Collisions of culture: Academic culture in the neoliberal university

Margaret D. LeCompte

Prepared for:  Posecznik, A.   Collusion, Complicity & Resistance: Theorizing Academics, the University and the State (Special issue). Learning and Teaching: The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences 6(3), 2013.


This article describes how different constituencies in a major research university tried to initiate change despite disagreements over common goals, norms and principles. The context was a culture war. The university administration wanted to impose a corporatizing and privatizing philosophy which it felt was crucial to preserving the university’s academic integrity and its financial survival in a time of budgetary crisis.  Faculty viewed these actions as serious threats to shared governance, faculty control over the curriculum, instruction and research, academic freedom and the faculty’s Constitutional rights. These forces played out in the firing and grievance cases of Ward Churchill and Adrienne Anderson, professors whose research and publications angered members of the political and academic establishment and galvanized protests pro and con from the media, conservative politicians and public intellectuals.

Keywords:  higher education, academic freedom, shared governance, faculty control, Adrienne Anderson, Ward Churchill, ACTA, university culture, faculty rights, due process

This article describes how different constituencies in a research university tried to initiate change despite disagreements over common goals, norms, or even the need for negotiation. At stake was victory in a culture war. The university administration wanted to impose on students and faculty a corporatizing and privatizing philosophy increasingly prominent in academic life. The administration held this was crucial to preserving the university’s academic integrity and balance, and more importantly, the university’s financial survival in a time when donor and legislative support should not be jeopardized.  Faculty members, however, saw such moves as a serious threat to shared governance, their control over the curriculum, instruction and research,[1] their academic freedom and their Constitutional rights.

Negotiations over these issues were contentious and unfruitful because they required compromise and real collaboration, the conditions for which did not exist. Real collaboration requires that participants be willing to share power. Lower participants (Merton 1968) must have something that people in power want badly enough to cede some control in order to get. It also assumes the absence of intractable differences or animosities among the participants and requires that participants negotiate a common goal, even if one does not exist at the beginning. That goal must transcend mere slogan systems (Apple 1995), or vague generalities about objectives upon which everyone can agree but over which no agreement at all exists regarding implementation.  The end goal also might mean different things to different people. Thus, participants must agree on both the ends, and the means by which stated goals are to be achieved.

Most important, sufficient good will must exist for participants to believe that better communication and improved feedback will, in fact, resolve most problems. Such good will requires a world view shared enough that conflict resolution is seen to be in the best interest of everyone involved and exercise of raw power is defined as unseemly. Unfortunately, these conditions rarely exist. In most situations, power differentials greatly complicate the picture.  The real world is full of vested interests, intractable disagreements, power plays, and life-and-death struggles. In such circumstances, attempts to create collaboration can make lower participants feel like terrorized supplicants whose participation is deemed unnecessary, especially if power holders hold lower participants in low regard and can choose to ignore their requests.

How It All Began

Events began in February 2005 with politically-motivated violations of the due process and academic freedom rights of two faculty members: Ward Churchill, a tenured full professor and head of the department of Ethnic Studies, and Adrienne Anderson, an award-winning instructor who had worked for eleven years in Environmental Studies and Ethnic Studies. In both cases, the University of Colorado (CU) administration used a range of resources to remove the offending faculty members from its premises.  To those opposing these moves, Churchill’s case, the better known, posed a threat to individual faculty rights, while Anderson’s case, almost completely unknown, was a threat not only to faculty rights but to the safety and health of the entire Denver Metropolitan area. In this article, I discuss the practices which prevented most people from supporting the rights of these faculty members, and why the university disregarded, and sometimes changed, procedures spelled out in its own bylaws that were designed to protect faculty rights to academic freedom and shared governance. These rights are grounded in free speech guarantees enshrined in the United States Constitution.  Many faculty members seemed not to recognize that if they failed to protest against the treatment of these two faculty members, they effectively colluded in the University’s actions and contributed to a progressive weakening of faculty voice and power in issues of retention, promotion, tenure, and assessment of academic quality.   Ultimately, these two cases set a legal precedent stripping faculty of any protection against decisions made by university trustees or boards of regents.[2]


