Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why Mt Churchill Is the Wrong Hill to Die On

Ward Churchill acted unethically, dishonourably, and he paid the necessary price

When former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill was fired for numerous cases of academic misconduct, it sparked numerous complaints from the far left.

Churchill had drawn unwelcome attention to himself by publishing an academically dubious essay in which he described the victims of 9/11 as "Little Eichmanns". Eventually, that attention led to the investigation of numerous cases of plagiarism and forgery by the University of Colorado professor.

He was even able to convince a jury that he had been fired for the essay, and not for his misconduct. The jury rule in his favour, but awarded him only a single dollar -- demonstrating that they had concluded that his "Little Eichmanns" essay was a factor in his firing, but that he had still committed academic misconduct.

More recently, Churchill has applied for reinstatement at the University of Colorado -- and he is being backed by the American Association of University Professors and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Both of these organizations, however, are making an egregious error by backing Churchill.

First off, the ACLU and AAUP may be shocked to learn that freedom of speech doesn't indemnify plagiarism. If it did, a great number of university students expelled for the act would have grounds to seek reinstatement at the institutions that expelled them.

It doesn't, and they do not.

But the AAUP in particular is doing itself a tremendous disservice by backing Churchill.

As Mitchell S Handelsmann points out, even if the "Little Eichmanns" essay was in any way a factor in Churchill's firing, it doesn't change the fact that he was guilty of academic misconduct:
"A few years ago, here in Colorado, Ward Churchill got into trouble for things he wrote about the 9/11 attacks. Politicians called for his ouster. Meanwhile, charges of academic misconduct started to surface, inlcuding plagiarism and fabricating facts. A faculty committee found evidence for this misconduct, and Churchill was fired from his job in 2007. In 2009 a jury decided that he was wrongfully fired for his essay about 9/11, but they only awarded him $1 in damages, perhaps because they recognized that he really did behave unethically. (As US News asked, what if you conduct a witch hunt and actually find a witch?)"
The stakes for the AAUP deal with public perceptions of university professors.

As Handelsmann notes, stories like Churchill's cast a pall over academia, making a great many more of them seem dishonest than actually are:
"The media does not report instances of exemplary ethical behavior; those stories would be too numerous and too boring. Thus, the pictures we get in the media are really skewed. We know that most professors are doing very good, very honorable, and very non-newsworthy things every day. So we're sometimes embarrassed but always hopeful."
Catapulting Ward Churchill's case into the national spotlight again would only case deeper aspersions over academia as an institution. Worse yet, it makes it appear as if the American Association of University Professors may approve of Churchill's conduct. It makes it seem as if the AAUP condones plagiarism and forgery.

The Ward Churchill case is the wrong hill for the AAUP to die on. Worse yet, the AAUP will harm the reputations of associated academics who don't deserve to have their repuations harmed in the name of defending a lionized figure of the far left.

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