University of Colorado Fires Professor for Plagiarism and Research Falsification Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Under intense public and academic scrutiny for writing an inflammatory essay about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, university professor Ward Churchill was subjected to an academic misconduct investigation and subsequently fired for plagiarism and for fabricating and falsifying information. He filed a lawsuit seeking reinstatement.

Summary of Event

Known for his incendiary criticism of the mistreatment of American Native Americans Indians and political dissidents by the U.S. government, author and University of Colorado, Boulder, professor Ward Churchill drew condemnation and intense scrutiny after public attention focused on his essay about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. In the essay, which circulated on the World Wide Web beginning on September 12, Churchill argued that the workers at the World Trade Center had deserved to die in the attacks. [kw]Professor for Plagiarism and Research Falsification, University of Colorado Fires (July 24, 2007) Churchill, Ward University of Colorado September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks Native Americans Churchill, Ward University of Colorado September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks Native Americans [g]United States;July 24, 2007: University of Colorado Fires Professor for Plagiarism and Research Falsification[03810] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;July 24, 2007: University of Colorado Fires Professor for Plagiarism and Research Falsification[03810] [c]Education;July 24, 2007: University of Colorado Fires Professor for Plagiarism and Research Falsification[03810] [c]Ethics;July 24, 2007: University of Colorado Fires Professor for Plagiarism and Research Falsification[03810] [c]Plagiarism;July 24, 2007: University of Colorado Fires Professor for Plagiarism and Research Falsification[03810] [c]Publishing and journalism;July 24, 2007: University of Colorado Fires Professor for Plagiarism and Research Falsification[03810] DiStefano, Phil Wesson, Marianne

The essay, and Churchill, began to attract widespread attention and condemnation, but not until early 2005. Old criticisms of Churchill’s academic work resurfaced as well. The University of Colorado began an investigation into allegations that Churchill had engaged in academic misconduct, including fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism in his scholarly work. Subsequently, the university fired Churchill, who responded by filing a lawsuit against the university for reinstatement.

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (“9/11”) in the United States brought to mind for many Americans the question, “Why do they hate us enough to do something like this?” In “Some People Push Back,” circulated on the Web, Churchill addressed this question by arguing that the answer lay primarily in U.S. foreign policy. Churchill was not alone in making this argument. Other notable figures who made the same point include linguist and writer Noam Chomsky Chomsky, Noam and 2008 Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul (who later clarified his remarks). What made Churchill stand out, many believe, was his apparent lack of compassion—his sheer contempt—for those who died on September 11.

Although the essay was on the Web in September, 2001, it did not gain widespread attention until January, 2005. Churchill had been scheduled to participate on a panel at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. In advance of the panel, which planned to discuss the “limits of dissent,” the editor of Hamilton’s student newspaper researched Churchill on the Web and found the 2001 essay. Soon, political conservatives such as Bill O’Reilly heard of the essay and quickly condemned Churchill. Goaded by O’Reilly and other conservatives, viewers complained to Hamilton College about Churchill’s invitation. In the end, Hamilton canceled the event, citing death threats against the college community and against Churchill.

The interim chancellor of the University of Colorado, Phil DiStefano, publicly condemned Churchill on January 25, and by January 31, Churchill had resigned as chairman of the Ethnic Studies Department. Nevertheless, he remained on the university’s faculty and continued to draw scrutiny.

On March 29 the university received a formal research-misconduct complaint against Churchill, who had been subject to academic criticism long before the Hamilton College controversy. Earlier in his career he had been accused of plagiarism, fabrication of research data, and lying about his ethnic background as an American Indian. However, as far as the university was concerned, March 29 marked the first time it had received a formal complaint about Churchill that required a response.

The university’s Standing Committee on Research Misconduct appointed an investigative committee chaired by law professor Marianne Wesson. The committee included four other professors in law, American and English literature, history, and sociology; in total, three of the five committee members were CU professors, one was from Arizona State University, and another was from the University of Texas at Austin.