This work is based on participant observation (Spradley 1980) by the author and four colleagues – two instructors, another full professor, and a staff member.  As such, it used participatory and collaborative ethnographic methods (LeCompte and Schensul 2013; Schensul, J.J. 2010;  Schensul and Schensul 1992) to amass the evidence upon which this article is based.  Almost  by definition, ethnographic research relies on the collection of primary—not previously published—data. Consequently, the data base in this article relies heavily on fieldnotes and documents collected and often collaboratively produced by the author and her colleagues.  These individuals initially formed an Ad Hoc Committee on Academic Freedom (AHCAF) whose efforts involved trying to catalyze key participants in support of academic freedom for faculty over a six year period. The AHCAF evolved into a revived chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Since the initial events, other faculty members participated heavily in different stages of the process. This article, then, makes use of all manner of email documents, formal and informal minutes taken at meetings, media reports, court documents, University memos, informal interviews, personal communications, letters, and a variety of other documentary sources.

The author was an active participant in the activities reported herein and was one of the most visible advocates for attempts to restore Anderson and Churchill to good standing.  Her actions put her in direct opposition to university efforts to fire them, as well as making her a target for media and community ire against Churchill in particular.  As a member of the Faculty Assembly and chair of its committee on compensation and benefits, however, and as a long time member and later the chair of one of the Institutional Review Boards of the University, she was privy to more of the workings of the university administration than most faculty members.  The author and her colleagues made every effort to document all events and especially, to determine the origins and accuracy of allegations made by both sides. These efforts often were made difficult because the primary public information available was itself quite one-sided, as every effort was made by both the University administration and the media to portray the two protagonists in a negative light.  Why this was so is detailed below.  Thus, though this work could be seen as a version of events whose portrayal of Ward Churchill and Adrienne Anderson is at variance with widely held perceptions, it also should be viewed as the chronology of efforts by a faculty group to present an alternative and more contextualized version of the story told by the University administration. That chronology forms the primary content of this work.

The Protagonists and Antagonists

The Faculty

In February 2005, Ward Churchill, a flamboyant, widely published and controversial advocate for Native American rights, a revisionist interpreter of relationships between whites and Native Americans and an abrasive thorn in the side of the University, was accused of academic misconduct in research, despite his generally well-respected and voluminous record of scholarship in Native American studies.  In a now-famous statement published in an obscure blog right after September 11, 2001, Churchill (2001) labeled workers in the World Trade Center ‘little Eichmanns’, referencing Hannah Arendt’s book (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem, that argued that like Adolph Eichmann, functionaries in the Third Reich viewed their jobs as mere technical tasks to be carried out.  They did not connect their work with its contribution to the Nazi goal of exterminating Jews.  Churchill’s allusion suggested that people in the World Trade Center did not connect their work with its global consequences, especially with reference to implementation of United States’ policies in the Middle East, policies that resulted in deaths in Muslim countries, and that made people angry enough about those policies to want to bomb the building.  Five years later, the phrase “little Eichmanns,” was lifted from Churchill’s writings, taken out of context and without reference to Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book (Daily Camera, 2005a, 2005b), and used to create a firestorm of anti-Churchill sentiment in Colorado and at CU in particular. The conservative media, certain legislators, members of the University of Colorado Board of Regents, the Republican governor, Bill Owens, and others called for Churchill to be fired Daily Camera, 2005c, 2005d).  In May 2007, the university revoked Churchill’s tenure and fired him. His lawyer filed charges against the University in state court the next day, arguing that Churchill had been denied due process; that his First Amendment rights had been violated, and that the University’s charges against him were both baseless and politically motivated (AHCAF 2007,  April 23 2007   Open letter from faculty calling for Churchill report retraction) . The Acting Chancellor of CU and the Dean of Arts and Sciences confirmed this, testifying under oath that they had, indeed, violated Churchill’s First Amendment rights. The jury found unanimously that Churchill’s civil rights had been violated, and that he was not guilty of plagiarism.  In effect, it suggested that the University had framed Churchill.  Nonetheless, presiding Judge Larry Naves reversed the jury’s decision, accepting the University’s argument that Churchill could not sue the university because its Board of Trustees had ‘quasi-judicial immunity’.[3]  In 2011, Judge Naves was presented with the University of Colorado Law School’s ‘Outstanding Judicial Alumni Award’ and invited to teach there.  Meanwhile, Churchill appealed the case to the state Supreme Court.[4]

