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An Open Letter Calling on the University of Colorado at Boulder to Reverse its Decision to Dismiss Professor Ward Churchill

The militarist reflex to rely on the war option for post-9/11 security is daily proving itself disastrously dysfunctional, and as its failures become more manifest, those American leaders responsible reaffirm their extremism, relying on a brew of fear, demonization, and global ambition to pacify a nervous, poorly informed, and confused citizenry at home. And where there are expressions of significant, principled opposition, the impulse of the rulers is often repressive. In such a setting it is hardly surprising that academic freedom is menaced, but not less troubling.

The relentless pursuit of and punitive approach of the University of Colorado at Boulder to Professor Ward Churchill is a revealing instance of the ethos that is currently threatening academic freedom. The voice of the university and intellectual community needs to be heard strongly and unequivocally in defense of dissent and critical thinking. And one concrete expression of such a resolve is to oppose the recommended dismissal of Ward Churchwill from his position as a senior tenured faculty member. Faculty across the country are encouraged to circulate this letter among colleagues; send letters of protest and concern to the new Chancellor (Bud Peterson,  Bud.Peterson@colorado.edu ) and President (Hank Brown,  OfficeofthePresident@cu.edu ), as well as to the Privilege &Tenure (P&T) Committee (Weldon Lodwick, Chair of the P&T Committee, weldon.lodwick@cudenver.edu); and in general publicize and mobilize within and beyond the academy in opposition to the attempted dismissal of Churchill.
In a recent statement calling for the CU administration to reverse the pending recommendation of the former Interim Chancellor to dismiss Professor Churchill, the American Association of University Professors at Boulder wrote, “In February, 2005 the Colorado House of Representatives unanimously adopted a resolution condemning Churchill, and State Governor Bill Owens called publicly for him to resign for statements he made regarding the World Trade Tower disaster. When a University-appointed committee rightly ruled that these resolutions violated Professor Churchill’s First Amendment right to free speech, charges of academic misconduct immediately surfaced — from the same and similar sources — despite the fact that similar charges had been raised at least two years earlier, and were never followed up by the University. Against this background, an inquiry was conducted, in circumstances marked by constant inflammatory, ad hominem, and even obscene attacks, on and off the CU campus, against Professor Churchill, anyone who appeared to support him, and even against some members of the ad hoc Investigating Committee, two of whom resigned soon after the investigation began….[W]e believe that the investigation now is widely perceived to be a pretext for firing Churchill when the real reason for dismissal is his politics.”
It is the most honorable calling of institutions of higher learning to provide safe haven for unpopular and distasteful views, including highly critical appraisals of national policy, especially at moments of crisis. Without nurturing critical thought, learning tends toward the sterile and fails to challenge inquiring minds. For this reason alone, it is crucial that we who belong to the academic community join together to protect those who are the targets of repressive tactics, whether or not we agree with the ideas or expressive metaphors relied upon by a particular individual.

We should similarly be wary of opportunistic attacks on scholarship that are disguised means of sanctioning critics and stifling the free expression of ideas. It may be that aspects of Churchill’s large body of published writings were vulnerable to responsible academic criticism, but the proceedings against him were not undertaken because of efforts to uphold high scholarly standards, but to provide a more acceptable basis for giving in to the right-wing pressures resulting from his 9/11 remarks. Churchill’s reputation within the university was sufficiently strong that he was appointed by administrative officers to be chair of ethnic studies just a few years before the controversy surfaced, a position he voluntarily resigned after the flare-up. The Churchill case epitomizes a mood that threatens the vitality and integrity of the atmosphere of universities much beyond this case.

The need to be this concerned about academic freedom is itself a warning bell. Ideally, academic freedom should function as the oxygen of the life of the mind—indispensable, yet invisible and so strongly presupposed that its defense is superfluous. As with oxygen we become acutely conscious of academic freedom when it is not present in sufficient quantities for normal, healthy breathing. When academic freedom is threatened, the most sustaining response, is vigorous defense on principle.

Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Juan Cole, University of Michigan
Drucilla Cornell, Rutgers University
Richard Falk, Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University
Irene Gendzier, Boston University
Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies; Director – Middle East Institute; Columbia University
Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Anthropology, Columbia University
Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar, Department of Sociology, Yale University
Howard Zinn, professor emeritus, Boston University