I distinctly remember the day the Ward Churchill story broke. I was FIRE’s new president, and I must confess that I faced the situation with some nervousness. I knew that we would defend his First Amendment rights (and we did: FIRE’s now-president and then legal director, Greg Lukianoff, wrote an eloquent letter to the university urging the administrators to counter Churchill’s speech with more speech, not with official sanctions), but I was concerned that FIRE’s supporters would be squeamish about our support for such a repugnant individual. That was, of course, a rookie mistake on my part. FIRE’s supporters “get it” that there is a crying need for a consistent defense of the First Amendment, and they universally applauded FIRE’s stance in the case.
But then the case moved on from Ward Churchill’s protected speech to his long (and checkered) past. The radical academic left could hardly have chosen a worse standard-bearer. An under-qualified, arguably fake Native American with a long history of not just plagiarism and other forms of academic fraud, but also a disturbing tendency to threaten and intimidate his critics, it turned out that Churchill was the kind of person who could only exist within the coddling atmosphere of either a radical activist organization or a university ethnic studies department (as if those things are different). Faced with overwhelming evidence of misconduct, it took well over a year for Churchill to face his day of reckoning.
As he received more due process than any ordinary American ever receives in the course of their professional lives, Churchill’s dogged fight to keep his job only reinforced to many Americans the notion that faculty view themselves as a breed apart – entitled to lucrative lifetime employment no matter what they do. And that may well end up as the lasting legacy of the Churchill case: the tipping point that led an increasing number of ordinary Americans to view the academy as an out-of-control, disconnected bastion of spoiled and petulant entitlement. The academic left decries the “chilling effect” of Churchill’s termination, but the only individuals who should feel “chilled” are those professors publicly spewing deranged invective at that same time that they conceal a professional past rife with fraud and abuse. No, the real (and important) legacy of the Churchill case is that he became the most famous professor in America, and he was the worst possible ambassador for an academy that is under ever-increasing scrutiny.
Goodbye, Ward Churchill, and good luck on your lawsuit. You’ll need it.