Simultaneously with the Churchill affair, Adrienne Anderson, a highly respected and award winning environmental activist, exemplary teacher and researcher and an instructor in Ethnic Studies and Environmental Studies, was let go after eleven years. Anderson was a far less openly controversial figure than Churchill. She was adored by her students and highly respected by environmentalists for her meticulous research on toxic pollution. Formerly involved in the failed clean up of the Rocky Flats Nuclear site, her most celebrated campaign began in Southwest Denver, where unusually high cancer rates among young children were linked to pumping of effluent  into aquifers and pipelines serving the area’s water supply, seriously endangering  the safety of the entire Denver Metropolitan watershed. (Welsome 2001a, 2001b, 2001c;  see also  Anderson v Metro Wastewater, Case No. 97-September 18, 2001.)  Subsequently, Anderson and her students uncovered widespread corporate collusion to hide this contamination. The massive cover-up involved “laundering” billions of gallons of highly contaminated water by flushing it into the Denver Metropolitan wastewater system at Lowry Landfill, from where it flowed into the groundwater, the Platte River and the Denver sewer systems, where it was handled by Metropolitan Wastewater workers.  The contaminants included more than 120 toxic chemicals, including rocket propellants from the Martin-Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) Titan Missile Plant, radio-nuclides from the Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant and from nuclear fuel rods made by Coors Ceramics, and solvents from printing and publishing processes by Scripps-Howard publishing enterprises. The wastewater workers were not provided protection against any of these toxics. Anderson sued Metro Wastewater on behalf of its workers under the OSHA (Welsome 2001a, 2001b, 2001c).

Anderson’s investigations led those whose actions she exposed to vilify her repeatedly and publically. Thugs threatened her in front of her home.  A public relations firm was hired to smear her.  Newspapers and media campaigns impugned her intelligence, work, and morals (See Recommended Decision and Order, Senior District Judge David W. DiNardi, in Anderson v Metro Wastewater, Case No. 97-September 18, 2001). Anderson’s case was decided in her favor in September 2001 and she was awarded $250,000 in punitive damages by Senior District Judge David W. DiNardi of Boston for harm done to her personal and professional reputation by the defendants. But Judge DiNardi’s ruling was reversed on a technicality by appointees of President Bush in the Department of Labor.[5]

Most of the polluters involved, including Coors, Scripps-Howard Publishers, and Lockheed-Martin (See Anderson v Metro Wastewater)were major donors to the University of Colorado, where Anderson taught, as is evidenced by the naming of buildings and programs at the University after those corporations.[6] These donors put heavy pressure on the University to fire Anderson; one of their executives had special power because he also was a faculty member in Environnmental Studies, her department and his brother was a member of the CU Board of Regents. More pressure came from key Republican legislators and the office of the Governor, through his secretary of education and the head of the department of environmental quality.  Ultimately, the Department of Environmental studies cancelled her classes[7] and told her she was no longer needed (Dodge 2005a, 2005b, 2006).[8]

Throughout the whole process, small groups of faculty tried to engage the university administration in negotiation so as to reduce serious damage to due process procedures and faculty rights. Their concern was for the consequences of the CU Administration’s handling of the two cases and its apparent acquiescence to political pressure from outside the university, pressure from which the University is required by its bylaws to protect faculty.[9]  These efforts were initiated in the spirit of collaboration, but soon proved to be futile. In fact, attacks against dissenting faculty at CU and throughout higher education in Colorado continued.

Insiders and Outsiders: ACTA, the Governor, the Corporations, and State Conservative Republicans vs the Faculty

Little known was that the attacks on Churchill, or someone like him, had been planned long in advance by the Association for College Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), founded by Lynn Cheney, former National Endowment for the Humanities chair and wife of former Vice-President Dick Cheney. Heavily funded and dedicated to “reforming” higher education by revising curricula to remove alleged leftwing bias in teaching and research (ACTA 2007, 2009), ACTA published its agenda in a series of books, widely available on its website,  The organization described how it was waiting for a provocative act by a leftist professor in a Tier One university in a right-wing state; it could then use that act to argue that faculty were not competent to supervise hiring, tenure and promotion procedures, given that they had had the poor judgment to hire and promote “professor X.” (See  ACTA 2004a, 2004b,  2006, 2009)..

