Until the improbable rise of Elizabeth Warren, he was America’s most famous fake Native American—and, like Massachusetts’ newest senator, a “diversity hire” at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
There he taught “ethnic studies” for nearly two decades, from 1990 to 2007, turning his podium into a bully pulpit for an assortment of vogue leftwing causes.
But it was when he referred to the “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire”—that is, the several thousand workers in the World Trade Center—as “little Eichmanns” who deserved death on September 11 (for their participation in “power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated … into the starved and rotting of flesh of infants” abroad) that he called down upon himself the opprobrium of an entire nation and demonstrated—if any doubt remained—that some of the stupidest people around have advanced degrees.
In a more just world, Ward Churchill would have been tossed from the academy for sheer silliness. In 21st-century America, it took a faculty committee, the university’s Board of Regents, and eventually the Colorado Supreme Court. In September 2012, the state’s highest court finally decided that the Regents were within their rights to fire the professor unanimously found guilty by a committee of colleagues of “multiple acts of plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification.” And to think: the faculty committee only wanted him suspended.
In December, Churchill appealed his case to the Supreme Court.
Call him Lie-a-watha. With more than a dozen books and several articles to his name, not to mention a cushy tenured job secured after just one year as an associate professor (he somehow skipped the usual six-year probationary period), Ward Churchill managed to spend years on the dole of a major public university, where, drawing on a background in radical politics and a knack for tall tales (mainly about himself), he became a leading “Native American” voice in academia.
When, the day after his termination, Churchill filed suit in state court against his former employer, he began what must be, to-date, the century’s most specious claim of academic “repression.” But with titles like Marxism and Native Americans to his name, he rallied a colorful—if predictable—group of supporters: Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, two other professors whose fame outstrips their accomplishments, declared their support for Churchill, as did the ACLU, unrepentant Weather Underground terrorist-cum-academic Bill Ayers, and convicted cop-killer and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal (who issued not one but two statements of support). Their testimonials are available at the website of the “Ward Churchill Solidarity Network.”
But if Churchill managed to turn his case into a cri de coeur for professors’ First Amendment rights, hoisting “academic freedom” like an oriflamme, it was only a matter of time until he was forced into retreat. Even in Churchill’s pseudo-discipline, professors are expected to write their own politically correct hokum—but he could not manage even that standard.
Yet it should have come as little surprise. Besides the never-proved claims of Creek and Cherokee ancestry, in the résumé submitted to the University of Colorado in 1980 Churchill claimed that, while in Vietnam, he “wrote and edited the battalion newsletter and wrote news releases.” Seven years later, he told the Denver Post that he had attended paratrooper school, been part of an elite Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol in Vietnam, and run “point” in a combat unit. U.S. Army records support none of these claims. Churchill was trained as a film projectionist and light truck driver.
But his radicalism is no yarn. In the same 1987 interview, Churchill claimed he hung around the offices of Chicago’s Students for a Democratic Society, befriended Black Panthers, and taught members of the Weather Underground how to make bombs. True or not, he was a star guest at the 2009 trial of Herman Bell and Anthony Bottom, two members of the Black Liberation Army accused of killing San Francisco Police Sergeant John Young in 1971 and suspected of involvement in several other terror attacks on police in the 1970s.
And yet, despite hugs from Lynne Stewart (convicted of aiding terrorism) and face-time in the documentary When They Came for Ward Churchill—as if CU Boulder’s then-president Hank Brown came in brown shirt and jackboots—Churchill’s legal road is likely at an end, and he is quickly fading from memory.
The essay in which his inflammatory 9/11 remarks appeared, “ ‘Some People Push Back’: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” is now available at sites like Kersplebedeb.com, which advertises itself as “a one-person project devoted to producing and distributing radical books and pamphlets and agit prop [sic] materials”; it hosts links to “anti-police” and “queer revolt” material. Churchill is rapidly becoming a footnote in monographs of September 11 analysis.
But, unfortunately, Churchill is only one example of the faux-intellectualism that has come to define the university dominated by niche “studies”: ethnic studies, black studies, LGBTQ studies. You name it, there’s an aggrieved Ph.D. teaching it—or at least pointing out the systematic persecution perpetrated by white/male/heterosexual/colonial/capitalistic norms.
Still, if it is no longer possible to boot a professor who spends class time justifying the Oklahoma City bombing and whose published work likens the American treatment of Native Americans to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, Ward Churchill’s moment in the national limelight was a much-needed reminder that, in too many places, the professors are off the reservation.
Fix contributor Ian Tuttle is a student at St. John’s College.
IMAGE: Steve Rhodes