July 8, 2009

Ward Churchill, part omega?

Yesterday's decision not to give Ward Churchill his job back (Denver Post, Inside Higher Ed, New York Times) suggests that we're probably close to the end of the Churchill legal saga. His lawyer will appeal, but my gut sense is that while the immunity question is a matter of some interest, the question of whether UC had to take Churchill back is the type of judgment call that an appeals court is going to find hard to reverse. That's generally what trial judges are for. That doesn't mean that the judge was always correct in his reasoning (and certainly not on the point that concerned Cary Nelson, the judge's implication that issues extraneous to the research misconduct charge were relevant). But this was a messy case from the beginning.

I've held off responding to the AAUP National Council statement released in April until after the judge's decision, but I want to explain why I think the National Council was incorrect. Here is the statement in its entirety:

We believe the disputes over Ward Churchill's publications should have been allowed to work themselves out in traditional scholarly venues, not referred to disciplinary hearings. We believe Churchill should be reinstated to his faculty position at the University of Colorado.

The gist of the statement is that most intellectual disputes should be addressed in a publication venue rather than discipline, and that's correct. But the allegations regarding Churchill were about research misconduct. I'm no expert on the history of research misconduct, but I strongly suspect that you'd find some claims of research misconduct first appear in scholarly venues and sometimes they appear outside scholarly venues. And at some point the allegations and evidence are sufficient to warrant discipline.

The critical question is not when that threshhold is crossed into potential misconduct but who should make that decision, and it is the AAUP's long tradition of upholding faculty judgments on their peers' work. Not "faculty judgment when it appears in a refereed journal" but faculty judgment, with a clear preference for judgment of peers at the institution where a scholar works. Not "faculty judgment in the AAUP National Council" but local faculty judgment. The AAUP National Council would have criticized any other national body for making that kind of judgment precisely because of the AAUP's longstanding positions, and in April the National Council was wrong when it substituted its own judgment for the judgment of the peer committee in Boulder of whether Churchill's errors justified disciplinary investigation and action.

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Posted in Academic freedom on July 8, 2009 1:31 PM |