The bitter conflict that ensued was a culture war between conservatives – public intellectuals, politicians, corporate interests and right-wing ideologues such as ACTA members – who believed that universities were hotbeds of leftist thought whose faculty indoctrinated students and whose research activities were biased at best, and bad for business at least, and progressive groups of faculty advocating principles of academic freedom and shared governance advocated by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The latter groups believed universities should promote critical and lively dialogue, freely vet alternative perspectives, and present controversial ideas without fear of retaliation. They asserted that faculty should be evaluated by standards in their own disciplines and be free to follow their own interpretation of best practice and thought in their fields. AAUP has embodied these ideas in principles guaranteeing due process, shared governance (AAUP 2006b), and academic freedom for individual faculty (AAUP 1940) and for institutions themselves  (Jaggar 2007).  The AAUP manifestos  argue for a guarantee that faculty have control of the curriculum, including content and methods for teaching; of research, topics for faculty research, dissemination of knowledge and disposition of the results of research, and the hiring, promotion and tenure of faculty.  For years, the University of Colorado endorsed these principles, and included them in links on its website.

ACTA’s agenda differs drastically. A colleague’s detailed analysis of ACTA documents and website (Kim 2006) revealed that they called for:

  • Eliminating the alleged domination of  universities by left-wing faculty
  • Ending faculty tenure
  • Turning deans and department heads into non-academic managers unprotected by faculty tenure
  • Protecting students against indoctrination with “liberal” thought.
  • Limiting or eliminating faculty participation in decisions about hiring, promoting, and firing faculty
  • Limiting faculty participation in selection of high level administrators
  • Reducing faculty committee grievance and governance decisions to mere non-binding advisories.  The result of these actions is that administrators do not have to abide by faculty committee recommendations.
  • Installing ACTA members and sympathizers as University presidents and Regents
  • Rewriting Faculty handbooks, eliminating enforceable protections for faculty (Kim, unpublished email analysis, 2006, files of the author;  ACTA 2004a, 2009)

As outlined in ACTA publications, these strategies recognize that controversial, obnoxious, or simply progressive faculty cannot be fired for exercising free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, campaigns of intimidation and professional and character assassination [even if based on false allegations and fabrications] can be employed to so impeach their credibility and reputations that a justification is created to fire them for alleged incompetence or unprofessional conduct.  This is what ensued in Colorado.

Collaboration, Cooptation, Collusion, Coercion

Days after the first demands for Churchill’s firing hit the press in early February 2005, 200 faculty members published a petition in the local newspaper demanding that the University protect his First Amendment rights (Daily Camera 2005a). The petition was contained in an ad paid for by the signatories since no media outlets in Colorado—all  of them dominated by conservative publisher Scripps-Howard (see Anderson 2007)–would publish anything supportive of Churchill, or anything at all about Adrienne Anderson. Since Scripps-Howard was implicated in Anderson’s OSHA case that alleged the company was involved in flushing solvents involved in the printing process into the Denver Wastewater system (See Anderson v Metro Wastewater;  also Welsome 2001a, 2001b, 2001c, in Anderson’s lawsuit against the Denver Metropolitan Reclamation District, this wasn’t surprising.

Several days later, meetings were held by the Arts and Science Faculty Council, a meeting that included faculty members from other colleges. The Arts and Sciences Executive Committee subsequently refused to respond to requests for an opinion on Churchill’s case and the general faculty failed to override their refusal.  Several days later, CU President Elizabeth Hoffman was forced to resign after publicly stating that the attacks on Churchill and on academic freedom resembled a ‘new McCarthy era’.  [10] Efforts to support President Hoffman were fruitless, as the administration, pressured by the legislature and outside constituencies detailed in this article, was not receptive to any alternatives.  Stymied at this point, signatories of the petition formed an Ad Hoc Committee for Academic Freedom (AHCAF) to support Churchill and strategize how to assist Anderson in appealing her dismissal. Their purpose was to convince faculty that the Administration’s handling of both cases constituted a serious threat to academic freedom and faculty voice in shared governance and due process.

During the spring and summer 2006, the Ad Hoc committee transformed itself into an American Association of University Professors chapter in an attempt to gain more visibility and some external support.  It also began a campaign to educate faculty about their rights and to legitimate the AHCAF/AAUP’s claim that a clear and present danger to faculty rights did indeed exist.  The AHCAF/AAUP committee repeatedly used surveys and group interviews of the faculty to provide independent information  about the ACTA agenda which outlined a conservative agenda for transforming the University of Colorado (ACTA 2006; ACTA 2004a; 2004b, 2009) into a ‘bastion of conservative thought’ – as one state legislator described it (Rosen 2005). The surveys asked for faculty reaction to the ACTA agenda (referenced in ACTA documents listed above), and thus spread information about them.  In addition, by enabling the AHCAF/AAUP to speak about the numbers of people who responded to the surveys  and had supported efforts to reinstate Churchill, these strategies served also to counter Administration claims that the AHCAF/AAUP did not represent the sentiments of faculty and instructors.

