Let Ward Churchill Sue

Ward Churchill, the controversial and outspoken University of Colorado professor whose academic peers earlier this week concluded that he plagirized and fabricated material, now is threatening to sue the school if it fires him. While I am usually the first person to advise high-profile litigants to settle their civil differences quickly in the interest of saving time, money and pyschic trauma, in this case I believe the school should fire Churchill and then say to him about a lawsuit: bring it on!

There are some legal battles that are worth waging no matter how much they cost or how long they take or how much litter they leave on the landscape. And the fight over academic integrity at CU is one of those battles. Does Churchill have first amendment rights? Absolutely. Does he have a right to contest the conclusions against him? Sure. But CU also has legal rights to vindicate, and responsibilities to execute, and one of them surely has to be to ensure for its students that anyone who gets to be called "professor" in Boulder is academically sound and ethically judicious. In fact, as a few folks close to the situation have put it, if a guy like Churchill gets to keep teaching the school might as well just shut down and turn itself into an exclusive spa and resort.

I know Churchill's lawyer, David Lane, and he is a decent chap. He compared Churchill Wednesday with Galileo which is a little like comparing Carrot Top to Einstein but I will forgive him that in the heat in the moment. Lane told the Denver Post that if he has to sue after his client is fired he will claim that the school retaliated against Churchill after he wrote that the victims of the World Trade Center attack on 9-11 were "little Eichmanns"-- referring to the mid-level Nazi official who gained infamy in Hannah Arendt's book, "The Banility of Evil" as a model of bureaucratic ammorality.

Now, with an academic board giving the university a seemingly sound and perfectly reasonable reason to fire Churchill (plagarism and fabrication being deadly sins in the world of academe), Lane will have to argue not just that the school retaliated against his client but that the whole academic review process was rigged to make it so. The problem with that argument is that if it prevails no college anywhere would ever be able to fire any tenured professor no matter how egregious the conduct of that professor-- unless, I suppose, the teacher was standing over a body holding a smoking gun.

It will get even uglier than it already has been. The case will linger in the courts for years. It will hang over the collective head of the school during that time like a rain cloud. CU will continue to be criticized for its awful decisions years ago to give tenure to Churchill in the first place. Kids who are in middle school probably will be attending CU by the time it is all over. And Churchill may even in some ways prevail on the merits of at least some of his claims. But none of those reasons alone, or even all of them together, justify a decision by the school to back off now. What a horrible lesson that would be to and from the academic world.

By  |  May 18, 2006; 9:00 AM ET
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