Stacks of papers sit on a sun-drenched table in the home of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, some full of praise and others full of dark threats and unprintable insults.
In one message, liberal scholar Noam Chomsky calls Churchill’s achievements of inestimable value, while an e-mail in another pile warns: “If you ever come to Florida, I will personally bash your (expletive) brains in.”
This is Churchill’s new life: Since January, he has been at the center of a firestorm over free speech for likening some Sept. 11 victims to Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi architect of the Holocaust. The governors of two states have called for his ouster and two attorneys with a Denver radio show have spent weeks compiling data they say proves Churchill is a rotten professor at best, a seditionist at worst.
In a two-hour interview with The Associated Press, Churchill, 57, said he won’t back down as the school investigates him to see if he can be fired. But he wearily acknowledged the uproar now dominates his life and makes it difficult to focus on his job as a tenured professor of ethnic studies.
“I’m struggling desperately to be able to deliver to my students what they signed up for,” Churchill said, slumped in a chair and chain-smoking Pall Malls. “All of my time is devoted to responding to gratuitous (expletive). Every day there’s a new idiocy.”
In his essay written shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Churchill called some World Trade Center victims “little Eichmanns.” The essay drew scant attention until earlier this year, when it resurfaced after Churchill was invited to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Relatives of the dead and the governors of New York and Colorado denounced Churchill and the speech was canceled because of death threats against him.
Now, university administrators are investigating Churchill’s works to determine whether to recommend his dismissal. CU spokeswoman Pauline Hale said she could not comment on details, but the results are scheduled to be released March 28.
The latest charges are that Churchill plagiarized others’ work and threatened physical violence against critics. He denies both claims, though he said he did threaten to sue a woman he said was harassing his family and spreading lies.
“Now that’s not a cordial conversation. And yes, I supposed you could make a case that the object is to intimidate,” he said. “But it’s by exercise of legal right, not by beating the woman up. If I was inclined to do that, she’d have been beaten up a long time ago.”
Churchill has many critics, some on his own campus. Law professor Paul Campos said Churchill’s writings are unfair and unbalanced, and there is evidence he has plagiarized and fabricated material.
Churchill said his critics have mangled the facts in their rush to condemn him.
He said the inquiry is not merely an investigation of his work but a pretext for a broader campaign to discourage critical thinking and reduce higher education to “an advanced vo-tech” where students are taught skills useful to corporations.
“It’s not about me, and it’s not about ‘little Eichmanns,’ either,” he said.
Churchill acknowledged he is confrontational when he tries to make Americans see the attacks of Sept. 11 not as unprovoked assaults on an innocent people, but as the consequences of years of U.S. policies he likens to genocide.
He also defended his scholarship, citing his induction into the Martin Luther King Jr. Collegium of Scholars at Morehouse College in Atlanta and offering nine pages of endorsements from other scholars.
The collection includes praise from Richard Falk, formerly at Princeton and now a visiting professor of global studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who called Churchill an outstanding scholar of indigenous rights.
Churchill has tried to keep his family and students out of the spotlight, insisting reporters get permission for classroom interviews and hesitating to make relatives available for interviews about his Indian heritage — another topic hotly contested by his critics, who argue he cannot prove he is Indian and lied about it on his job application at CU.
Churchill said his mother and grandmother told him he was part Indian, and he thought of himself that way while growing up in Illinois.
“I’m not identifying as an Indian because of something out of cowboy and Indian movies,” he said. “That’s my family’s understanding of itself.”
Churchill said he is prepared to fight, either to save his job or to negotiate a model settlement for resolving future disputes between universities and faculty.
“Am I absolutely committed to taking this as far as it will go?” he asked. “No. Am I prepared to? Yes.”