Forming an AAUP Chapter

Joining the AAUP, the committee reasoned, would enhance its prestige and give it some legitimacy. About 80 CU faculty still were listed as national members of AAUP, even though the local chapter was defunct.  First, AHCAF surveyed the entire faculty to assess interest in re-instating an AAUP chapter and to publicize some of the issues of interest to the AHCAF. However, CU provides no comprehensive list of faculty members to faculty, so AHCAF had to pay the university to send out a questionnaire to all tenure-track faculty. Despite Administrative reluctance to handle such ‘non-university business’, the survey, with a redacted statement of purpose, was sent, and about forty people came to a meeting in April, 2006.  In May, this group formed an AAUP chapter and created its own listserv, including anybody who had been active in any of the protests, the AHCAF members, and all present and former AAUP members.

Raising Money and Generating Visibility

In October, 2006, the officers of the CU-AAUP chapter—the six key participants from the AHCAF—organized a celebratory “chapter founding” conference on academic freedom on the CU campus. The executive director of the national AAUP office was invited as keynote speaker; workshops were held on the meaning of academic freedom and shared governance for students, faculty and administration; the press and the entire campus were invited. The AAUP Executive Director, the President of the Colorado Conference of AAUP chapters, and the president and vice-president of the new CU AAUP chapter also met with CU’s newly arrived campus chancellor   to present the faculty’s concerns to him, and to initiate collaborative efforts to resolve them.  The AAUP Executive Director offered, as the AAUP had done in conflicts at other universities in the past, to use the “good offices” of the AAUP, behind the scenes if necessary, to help resolve the cases of Ward Churchill and Adrienne Anderson.   However, no one from the administration attended the celebratory conference. The AAUP chapter’s offer of mediation was never acknowledged. The chancellor side-stepped even recognizing the existence of the AAUP chapter, stating that any concerns faculty had should come through the Boulder Faculty Assembly, the elected “faculty senate” whose record for serious activism had been about zero for decades. These actions made clear that the University already had decided on its course of action and was immune to efforts to influence it to the contrary.

Media Blackouts and Character Assassination

Churchill already was unpopular with campus administrators because of his sometimes abrasive personality and outspoken stance regarding Native Americans.  The plagiarism charges against him and the accompanying campaign of character assassination convinced many faculty that even neutrality regarding Churchill constituted consorting with the enemy. Some faculty echoed media charges that Churchill had committed plagiarism, was bad for the University, that his presence hurt university funding raising efforts and that he was a bad role model for students – despite his substantial and highly regarded scholarly output and the Outstanding Teaching Award he won the year before. Though an investigating committee appointed by the then-Acting Chancellor ruled that Churchill’s “roosting chickens” essay was constitutionally protected free speech and could not be used to justify firing him, the Chancellor declared that other charges made against Churchill  – none of which were leveled by the individuals whose work he was said to have plagiarized – were serious enough to require investigation.  Subsequently, a firestorm of blogs, media articles, and emails began, including charges that Churchill had plagiarized the work of others, falsified data, wasn’t really a Native American, had lied about his origins so as to better sell his books and even copied the artworks of another painter.  A Special Committee on Research Misconduct (SCRM) appointed by the Director of Research Integrity to study the Churchill case included no scholar in Churchill’s own field – despite the AHCAF giving the Director a list of Native American scholars familiar with Churchill’s scholarship. Two of the SCRM members, one of them the chair, were already were on record advocating that he be fired (AHCAF 2007; Eron, Hudson, and Hulen 2011).

Because Anderson was a contingent instructor not protected by tenure, helping her was difficult. Further, the media blackout on her case meant that few people knew about her. Strong incentives existed for CU to silence her, because any publicity would inevitably disclose her charges about violation of environmental laws by key corporate donors to CU—including the news media monopoly—charges that a court case she filed and won on behalf of workers in the metropolitan wastewater workers union– had substantiated (Anderson v Metropolitan Wastewater).. The AHCAF finally held a spring 2007 press conference so Anderson could present her case and describe the campaign of vilification against her research and person. This event produced a few short articles and a substantial one in the CU Silver & Gold Record  (Dodge 2007), the system-wide faculty independent newspaper. Curiously, this newspaper printed the only fair reporting on both Churchill and Anderson.[11]

Anderson filed a grievance in the fall of 2005, but the administration ruled that she had no standing to do so since she had been dismissed. She filed grievances anyway, assisted by the AHCAF. Her case was upheld by the campus level privilege and tenure committee, which recommended that she be retained, and promoted to Senior Instructor. The University Chancellor ignored the recommendation.

