that, but put together with the David Horowitz 'academic bill of rights,' the Patriot Act, the difficulty of foreign students to engage in research or travel, constraints on grants in some places - it's a worrisome time, honestly," she said.

Whatever the outcome, most professors agree that the Churchill controversy touches on one facet of academic freedom that isn't going away any time soon.

"Maybe Ward Churchill is a con man or loony, or maybe the people against him are other kinds of loonies who just want to shut down discussion and force their own monolithic view on the world," said Stanford's Polhemus. "I don't know, but I know the issue about what professors say, and who they offend in the classroom, is going to be an issue in the coming years."

Staff writer Kevin Simpson can be reached at 303-820-1739 or .

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