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University of Colorado ousts controversial professor

The Board of Regents says it is firing Ward Churchill over fraud and plagiarism, not a divisive post-9/11 essay.

July 25, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

BOULDER, COLO. — The University of Colorado on Tuesday fired professor Ward L. Churchill, whose controversial statements comparing victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to Nazis triggered a debate over free speech and scholarship.

The university system's regents insisted that their decision was unrelated to Churchill's 2001 essay that called workers in the World Trade Center "little Eichmanns," a reference to Nazi Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of sending Jews to death camps.

They said they were acting because a faculty committee had found that Churchill, 59, a tenured professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, had committed plagiarism and fraudulent research in other writings.

"I'm not sure we had much of a choice," said University of Colorado President Hank Brown, whose recommendation to dismiss Churchill was upheld by the regents. "The integrity of our research is an integral part of our university."

But Churchill and his backers argued that the move was motivated by a dislike for the leftist professor's views, and that it would keep other professors from discussing unpopular subjects. "This is a political firing with academic camouflage," said Tom Mayer, a sociology professor.

Churchill's attorney, David Lane, said he'd file a lawsuit in Denver court today challenging the dismissal as a violation of the 1st Amendment. The message of the university's action, he said, "is there will be a payback for free speech."

The controversy began in 2005, when Churchill was slated to speak at Hamilton College in New York. Critics seized on a little-read essay he wrote after the Sept. 11 attacks titled "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens." In it, he argued that workers in the World Trade Center were "a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire," and compared them to the Nazi leader who carried out superiors' orders for genocide.

Churchill was roundly attacked on the Internet and television, and his speech was canceled. The University of Colorado's Board of Regents apologized for the essay and the then-governor of Colorado called for Churchill to be fired. He was not, but did step down as chairman of the university's ethnic studies department.

The school launched an investigation of allegations that Churchill's writings on genocide of Native Americans involved research fraud. Last year, a panel found several problems in Churchill's writings, and its findings were accepted by two other faculty panels. Last month, Brown recommended Churchill's dismissal.

"We were guided by the findings of three faculty committees and 25 tenured faculty members," regents Chairwoman Patricia Hayes said of the board's decision.

After an all-day closed-door deliberation, the regents voted 8 to 1 to accept Brown's recommendation that Churchill be dismissed. In their motion, they emphasized that they supported academic freedom.

Dozens of Churchill backers, some wearing T-shirts reading "I Am Ward Churchill," booed and cursed when the vote was announced. At a news conference afterward, Churchill criticized the findings against him as fraudulent and said he was staying in Boulder and fighting to regain his position.

"I am going nowhere," he said. "I'll be here."

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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