Flagging Support and Seeking Outside Help

Scholars and public intellectuals outside of CU and Colorado were publically appalled by the handling of Anderson’s and Churchill’s cases and called for their reinstatement. AAUP chapters elsewhere in the nation contributed funds to help the budding CU chapter continue its fight.  Meanwhile, the CU-Boulder campus activists struggled.  Churchill’s reputation as a troublemaker made having his case as AHCAF’s first major activity made recruiting new members difficult, even though all its members felt that, given the egregious violations of academic freedom involved,  supporting Ward Churchill had been the only correct course of action for it to take.

By spring, 2006, the entire effort was foundering. Churchill and Anderson were enthusiastically supported only by their students and a few faculty and staff involved with the AHCAF.  The negative and unremitting media barrage about Churchill convinced most faculty members that he was an undesirable colleague and a poor scholar who hurt the University’s funding-raising efforts in a very bad economic climate. The few articles that did publicize her activities were in small newspapers with local or restricted audiences, so few people in the public could believe the enormity of both the contamination and the cover-up that Anderson had unearthed in Denver, or its connection to CU.  Anderson also was expendable because she was just an instructor. Few people seemed to believe that Anderson’s and Churchill’s cases posed a tremendous threat to the integrity of the Academy. And it became increasingly clear that the University intended to stonewall over its own violations of academic freedom and due process, as well as its fabrication[12] of charges and cover-ups. aving

When a group of senior CU faculty filed grievances against the Special Committee for Research Misconduct, charging that its report on Churchill contained more research misconduct than Churchill ever had been accused of, the University declared the grievance moot because the SCRM’s report was “not research, but rather, an administrative report.”[13]  Given the University’s refusal to consider any information that contradicted its own definition of the Churchill story, its refusal to entertain mediation efforts by the national office of the AAUP, its refusal to include on investigative committees  scholars who were knowledgeable about his field, and especially, its inclusion on the Special Committee investigating Churchill of two scholars whose previous communications in emails and at commencement speeches declared their desire to remove Churchill from the campus, it was clear to the AHCAF that the University could and would act with impunity in these cases, and was unprepared to attend to any faculty grievances regarding them at all.

The AHCAF argued that at the University of Colorado, a clear and present threat to faculty rights existed. If faculty weren’t sufficiently frightened by the erosion of protections to their academic freedom—which are ostensibly available to instructors as well as tenure-line  faculty alike—the reversal by Judge Larry Naves of the jury verdict exonerating Churchill should have been terrifying.  It effectively put university trustees above the law.  But hardly anyone noticed.


A simple explanation might be that professors in research institutions simply are so comfortably ensconced in tenure and in pursuing their own interests that they feel themselves insulated from attacks.  However, professors at major research institutions are embedded in a culture of scholarly competition and are increasingly overworked as scarcity of funding since the 1960s has changed the way universities operate.  Tax support for public universities has dropped precipitously,[14] rendering them more dependent on private funds and corporate donations. Faculty often are required to raise funds for their own salaries through grants and sale of products of intellectual property.  These external pressures can damage academic freedom as  faculty are urged to conform, cooperate with corporate agendas, and not annoy the funders – whether by teaching about controversial subjects, questioning conventional wisdom, supporting unpopular philosophies or disseminating research that is at variance with corporate profits (Washburn 2005). Such a very real fiscal crisis (Hoover 2009) made the University of Colorado vulnerable to corporate and donor pressures to fire Anderson and Churchill[15] –vulnerability that reduced faculty capacity to influence the administration.  Given their unwillingness to organize and protest, faculty bargaining power was weak. A further shift in university culture derives from increasing calls for accountability – another corporate imposition.  The meetings and paperwork required for accountability activities keep faculty very busy, but detract from faculty time for research and teaching – and for initiating grievances (Washburn 2005).

