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Cheyfitz speaks up for academic freedom in Ward Churchill case

Cornell's Eric Cheyfitz defended academic freedom in recent testimony in the case of controversial Native American scholar and activist Ward Churchill's threatened dismissal from the University of Colorado at Boulder (UCB).

Cheyfitz, the Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters, discussed the case in a seminar sponsored by the Society for the Humanities, "Ward Churchill, 9/11, and Academic Freedom," Feb. 8 at Cornell's A.D. White House.

The action against Churchill began after his Sept. 12, 2001, essay, "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," attracted media attention in January 2005. Churchill's essay criticized U.S. foreign policy and questioned the innocence of some of the victims of the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, comparing "the technocratic corps" of WTC workers to "little Eichmanns." Cheyfitz said this metaphor is both unfortunate and historically inaccurate, but he agrees with the essay's overall point in its critique of the violence of U.S. Middle East policy. Churchill's work has created controversy for a long time for, among other things, its comparison of the Jewish Holocaust with what some scholars consider the genocide of American Indians, Cheyfitz said.

In the immediate wake of the media attention in 2005, Colorado's then governor, Bill Owens, called for Churchill's resignation, a state House of Representatives resolution condemned Churchill, and Boulder interim Chancellor Phil DiStefano ordered that his research be investigated, after a UCB faculty committee found that Churchill's 9/11 essay was protected free speech.

The Investigative Committee formed by the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct at UCB published a report in May 2006 upholding charges of plagiarism and falsification of research brought by DiStefano. Only one of the five investigative committee members recommended Churchill's dismissal, while six of the nine voting members of the standing committee endorsed DiStefano's recommendation for dismissal. Churchill was relieved of his duties in June 2006 but remains on staff pending the outcome of deliberations by the Privilege and Tenure Committee of the Colorado System, and then a decision by the system president and regents.

Cheyfitz, an expert on Native American culture, law, literature and history, read the 124-page report containing the charges of research misconduct and, he said, "I slowly began to see [the charges were] fabricated. They hired him with tenure in 1991, and none of this surfaced until 2005. He was promoted to full professor in 1997, he got regular merit raises, and there's no reason to suspect there were any issues about his teaching either."

He spoke in Churchill's defense on Jan. 12 before the committee on privilege and tenure -- which is reviewing the case and will decide if Churchill merits sanctioning and if so, what form the sanction should take.

"I went over the report and the charges, and deconstructed them for the committee, going over each charge and pointing to the problems in the investigative committee's own flawed scholarship," Cheyfitz said. "The research misconduct charges disappear when you start looking at them closely. I said at the end that what is properly an academic debate about the relationship of Native peoples to United States history was turned into an indictment."

Only one investigative committee member had expertise in Native American studies and federal Indian law, Cheyfitz said. "This is fraught with problems. By the University of Colorado's own published standards, it should have been a 'committee composed of individuals with expertise relevant to the specific allegations.'"

Cheyfitz said the case against Churchill is "linked up to other witch hunts, like that in the Columbia University Middle East studies department," where scholars were accused of anti-Semitism because of their critical view of Israel, though they were ultimately exonerated of those charges.

"When you couple this with the Patriot Act, Homeland Security, the whole atmosphere of the war on Iraq and the war on terror, and the actions of the Bush administration ... to undermine the Constitution, [it can] lead to an atmosphere where people can feel threatened," said Cheyfitz, noting that the case is not just about Churchill and limiting free speech.

"It is an attack on tenure, too, which is the bulwark of academic freedom," he said. "Academia has changed over the last 30 or 40 years because of a movement we can call corporatization. Nationwide, 65 percent of academic positions are nontenured and nontenure-track labor. That has tremendous implications for academic freedom. That change is very, very significant because it enables the attacks from the right wing. This structural change has gone on apace and has serious consequences for the profession."

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