DENVER — Research misconduct investigations like the one roiling the University of Colorado are rare nationwide, and the case against the Colorado professor who likened Sept. 11 victims to a Nazi is only the third at the school since 1992, experts said this week.
"It is very unusual for a faculty member to face potentially very serious sanctions over research misconduct, if we're talking about just absolute numbers," said Jonathan Knight of the American Association of University Professors.
A University of Colorado faculty committee said this week that Ward Churchill, a tenured professor of ethnic studies, had repeatedly fabricated research, plagiarized others' work and veered from the basic principles of scholarship.
Churchill could be fired, although four of the five professors on the panel recommended suspension without pay. University officials say they expect a decision by mid-June but haven't said what it might be.
Churchill condemned the report and said he had done nothing wrong.
The investigation began last year after Churchill's comments about Sept. 11 victims, made in a 2001 essay, triggered a national uproar and calls for his dismissal. The essay described some of the victims in the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns," a reference to Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann.
The university ordered the investigation after concluding that Churchill could not be fired over those remarks. The research investigation did not include that 2001 essay.
University spokesman Barrie Hartman said the last research inquiry at CU was in 2003, and a faculty committee dropped the case after deciding it did not warrant a full investigation.
A 1992 case did get a full investigation, but a faculty panel concluded there was no misconduct. Hartman declined to release any details of the cases, citing personnel privacy considerations.
Knight, director of academic freedom and tenure programs for the professors group, said no one tracks nationwide numbers of research misconduct allegations.
The group estimates that 50-75 professors each year face dismissal for misconduct, but that includes a range of infractions, including sexual misconduct.
The reasons the number is low have been discussed for years, he said.
"My strong sense of these matters is that the small numbers reflect not that this is the tip of an iceberg and beneath the system is rotten, but in fact that the system is highly self-regulating," he said.
"While no system can be perfect, (the academic world) does a very good job of having in place systems to identify misconduct or bad behavior," Knight said.
U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., on May 17 called on Churchill to resign. Gov. Bill Owens and state Rep. Josh Penry, both Republicans, have also said he should quit.