July 25, 2007

Ward, not redux

So Colorado's Regents have fired Ward Churchill. I've written about this at other times, but let me summarize things briefly:

  • The beginning of the investigation was political.
  • There were legitimate challenges to Churchill's research record, some identified before and some sent to Colorado after the political furor began.
  • The charges tied to Churchill's speech rights were thrown out and were not part of the formal investigation of Churchill's research.
  • Faculty who looked at Churchill's record said he had engaged in a systematic pattern of research misconduct.
  • Churchill has neither acknowledged nor expressed regret for the serious problems the faculty panels identified.
  • Faculty panels have been fragmented on the appropriate response to Churchill's research misconduct. Some recommended suspension for various periods, some recommended dismissal.

I'm not a lawyer, but given the procedural due process, I'm guessing the only leg Churchill has to stand on is the question of whether dismissal is an appropriate sanction. That is, while several faculty committees have decided that he committed research misconduct, Churchill's lawyer might argue that dismissal was disproportionate punishment and was clearly motivated by politics, even if the factual findings weren't. (Let me be clear: Churchill's lawyer is sure to argue that the findings are wrong, too, but I don't think that claim has a chance of a snowball in West Palm Beach.)

The first question is whether there is a record of sanctions in previous cases in Colorado where there has been a finding of research misconduct. Local precedents can be powerful, and that will depend on the evidentiary record. If you're gazing from the peanut gallery, you might look for findings of research misconduct reported by the Department of Health and Human Services. I've found one, about Wei Jin from Colorado State University (2007), but Jin was a doctoral student, so that case does not provide a precedent. There may be others, but I'm not sure they would be available online. (That would be part of the discovery process for a lawsuit.) If there are multiple cases where tenured faculty members found guilty of serious research misconduct have been given multi-year sanctions but not fired, Churchill's lawyer will have a field day, arguing that firing Churchill is disproportionate to the factual record within the university or the state's public institutions.

If there is no such record, Churchill's lawyer could look at the national record of cases. Where there is evidence of multiple problems, in what proportion of cases is the result termination, resignation, or a lesser sanction? And is there any way to gauge what determines the sanction from the record?

The last resort of Churchill's lawyer would be to claim that Hank Brown and the Regents had specific intent to punish Churchill disproportionately. If someone can dig up a smoking-gun statement of intent, that might be persuasive, but if the claim in court is that circumstantial evidence points to an ideological intent, you'll know that Churchill's lawyer either is incompetent or couldn't find favorable evidence in the record of research-misconduct sanctions.

Update: Read the legal filing by Churchill's lawyers. Greg Lukianoff has more on Churchill's legal prospects.

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Posted in Academic freedom on July 25, 2007 2:17 PM |