American Culture

CU and the Churchill Affair: how did this happen in the first place?

The wait is over and the inevitable has happened: the University of Colorado yesterday formally dismissed Professor Ward Churchill. Interim President Hank Brown explained, in an open letter to the school’s donors:

To help ensure that accountability, we cannot abide academic misconduct. More than 20 faculty members (from CU and other universities) on three separate panels conducted a thorough review of Professor Churchill’s work and unanimously agreed that the evidence showed he engaged in research misconduct, which required serious sanction. The record of the case his faculty peers developed shows a pattern of serious, repeated and deliberate research misconduct that fell below the minimum standard of professional integrity, including fabrication, falsification, improper citation and plagiarism.

As a doctoral graduate of CU, I care deeply about issues of academic integrity at the institution because they reflect, for good or ill, on my own reputation. For this reason, if Churchill is guilty of academic dishonesty (and there seems little doubt at this point that he is), then he needed to go.

However, it’s a huge mistake to see the Churchill case exclusively in terms of the events that have made the front pages. Crises like these happen for deeper, systemic reasons, and we’d all do well to understand the curious dynamics in Boulder that enabled these events.

Let’s start with something else Brown said in that letter:

We are accountable to those who have a stake in the university: the people of Colorado who provide us $200 million annually in tax dollars, the federal entities that provide some $640 million annually in research funding, the donors who gave us more than $130 million this year to enhance academic quality, the faculty members who expect their colleagues to act with integrity, and the students who trust that faculty who teach them meet high university and professional standards.We are also accountable to the donors who invest their philanthropic dollars in CU. We have the obligation to you to ensure that the University of Colorado continues to be a place where your donation enhances our academic strengths and burnishes our reputation. Donors to CU gave a record $130 million this past fiscal year, and it is incumbent upon us to work to continue to be a place worthy of your investment.

Right – the university is accountable and it has a responsibility to ensure the integrity of its faculty and research. Ideally, though, that’s the sort of thing that happens at the tenure review and promotion stages, not down the road when the professor says something that embarrasses the institution.

Churchill’s professional progress has been unusual, to say the least. For starters, he never earned a PhD, and while you can argue with that standard if you like, a school like CU simply doesn’t award tenure to non-PhDs (he was “one of only 12 tenured teaching faculty at UCB who do not hold an earned terminal degree”). He was promoted to full professor in 1997, and it appears he underwent all appropriate reviews during his promotion process and since.

So how did his academic dishonesty go unnoticed?

As it turns out, I might have some insight into this question…although I’ll begin with a caveat: this is an analysis of a general dynamic and not a comment on the Churchill case specifically. However, I believe that the larger context I’m going to describe explains how the University of Colorado might encounter problems with the recruitment and promotion of minority faculty where other schools wouldn’t. (And as always, I invite comment from those with even more insight into the situation.)

A few years back, while a Ph.D. student at CU, I was invited to serve as a member of a faculty search committee. We were looking to hire a couple positions, and conducted a thorough national search for the best the field had to offer. Curriculum vitae (that’s the technical term for those thick, heavy long-form academic résumés – none of that one-page crap here, folks) flowed into Macky Hall by the wheelbarrowfull, and we saw applications from a lot of seriously talented people. But as we winnowed wheat from chaff, a disturbing trend started to emerge. All of the best candidates we were seeing were white. We had a decent number of minority applicants, but frankly, they just weren’t as qualified (at least on paper) as the white applicants.

Now, my initial reaction – the reaction of the entire committee, in fact – was that something wasn’t right here. We knew damned good and well that there were plenty of talented minorities out there. Each of us knew talented minority scholars and professionals around the country who’d have been fantastic candidates. So the problem wasn’t that they didn’t exist, it was that they weren’t applying.

I was baffled. Boulder is amazing. It’s one of the most beautiful places in America and it’s a cultural mecca. Who the hell wouldn’t want to live there? A couple conversations with minority faculty members, though, showed me something I hadn’t really thought about in any detail before.

A DramatizationMinority Faculty Member: Sam, look around you – what do you see?
Me: I see white people.