The complaint against Churchill listed nine different grounds of misconduct, but the investigative committee elected not to proceed with two of the charges: that Churchill “had misrepresented his ethnicity in order to gain greater credibility and scholarly ’voice,’” and that Churchill “had violated copyrights in his use of certain articles.” The investigative committee considered these allegations outside the CU definition of academic misconduct.

The remaining charges included the following: that Churchill misrepresented the General Allotment General Allotment Act of 1887 Act of 1887 and the Indian Arts and Crafts Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 Act of 1990, fabricated the allegation that the U.S. Army had spread disease among American Indians by giving them smallpox-infected blankets, fabricated his description of a smallpox epidemic at Fort Clark in 1837-1840, plagiarized a pamphlet by Dam the Dams, plagiarized work by Rebecca Robbins, and plagiarized work by Fay Cohen.

The investigative committee concluded that Churchill had falsified the evidence supporting his claims about the General Allotment Act and the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. It further concluded that he had falsified and fabricated his claims about the smallpox epidemics. It also concluded that while he had plagiarized work by Dam the Dams and by Professor Cohen, he had not plagiarized Professor Robbins, but only because he had written the work under Robbins’s name—itself a violation of the university’s academic standards. Finally, the committee determined that Churchill’s violations were serious and deliberate.

The committee did not reach agreement, however, on how to proceed against Churchill. Three members concluded that Churchill’s misconduct was serious enough to justify being fired, though only one of the three actually recommended dismissal. Two members recommended a five-year suspension without pay, and the other two members recommended a two-year suspension without pay. The Standing Committee on Research Misconduct was similarly split, with six members voting for dismissal, two voting for a five-year suspension without pay, and one voting for a two-year suspension without pay. On June 26, 2006, Chancellor DiStefano announced that he would recommend that university regents fire Churchill. A year later, on July 24, 2007, the university terminated his employment.

Churchill condemned the investigative committee’s report, attacking it as flawed and biased. According to Churchill, the committee should have included a Native Native Americans American or an American Indian studies expert. (One of the committee members was Arizona State University law professor Robert Clinton, an expert on American Indian law.) Churchill also raised procedural objections to the investigation, arguing that he was not provided with clear information about “the standards being applied” or “which allegations were at issue.” With respect to the academic misconduct findings themselves, Churchill dismissed the committee’s focus on his citations, arguing that his work consisted of a synthesis of other material and that it was not feasible to “delve into minute detail with respect to each piece or the ’big picture’ will be lost.” Finally, regarding the plagiarism charges, Churchill argued that he had either ghostwritten the allegedly plagiarized materials or that he had merely copyedited the volume.

The day after he was fired, Churchill filed a lawsuit against the university in a Colorado state court. His suit claims that his dismissal violated his First Amendment rights and that he should be reinstated.

Impact

The Churchill case revealed deep divisions, both in American society and in academia. Throughout the controversy, Churchill supporters have argued that the case amounts to the censoring of an outspoken, radical critic of the U.S. government. His opponents, however, consider him an academic fraud whose hire, tenure, and promotion reflect a liberal bias in the academy. In any case, the scandal that ensued has yet to abate, and the divisions reflect a strong, unyielding politics at the heart of commentary in the United States. Churchill, Ward University of Colorado September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks Native Americans

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Churchill, Ward. On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality. Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2003. Expanded version of Churchill’s original 2001 essay, “Some People Push Back,” which argued that the United States brought the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on itself, in part because of its unilateral foreign policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Struggle for the Land: Native North American Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide, and Colonization. New ed. San Francisco, Calif.: City Lights Books, 2002. A series of essays on American Indian resistance to the federal government. Includes “The Water Plot,” which was used as an example of academic misconduct in the Churchill investigation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Healy, Patrick D. “College Cancels Speech by Professor Who Disparaged 9/11 Attack Victims.” The New York Times, February 2, 2005. A news report about Hamilton College canceling Churchill’s speech on its campus following death threats and a barrage of e-mails to college officials.

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