The University of Colorado's Board of Regents will soon decide whether to fire a professor whose writings on the Sept. 11 attacks likened some of those who died at the World Trade Center to holocaust planner Adolf Eichmann. The school's president has recommended that ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill be dismissed.
The university has said it will not fire Churchill simply for exercising his free speech rights. But soon after making that statement, officials began an inquiry into Churchill's research methods.
In his essay, Churchill wrote that because some of the workers in the World Trade Center were at the heart of the U.S. financial empire, they were not innocent victims. Churchill called them "little Eichmanns," referring to the high-ranking Nazi SS officer who coordinated the delivery of holocaust victims to the death camps.
Churchill says that to comprehend his argument, it's important to understand Eichmann's role:
"He was a bureaucrat," Churchill says. "He was a guy who orchestrated the thing with clean hands from a desk, in a fairly sterile office — kind of like those ones up there on the 90th floor of the World Trade Center. And if you're going to condemn Eichmann, you need to condemn them because the functions are essentially close enough."
Two years of fighting to keep his tenured professorship has not blunted Churchill's criticism of the United States. He hasn't budged an inch from his "little Eichmanns" reference.
"People gonna need to start calling things by their right names," he says. "And if you're going out and you're starving children to death in Third World sweat shops — chaining them to their machines 12 hours a day in order to maximize profits of corporations so that you can pay greater dividends and collect bigger commission — you're the genuine analog to Adolf Eichmann."
Comments like that prompted politicians, talk show hosts and conservative activists to call for Churchill's firing. But the university refused, citing free-speech grounds.
As Churchill became national news, several complaints about his past research methods surfaced. An investigation was launched.
Anthropology professor Dean Saitta works at the University of Denver and heads the faculty senate. He says it looked like the research complaints were being pursued to punish Churchill for his speech.
"Here was a critic of American foreign policy ... being taken to task on old grounds because the opportunity presented itself," Saitta said.
Investigative committees concluded that Churchill plagiarized others' work and fabricated facts to back up his arguments.
Churchill says the panel wasn't qualified to judge his work because it didn't include anyone in his specific area of study. He says the findings were politically motivated.
But R.L. Widmann says these committees can not be dismissed so easily.
She's an English professor at Colorado, head of the faculty council and a vigorous defender of the school's grievance and dismissal processes.
Widmann says the committees are staffed with colleagues — specifically — to protect the rights of tenured professors and ensure that no one is being fired for reasons other than those stated.
"These are people who've spent their lives devoted and dedicated to research of the most careful and meticulous sort and they, as much as anybody in the university, would value academic freedom and the right to free speech," Widmann says.
The process of determining whether Ward Churchill will remain at the University of Colorado is in its final weeks. The school's president has recommended that he be fired. The state's elected Board of Regents will have the final say.