Right. If you didn’t count CU’s scholarship athletes, there were roughly six minorities in Boulder, and a couple of black faculty members in my program explained to me that no matter how cool I thought Boulder was, the school was always going to have trouble recruiting talented minority faculty because there was nothing there for them. No black people. No black neighborhoods. No black churches. No black clubs. No black culture of any sort. (It’s harder for me to say how this dynamic looked to Native American scholars – there seemed to be even less in the way of their culture, but I have no personal experiences to draw on there.)

In a place like Boulder, a town that’s just overrun by what we might call “salon liberals,” we liked to tell ourselves that we were largely past racial divides in structuring our personal lives and our communities. While that’s admirable, it’s also not terribly realistic, is it? When push comes to shove, it’s easier to be magnanimous and open-minded on these issues when you’re surrounded by people who look like you and come from places where they mostly share your cultural experiences and assumptions and practices. In truth, though, regardless of how open the minds are all around you, it’s going to be hard living and working in a place where you’re a novelty. It may not be properly enlightened of me to say these things, but the truth is that while I feel like I have a pretty clear head on the issue of race, I’d be uncomfortable living in a town where white folk constituted less than 1% of the population.

That’s the context in Boulder. Very white. But what does this have to do with the Churchill case? Well, universities – especially state universities in places like Boulder – are brutally conscious of diversity issues. It’s a legal mandate, yes, but it’s also a lot more than that. This is a community that understands the inherent value of diversity in promoting a healthy educational environment and that feels a moral obligation to fairness in hiring.

So the committee decided to get proactive on the question by actively soliciting applications from specific minority candidates we knew or knew of and thought might be well-suited to the jobs we were hiring, and this process did turn up a couple people that the committee and the faculty at large were quite impressed with. I remember sitting in The Sink up on the Hill talking with one of the guys, a rising superstar from a major Midwestern newspaper who struck me as the sort of person we’d be lucky to land, and I recall trying to feel out his interest in coming to CU. He was nice, he was complimentary, he said all the right things, but I think I knew right then and there that he wasn’t coming to Boulder.

We wound up hiring a white candidate – a good one, too. But as good as she was, our search made Boulder one person whiter than it had been the day before.

I keep insisting this has some possible relevance to the context in which Churchill was hired and tenured. At CU, you have a place that’s way too white to suit it. The very composition of the place is an impediment to change. The community knows it has a race problem, but chasing whites out of town and forcibly importing minorities isn’t an option. So what tools does the school have at hand to address its horrific diversity situation?

My search committee went the extra mile, actually hunting down minority applicants, and if that offends some part of you that thinks race should play no role in hiring or recruiting or promotion, fine. I’m telling you how it is, and I’m also telling you that this is a process engaged in by good people acting in good faith. I know these people. I was one of them.

Meanwhile, across campus, you have a guy – a minority candidate (although that now seems at issue, too) getting tenure despite what a lot of folks see as a wholly undeserving record of scholarship. It has been asserted by people close to the case that corners were cut, and the impression that emerges is that CU promoted Churchill not because of his qualifications, but because of his race. Do I know that this was the reasoning? No. Based on my knowledge of the racial dynamics of the institution, can I believe this is what happened? Yup.

And I empathize fully with those who made the decision to do so, even as a part of me is appalled at the decision. But what do you do when a) you’re committed to a diverse community, but b) qualified minority candidates often say no thanks?

I can’t always defend the decisions that get made under these circumstances, but I can understand the complexity and conflict of the environment in which they occur. In the micro, these kinds of “demographically aware” decisions may strike us an unjust when we examine them out of context, but if you argue that we have to think about the big picture, and that perhaps there are cases where you have to seed the clouds if you want it to rain, well, I have some sympathy for that position. Maybe the only way to evolve a Boulder, Colorado into the sort of place that a top-tier minority candidate would see as a desirable destination long term is to cut a corner or two in the short term. Maybe.

There is plenty about this argument that bothers me, so save your breath yelling the obvious and prefabricated at me. I’m also aware of the laughable naïveté of talking about Americans thinking or acting in the long term. I didn’t write this because I have any kind of moral certainty in my head or an acceptable policy in my heart. It is what it is – I’m not happy about the Churchill affair, but knowing Boulder as I do, I can imagine how it might have happened.

