June 25, 2007

Ward Churchill and the politicization of research misconduct

The procedural conflict in l'affair Churchill is between the need for any institution to investigate serious charges of research misconduct and the need for colleges and universities to be buffered from political pressures that interfere with academic freedom. In most cases, outside political pressures raise issues that are easily dismissed (at least by serious faculty) as inappropriate reasons to discipline or fire anyone. But in the case of Churchill, the internal processes stripped away the political charges and focused on serious, substantive charges of research misconduct. That fact doesn't completely satisfy the discomfort that many on and off the Boulder campus felt about the investigation, something that the investigating committee noted in its May 2006 report:

[T]he Committee is troubled by the origins of, and skeptical concerning the motives for, the current investigation. The Committee's disquiet regarding the timing of these allegations is exacerbated by the fact that the formal complainant in the charges before us is the Interim Chancellor of the University, despite the express provision in the Laws of the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado that faculty members' "efforts should not be subjected to direct or indirect pressures or interference from within the university, and the university will resist to the utmost such pressures or interference when exerted from without." Nevertheless, serious claims of academic misconduct have been lodged and they require full investigation and responsible and fair treatment. (p. 4)

The committee then chose a horrible analogy, a sloppy comparison that I hope its members now regret:

The Committee has attempted to provide that investigation, keeping the background and origins of this particular dispute out of our consideration of the particular allegations. To use an analogy, a motorist who is stopped and ticketed for speeding because the police officer was offended by the contents of her bumper sticker, and who otherwise would have been sent away with a warning, is still guilty of speeding, even if the officer's motive for punishing the speeder was the offense taken to the speeder's exercise of her right to free speech. No court would consider the improper motive of the police officer to constitute a defense to speeding, however protected by legal free speech guarantees the contents of the bumper sticker might be. (p. 4, immediately following the above excerpt)

This analogy has been repeated and discussed ad nauseam, from the University of Colorado Silver and Gold to The Rhetoric Garage blog and beyond. As Eugene Volokh noted at the time, the committee had the law wrong and the situation wrong. But I'm not going to attempt to correct the metaphor, since I agree with Howard Becker that metaphors are inherently dangerous in social science writing and other nonfiction. The committee made this mistake in an effort to cleanse its own work of the polluting allegation it knew would come with publication, claims that the investigation was only proceeding because of the political pressure from the outside.

The analogy failed to convince skeptics because it couldn't, even if it had been correct in the interpretation of the law. A university research-misconduct investigation is not a court proceeding, and even the most careful, scrupulously-clean procedure is still vulnerable to political interference. That is one of Ellen Schrecker's points in No Ivory Tower: The fact that universities often paid meticulous attention to procedural niceties when investigating allegations in the McCarthy era did not absolve them from having responded to outside pressure and having dismissed faculty for political reasons. Given our history, who could expect faculty to pass over the political context of the Churchill investigation?

At virtually every step, the faculty involved in Colorado have taken pains to acknowledge that context and say they did their best to address the substantive charges fairly. After racking my brains to find some way that the University of Colorado could have addressed the substantive charges without the political shadow over an investigation, I have failed; there is no way around the political context, no way to purify the process.

Having said that, I find the investigating committee's report persuasive in its argument that Churchill engaged in a long-term, unrepetant pattern of unprofessional research misconduct. Are the delay between the political pressures and the investigation, the faculty-centered fact-finding, and the processes enough to make the recommendation for firing Churchill reasonable? Unless someone can suggest another way, my answer is yes, or at least, this is the best that can be done.

That entirely ad-hoc answer doesn't mean that I am happy with the way that politics was deeply involved with setting the investigation in motion. It does mean that the university had the obligation to respond to the substantive charges, and unless Churchill's remaining defenders can suggest an alternative procedure that would have been better (and I haven't yet seen such a suggestion), the faculty-driven fact-finding process used was reasonable.

Having made that judgment, I am well aware that there could be politically-motivated allegations of research misconduct lodged regularly against faculty. Of course that's a possibility, but a few facts should put this concern in perspective. First, external, politically-motivated allegations against faculty are rarely about research integrity. Historically, they have been about extramural statements or activities (or teaching, more recently). Second, I would guess that there are politically-motivated allegations of research misconduct every year, but I would also hazard a claim that they are generally filed by other academics. Third, some argue that universities do not pay enough serious attention to legitimate allegations of research misconduct. None of these are salutary, but the larger point is that all investigations require attention to both procedural and substantive due process and the facts of a case. There is no magic formula for guaranteeing either integrity or academic freedom.

Update: Sometimes, I should look up what I've written before. In this case, it's useful to compare my entry today with one written May 18, 2006. I was more concise last spring. But no one has answered the question I raised then, as well as today: If the University of Colorado's process here was inappropriate, what would have been better?

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Posted in Academic freedom on June 25, 2007 12:59 PM |