Blogs > Cliopatria > Contrasting Hamilton and Colorado

Feb 2, 2005 10:27 pm

Contrasting Hamilton and Colorado

The furor regarding Hamilton College's decision to invite as a speaker Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who ruminated about the 9/11 attacks that"if there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it,” continues to intensify. In the process, we’ve seen commendable conduct by the officials at Hamilton, and a far less impressive performance by the administration at the University of Colorado.

Churchill, of course, resigned as chairman of Colorado's Ethnic Studies Department, though not without charging,"The gross distortions of what I actually said can only be viewed as an attempt to distract the public from the real issues at hand and to further stifle freedom of speech and academic debate in this country." His comments, eerily reminiscent of Joseph Massad's on-line screed against his critics, doesn't mention any specific publications that distorted his views. Indeed, Churchill's comments are nothing if not clear. (I know that my colleague Jon Dresner disagrees with me on this, and has a more generous interpretation of the Churchill thesis.)

The"resignation" from an administrative position would seem appropriate: Churchill remains on the faculty, as he should, but his views certainly are relevant as to whether he should hold a position that helps set university policy.

Had the matter ended there, this would have seemed to me a positive outcome. Alas, that is not the case. Outrageously, Colorado’s Republican governor (and a possible GOP presidential candidate) Bill Owens has called for Churchill’s dismissal; and the state legislature unanimously passed a resolution condemning his remarks. To say that such conduct threatens academic freedom would be an understatement.

Nonetheless, to borrow one of Professor Churchill’s phrases, this is in some ways a case of the chickens coming home to roost. It’s clear that large segments of the political class in Colorado lost confidence some time back with the ability of the Colorado administration to handle educational matters—on issues ranging from the football recruiting scandal to what seemed to be a willful blindness to a lack of intellectual diversity on campus. An administration that had performed more competently in the past might have been given greater leeway to handle this matter quietly.

For a perfectly calibrated response, Colorado figures need look no further than Hamilton president Joan Hinde Stewart, who took exactly the right tone. Stewart publicly rebuked Churchill's remarks but initially declined to rescind his invite, saying that doing so under these circumstances would be a denial of academic freedom. She retreated only because of security threats.

She took two additional, and highly positive, steps. First, she required the Kirkland Project, the entity that extended the invitation, to present Churchill as part of a balanced panel. Second, she announced that her administration would conduct a badly needed review of the Kirkland Project, which hopefully will determine exactly what the project means when it says that it wants to promote"rigorous intellectual analysis and engagement with ideas that is characteristic of a liberal arts education and necessary for social justice movements." This approach stands in sharp contrast to the (continued) defense of the appearance by anti-semitic PSM by the Duke administration.

The reaction of outside organizations is intriguing. The AAUP--incorrectly, in my opinion, has spoken out against the review of the Kirkland Project. But certainly a college president has the right to review subunits of her college, to determine whether they are living up to their charter. FIRE, meanwhile, has defended Churchill's right to utter"vile" comments, but notes that Hamilton's speech code, while protecting the right of someone like Churchill to term victims of the WTC bombing"little Eichmanns," prohibits speech deemed politically incorrect on campus. Seems to be a double standard there.

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Ralph E. Luker - 2/28/2005

Mr. Pell, There's an internal investigation going on at the University of Colorado. Appropriate authorities are investigating the matter. Based on what we now know, it is appropriate for them to consider that: a) Churchill has a B.A. from an institution that would be considered less than prestigious and an M.A. from the same institution one year later; b) authorities at that institution cannot locate an M.A. thesis by Churchill or say for certain whether one was required for the degree; c) CU authorites offered Churchill a faculty position even though he had no doctorate and thus little, if any, certificaiton in directed research; and d) he subsequently published work which is, in some ways, substantially flawed. The bar for evidence of work so flawed that it would threaten a faculty member's position, however, should be a very high one -- unless, of course, you believe that a faculty member should be incapable of error.

Jonas A Pell - 2/28/2005

What about his utterly dishonest, inaccurate Mandan Indian smallpox treatise? Doesn't that disqualify one from the world of academia?

David Lion Salmanson - 2/3/2005

Tim's comments on Churchill's larger project are, to my mind, pretty much right on. At the same time, two of Churchill's endlessly rewritten smaller pieces are fairly important. The essay on Radioactive Colonialism (I prefer the version co-written with Winona LaDuke that appears in The State of Native America as opposed to the version that appears in A Little Matter of Genocide) is a well-written well-researched article that is widely cited among the small group of scholars who work on the Nuclear West. While the article isn't perfect, it has led to some other important work, such as Valerie Kuletz's The Tainted Desert. The other piece of the project is his work FOIAing COINTELPRO documents, while the meta-analysis fails, he has done some incredibly important stuff for understanding what was going on "on the rez" in the 60s in terms of law enforcement. Again, this is stuff that directly relates to my research and his stuff has held up.

I also like his debunking of White Shamanism, although for more personal reasons having to do with my general disdain for the New Age. Here, his analysis holds up somewhat, although there is much better stuff out there: Phil Deloria's Playing Indian, Reyna Green's article on The Pocahontas Perplex.

So its not all a disaster, although I have been told I have an unusual capacity for finding the most useful bits of scholars regardless of their other problems (usually said by "radical" professors in the context of using "conservative" scholarship.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/3/2005

Primarily the distortion of Churchill's views comes in the form of cherrypicking the most inflammatory phrases without any of the surrounding qualification or explanation. I grant that he is being, it seems, deliberately provocative and aggressive in his writing, but the intent was not to be thoughtlessly cruel, which is the impression left by so much of the reportage. In fact, I wrote things immediately after the attacks which contained some, similar ideas about terroristic attacks on US soil possibly being linked to US policy and behaviors.

Whatever you think of Churchill's larger "project" (and Ralph is right: Tim Burke's essay is deeply damaging), and whatever you think of the language he used, the idea of taking the opportunity of the attacks to reflect on their global political context, on the linkages and intersections which complicate our simplistic victimology, seems to me legitimate.

On the speech codes: it does seem to me that the speech codes should be couched in terms of civility to all, rather than one-sided protectionism.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/3/2005

Mr. Willis, Professor Churchill served as the department chairperson; he did not hold an endowed chair. Chairpersons of departments are designated in different ways at different institutions. The odds against a person with only an M.A. holding a professorship at a research university are fairly high, but it occasionally happens. Churchill does have a substantial list of publications. I do, however, recommend my colleague, Tim Burke's current post at Easily Distracted , "Off the Hook," which is a surprisingly severe critique of Churchill's work -- surprising to me, at least.

Don Willis - 2/3/2005

In a previous post, you mentioned that Churchill's highest degree was an M.A. How does he merit a dept. chair at a research university in the first place?