DENVER University of Colorado officials said yesterday the First Amendment bars them from firing a professor for comparing some of the Sept. 11 victims to a Nazi, but they launched an investigation into claims he committed plagiarism and falsely claimed to be an American Indian.
Professor Ward Churchill’s comments were “profoundly offensive, abusive and misguided” but “constitute political expression” protected by the Constitution, acting Chancellor Phil DiStefano said in a report anxiously awaited by faculty at the Boulder school and beyond.
However, DiStefano said a faculty committee would examine the other allegations and could recommend that Churchill, a tenured professor of ethnic studies, be fired or disciplined. That review could take up to nine months, he said.
Churchill touched off a national furor with an essay calling some of the World Trade Center victims “Little Eichmanns,” a reference to Adolf Eichmann, who orchestrated the Holocaust.
Churchill said the finding on free speech was a vindication but called the other allegations a pretext for an attempt to fire him.
“The motive remains the speech,” he said in an interview. He denied plagiarizing anyone, defended his scholarship and insisted he is part Indian.
His attorney, David Lane, called the report “slanted and biased.”
“Every aspect of this was on free speech, then it became a ‘let’s trash Ward Churchill’ marathon,” he said.
The report, issued after a seven-week investigation, said three professors at other universities accused Churchill of plagiarizing an article on Indian fishing rights, misinterpreting federal Indian law or fabricating details in arguing that the Army committed genocide against Indians.
It also said Churchill may have gained credibility and a wider audience for his writings by claiming Indian ancestry, “yet there is serious doubt about his Indian identity.”
Churchill’s 9/11 essay has sparked outrage from two governors and prompted a national debate about free speech and tenure, which generally protects university faculty from discipline for their views. The school yesterday also said it would review its tenure process.
The university’s Board of Regents voted to form a panel to examine the way the school’s four campuses award tenure and the way professors are evaluated after they get it. University President Elizabeth Hoffman said some changes were likely at the conclusion of the review.
Churchill wrote his 9/11 essay hours after the 2001 attacks, but it received little attention until January, when he was invited to speak at Hamilton College in New York. A professor there said he found the essay on the Internet and called it to the attention of the student newspaper.
Churchill has said the essay argues that some of those killed in the World Trade Center were not innocent victims because they were participating in what he said is an unfair American economic system that provoked the terrorist attacks. But New York Gov. George Pataki and Colorado Gov. Bill Owens called for Churchill’s firing, as did relatives of the victims.
The essay also resulted in a number of death threats against Churchill.
Owens said yesterday he still believes Churchill should be fired, but understands the school must review the separate allegations.
The Board of Regents for a time considered a buyout of Churchill’s contract, but talks were scrapped after the plagiarism allegations surfaced.
DiStefano said he and Deans Todd Gleeson and David Getches, who assisted him in the investigation, did not review allegations that Churchill had physically threatened or intimidated others because they fell outside the scope of the panel. Churchill has denied those allegations.
The university has a strict, lengthy review process it must follow before firing a tenured professor. The school has dismissed two tenured professors in the past five years: one case took two years; the other took three, university spokeswoman Pauline Hale said.
Churchill’s case will now proceed as follows, according to Hale and DiStefano:
- The panel’s report will be given to the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct, a panel of university faculty members. Their review could take up to nine months.
- The committee, which could recommend that Churchill be fired, will give its report to the vice chancellor for academic affairs, who will make a recommendation to the chancellor.
- If the chancellor believes Churchill should be fired, a “notice of intent to dismiss” will be given to the professor. Churchill could appeal the decision to the Committee of Privilege and Tenure, which would hold a series of hearings and make a recommendation to the university president.
- The president is not required to follow the recommendation.
- If the president believes the professor shouldn’t be fired, the case ends.
- If the president believes dismissal is warranted, the recommendation will be given to the Board of Regents, the university’s publicly elected governing board.
- The nine regents then make the final decision on whether to fire a tenured professor.