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ACTA weighs in on the Ward Churchill decision

w a r d in shouting fire image.jpg
Ward Churchill, in an image from HBO's documentary "Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech."

Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech, a documentary currently airing on HBO, includes passages implying that attacks against former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill were coordinated by a number of ideologically driven organizations, including the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which was linked in the doc to Lynn Cheney and Joe Lieberman. Now, in the wake of a decision by Judge Larry Naves not to give Churchill his old CU job back, ACTA is offering its own take. The organization has just posted a blog entitled "Ward Churchill: What is Clear and What is Not," a piece in which author Anne D. Neal expresses some doubts about Naves' ruling, which pivoted on his identification of the board of regents that voted for Churchill's ouster as a quasi-judicial body, even as it stresses that the controversial prof's initial dismissal was richly deserved. Read the item after the jump:

Ward Churchill: What is Clear, and What is Not

Much has changed with regard to Ward Churchill in the last 24 hours, as this morning's New York Times or Chronicle of Higher Education will tell you. But the real lesson of his case remains the same: Boards of trustees must ensure that their institutions have in place sound rules governing faculty tenure and promotion, and that those rules are followed. In the case of Churchill, those rules were not properly applied until quite late in the game, as complaints about his scholarship went uninvestigated. That failure gave birth to the interminable and costly saga that continues to play out.

The judge's decision? It gets some things right, but is also problematic. Yes, peer review is critical to shared governance, academic autonomy, and professional standards. Yes, to reinstate Churchill would send an awful message to students -- that academic standards don't matter. But is the authority of trustees in fact comparable to that of judges here, as the opinion says? I am not so sure.

The case has, regrettably, offered a venue for unending bombast (and falsehoods) by Churchill and his lawyer. So it's surely no surprise that both lay people and lawyers are mighty confused as to the legal matters under review and the import of the various findings by judge and jury. With this in mind, we will wait and watch for further developments.

That said, for trustees, there is no time to wait. Boards everywhere ought to respond to this sorry tale with immediate and appropriate preventative action. They should -- as we outlined in Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors -- ensure their institutions have rigorous post-tenure review policies that combine "carrots" and "sticks," conduct regular assessments of whether the process is working, make any necessary improvements, and publish both their policies and their assessments.

As the old saw goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Watching this spectacle, that should be very clear to all trustees.


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