Pasnau on Churchill

 Posted by on 28 May 2006 at 5:46 am  Uncategorized
May 282006

This letter to the editor on the Ward Churchill scandal was published today as an op-ed in Boulder’s Daily Camera. It was written by the chairman of my department, Bob Pasnau. And it’s yet another reason why I like and respect him so very much.

Since the investigative report released earlier this month on the Churchill affair, little has been heard from CU faculty. This is understandable, since the whole affair is such a quagmire, but still the silence is unfortunate, since no one is so well placed to judge the matter. I hope these remarks will provide some helpful context.

A careful reading of the investigative report (available on CU’s web site [here]) shows the committee to have discharged its duty with tremendous care for the many nuances of the case, scholarly and political. Ironically, however, the very care taken in the report, which runs to over 100 pages, may have kept the full seriousness of the charges from being fully appreciated. In short, the committee found two cases where Churchill extensively plagiarized the work of others. They found other cases where he first wrote articles under a false name, and then in a later work cited those earlier articles as providing independent confirmation for his own claims. They found a great many places where apparently detailed footnotes turned out on close inspection to offer no support whatsoever for the claims being made, and found that Churchill continued to stick with these false sources in later work even after being confronted in print with their inadequacy. Assessing the cumulative impact of these tactics, the committee describes “a pattern and consistent research stratagem to cloak extreme, unsupportable, propaganda-like claims of fact that support Professor Churchill’s legal and political claims with the aura of authentic scholarly research by referencing apparently (but not actually) supportive independent third-party sources.”

The fact that this disparate group of highly distinguished scholars could reach its verdict with complete unanimity — save for the final, delicate question of what sanction to impose — should give one a great deal of confidence in their verdict. No such confidence can be taken from Churchill’s own statement (available on the Camera’s web site [here]). A careful reading of the original report, next to his response, shows him to have misstated and ignored the committee’s findings at every stage. Indeed, one might almost laugh at the way his slipshod responses reenact the very sorts of intellectual failings that the report originally highlighted.

One might laugh, that is, if the whole affair were not so depressing. Perhaps its most unfortunate aspect, beyond the immediate and very serious damage to CU, is the impression it seems to have left in some quarters that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Here my own experience is relevant. In the course of my duties evaluating the work of my colleagues, I have never encountered a single instance of fraud or misconduct, or even the bare allegation of such. Additionally, in all of the graduate seminars I have conducted, and dissertations I have read, I have never seen anything even remotely resembling this sort of conduct. Furthermore, over many years of evaluating thousands of job applicants, reviewing their qualifications with the greatest care, I have never seen or heard of even the shadow of this sort of behavior. Finally, in all my years of scholarly research, over the countless articles and books that I have read, I have never encountered anything of this kind.

Happily, it does not fall upon me to decide what sort of penalty is appropriate in this case. But were such misconduct discovered among my own faculty, or in my own field at large, I would be the first to seek that person’s dismissal.

Professor Robert Pasnau
Chair, Department of Philosophy, CU/Boulder
1837 Mapleton Ave., Boulder, CO 80304

Although I haven’t yet read the report in detail, the proven misconduct of Ward Churchill clearly warranted his firing, particularly since he steadfastly refused to acknowledge any substantial wrongdoing. Yet just one committee member positively recommended that sanction: two actively opposed dismissal, recommending suspension without pay for two years instead, and two accepted dismissal as appropriate but recommended five years suspension without pay for two years instead. Those four committee members were terribly unjust: although they formed the proper moral judgment, they failed to act upon that knowledge.

So I certainly wish that Bob Pasnau — or men and women more like him — composed that faculty committee. Then Ward Churchill would have been fired as he so richly deserves. Sure, he would have sued, then the University would have bought him off with some outrageous sum of money. Still, the proper moral message would have been clear. As it stands, even the most basic forms of academic integrity and honesty are no longer required of the faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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