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21 replies »

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  2. Thanks for the inside look at the Churchill contretemps. Talk about your unflinching honesty.

    Regarding President Brown’s statement — throwing figures around the way he did was beyond crass. In other words, there’s no Indian who’s worth almost a billion dollars.

  3. I always expect to get torched when I open my mouth on this subject because my take doesn’t slot neatly with “either” “side.” But I was there, I saw what I saw, and the bottom line is that Boulder has a problem here – Churchill is merely a symptom of a larger disease.

    The thing that hurts the worst is that when you suggest that the dynamics result in certain groups getting an easy pass, it can’t help but damage how others in that group are viewed. And I want to be REALLY clear on this – I was privileged to know and work with some minority faculty at CU, and I was impressed by each of them. This is a situation that encourages us to think in tokenism terms, and I’m glad to say that none of my personal experiences supported the idea that the minority faculty who ARE there are substandard in any way.

    This leads me to hope fervently that Churchill was a rare exception, although I’m convinced that the pressures I describe here are quite real.

  4. As your doctoral colleague at CU, I can only add “amen.”

    As a prof at a university that’s whiter than CU, I can say “Damn. Do I understand that dynamic.”

    Thanks, Sam.

  5. I’ve been on both sides of this issue, Sam. I got turfed for a job I really wanted in favor of a candidate who was, and I’m NOT making this up – an African American nun who was disabled – as the dept. chair told me off the record (this happened 13-15 years ago) – “She met 3 diversity criteria for our school – what else can I do?” I tried to be understanding, but boy howdy was it tough when I needed a job….

    Having also served on search committees at schools and tried to find capable minority candidates (something academia actually does, to its credit), I think about highly qualified candidates that I’ve helped turf in trying to diversify a university’s faculty. And I share your ambivalence – and your sense of what we would like to see versus what we do see – and your uneasiness about the process. It feels like it’s not fair to anyone – either to minority candidates tacitly asked to give up their culture for academic life and to sincere, well qualified candidates who end up losing out on posts simply because they’re not minorities….

    And, like you, I have no useful solutions to this dilemma….

  6. We actually have some similar issues at my university. There are seven principle investigators in my lab. All but one is white. I think this is more a funciton of my field of study rather than the institution itself, though (I just returned from a meeting where about 90% of the people there were old white males).

    But the odd thing is, we are rarely approached by white students for research opportunities. All of our techs are minorities. And all of our students are minorities. In fact, most of our students are not American. I get 4-5 e-mails a month from PhD candidates or techs from India or China who want to come here to do research.

    Granted, that’s a-whole-nother can o’ worms (to be debated at a later time), but my point is that the academic world is undergoing significant changes. And if race WAS an issue with hiring Churchill, it’ll be come less of a problem in years to come.

    Theoretically. 🙂

  7. According to Native Americans with whom I spoke several years ago, Ward Churchill represents their interests about as much as a cigar-store Indian!

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  9. I think people look at it this way. Maybe there’s an informal formula we work through where we assign probabilities based on these kinds of factors, and as much as I love Boulder, I have to be honest – I wouldn’t move here if I were black (or any minority, for that matter).

  10. It’s just that there aren’t any minorities here. Boulder is VERY white, and that’s driven by the fact that it’s expensive as hell. I wouldn’t argue that it’s racist – on the whole, people here are pretty progressive minded – but if you’re a minority you just have to accept that you’re the only one.

  11. By the way Sam, what you’re saying is bothering me. And I do have “any kind of moral certainty in my head or an acceptable policy in my heart”. I went to Salt Lake City to visit a white Mormon, which was mostly white as well. It went well. I don’t know if it is as simple as saying ‘there’s no black people there’ as justification for not going. Lynching, racism, cross burning, maybe. But WE (black and white) are not using some fertile common ground we do have.

    I want to talk about something other than white or black, like humanity.

  12. I agree completely. I hate that we ever talk about race or feel that we have to. As long as it’s a topic of conversation, we’ll know we haven’t arrived yet.

    For the moment, though, I know that it’s a real concern for people. Black colleagues here I think feel a certain isolation, and what I described in the story about the faculty search process, that was VERY real.

    I’d encourage more people of whatever race to give it a chance (if they can afford it). It’s a wonderful place in most respects.