By Seth Richardson
There’s a delicious irony in the title of ex-CU professor Ward Churchill’s odious essay, “Some people push back: On the justice of roosting chickens” as the final act in his desperate shadow-puppet play goes before a jury in Denver District Court. It seems that the taxpayers have pushed back, and Churchill’s chickens are about to roost, and justly so.
Found guilty of academic fraud by not one, but several juries of his peers, he was booted out of the university, where he had been comfortably ensconced and gainfully employed by the state of Colorado under a tenure system that protected his expression of odious and reprehensible ideas.
Now he’s getting his day in court, again, because he thinks it was unfair of people to actually scrutinize his academic work or voice their personal opinions about his published statements and character. After disparaging the victims of 9/11, evidently he expected people to accept what he said without comment, and he ignored the possibility that his entire academic career might be brought into question by the people who paid his salary. Big mistake.
The halls of academia are rife with ideological absolutists, mostly on the left, and the entire system is set up to provide academic freedom and make it very difficult to dismiss tenured professors for espousing politically unpopular opinions. But the protections of tenure are not a license for academic fraud. If a professor is going to be ideologically biased, he’s at least got to be honest and academically rigorous in his efforts. No university ought to be required to tolerate a physics professor who knowingly falsifies the results of an experiment. Nor is the state required to employ a professor who knowingly plagiarizes the work of others or misstates documented facts. And that, not his odious essay, is why Churchill was fired. It is true that he probably would have sailed along for many more years, comfortably obscure and under the radar, if he’d been more circumspect. But his ego got the better of him. And Ward Churchill is nothing if not an overblown egoist.
Churchill’s radicalism had been permeating the halls of CU for quite some time, and anybody who knew anything about him, or had ever read his work, was well aware of his predilections, and no few people have wished for a way to send him packing. It’s just that it’s very, very difficult to get academics to investigate other academics. CU is hardly an exception in that regard. Indeed, academic tenure infests every level of education, and while it does often protect academic freedom, it also keeps incompetent and flatly dangerous educators sucking at the public teat in every level of the system, from first grade to PhD. In this case, Churchill got a full measure of due process strictly according to the rules. CU was scrupulous in its investigation and tenure hearings, which Churchill lost at every turn.
But now, as the chickens come home to roost, the best he or his lawyer can do is mount a “but for” defense. “But for” a public outcry at his reprehensible comparison of the victims of 9/11 to Nazi Adolph Eichmann, “but for” former Governor Bill Owens calling for CU to fire Churchill, his attorney David Lane claims, nobody would have noticed the fraud and Churchill would still be purveying his ideology to callow and credulous students unchallenged. Therefore, because the tenure system and First Amendment protected Churchill’s expressions, he claims that CU had no authority to review Churchill’s academic record. Churchill cannot dispute the facts of his fraud, which have been carefully reviewed by his peers, so he’s attacking the messenger.
What neither Lane nor Churchill seem to be able to comprehend is that the First Amendment may protect Churchill’s right to say something odious and evil, but it also protects the right of everyone else to publicly pillory and revile him for doing so. And if you make of yourself a public figure, then everything you’ve ever said or done is fair game for review and criticism.
There’s a metaphor that applies to Churchill’s case: Way back in the dawning days of gunpowder, barrels were filled with black powder and long fuses were wrapped around the barrel. A handle was attached to an axle so the barrel could be pushed, with the fuse unwinding behind the operator. The lucky individual chosen to operate this device, known as a “petard”, would run like hell towards the gate of the castle, pushing the petard before him. As he approached the gate, his more-fortunate compatriots would light the fuse behind him, trying to time the burn of the fuse with the approach speed to the gate, in order to set off the explosives after placement, but before opposing forces could respond to put out the fuse.
Fuse technology however was not very sophisticated, so sometimes the fuse would burn too fast, causing the petard to explode before the operator delivered it to the gate and escaped. In such instances, as his body parts went flying about, his compatriots would say that he’d been “hoist on his own petard.”
The contemporary meaning of “hoist on his own petard,” as applied to Churchill, is that when thought-bomb throwing radicals decide to say something controversial, knowing it will outrage their opponents, it behooves them to first make sure the fuse doesn’t lead back to an academic time-bomb in their past.
Why should we care about an obscure professor’s employment dispute? Because it’s cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to rid themselves of an incompetent and dishonest educator, and for that amount of money, we’re entitled to celebrate the end of this sordid affair. But then again, I’m counting my chickens before they’ve hatched, and it’s possible I’ll be dining on the black bird, because civil juries are notoriously unpredictable. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Author’s note: The original version of this column was rightfully pointed out to be nothing more than an invective-filled screed using some apt and amusing (in a scatological sense) metaphors that at least one reader found offensive. After review and reflection, I must agree, and I offer my apology to those who may have read it before I withdrew it for revision. I have said that I am responsible for my words, and I appreciate the input of readers when I step over the line of good taste and reasoned argument. The beauty of this new media, unlike print journalism, is that corrections can be made, and I’ll do so whenever it’s appropriate.
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