Weakening the Role of Faculty

Restructuring of university organization along corporate lines also has de-professionalized its administration, reducing faculty voice in governance. ACTA feels presidents no longer need to be chosen from among leading intellectuals; many department chairs and deans no longer hold faculty status or even training in the disciplines they oversee. Unprotected by tenure, they are at the mercy of their bosses. The University of Colorado’s current president is a former oil executive with no prior academic administrative experience; his highest academic degree is a BA in geology. Appointing non-academics to university administrative positions is, of course, one of the features of the ACTA agenda. The effect of such actions is to gut due process for faculty, who are supposed to be judged by knowledgeable peers, according to University by-laws.  If administrators have no knowledge of the academic fields over which they hold sway, they cannot judge the quality of faculty work, and their actions make a mockery of academic freedom.

Elitism and the Ostrich Syndrome    

Many faculty members at research universities believe that because they are tenured, pleasant, hard-working, competent scholars who eschew controversial research, they will not be attacked as Ward Churchill was. However, controversy is everywhere; no field or discipline is safe from attack by fundamentalists, the uninformed and the disaffected. History can be highly controversial—as Churchill’s work demonstrates.  So are science education and school finance, bilingual education, studies of climate change, and sociology. Professors in the biology department of CU-Boulder were threatened with death because they taught about evolution. Professors in the School of Education who teach that poverty and minority status impede students’ academic success were labeled ‘Marxists’ by members of the conservative Right (Saxe 2006), and for a time, the School’s accreditation was questioned. Faculty in Sociology and Women’s Studies were listed among David Horowitz’s “most dangerous professors” because their course titles included the word “feminism” and the name “Marx” [the latter a course in classical social theory covering Marx, Durkheim and Weber] (Horowitz 2006). Climate scientists at CU, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) making professional presentations were monitored by White House “minders” from the George W. Bush administration to assure their conformity to White House pronouncements  about the human role in global warming.

Anti-Intellectualism and Distrust of Science

In the 1970s, the US developed an anti-intellectualism so virulent that even basic science became suspect. Both the political Right and religious fundamentalists used distrust of so-called intellectual elites to silence alternative voices, support extremist political agendas (Wilson 1995; Mooney 2005), and create suspicion of scientists and science itself.  National panels overseeing grant awards and the quality of scientific research became dominated by non-scientists more devoted to conforming scientific results to corporate and ideological preferences than to seeking truth and pushing the envelope of knowledge (Shulman 2006).

Political Naiveté         

The current generation of University faculty came of age in an era of conservative politics, individualism, relative affluence and concomitant materialism; most members from the era of the Peace Corps, the civil rights movement, and social justice activism have retired.  Many current faculty members fail to see the world in political terms or to give credence to the profound and increasing inequalities that afflict the US underclass;  they are products of a forty-year effort to reduce civic understanding by weakening or eliminating public school education in social studies and limit instruction in participatory democracy—all because of distrust of allegedly “liberal” civic education and pressure of high stakes testing in public schools which defines instruction in social studies and the humanities as frills. Thus, younger faculty are horrified by the ugliness, meanness, and disrespect evidenced in political struggles—from which they recoil and retreat–as they did after witnessing the attacks on Churchill and his supporters.


Retreat did seem a reasonable option.  At best, people who dissented never found themselves placed on university committees for which they volunteered. At worse, people who spoke out were subject to vicious hate mail and nasty comments on blogs, and they were identified as dangerous, unpatriotic, or incompetent on website hit lists and in the media.[16] The excoriation and character assassination that Churchill endured, as well as Adrienne Anderson’s disappearance without appropriate grievance opportunities, frightened faculty not accustomed to the roughness of political life (Anderson v. Metro Wastewater, p. 4).  One of this author’s colleagues, a full professor, said, “Not me!  I won’t go through what you’ve gone through!  I don’t want to get all that hate mail.” Another demurred, saying, “I’ll join you when I’m a full professor.”

Looking into the Future

The AHCAF realized that academic freedom, open dialogue and faculty governance had become “luxuries” during fiscal crises. ACTA’s own publications documented that the Churchill case would be used to re-define faculty as incompetent in hiring, firing, promotion and retention matters.  The rigor and objectivity of curricula was under suspicion, the usefulness of faculty research was questioned, and leadership changes, restructuring, imposition of “efficiencies” and curricular monitoring followed (see also Wilson 1995).  Enforcement procedures guaranteeing faculty rights were excised from faculty governance bylaws and handbooks always noted that actions by faculty governance bodies are “advisory” to the Administration, rendering them unenforceable.  , Timelines for filing grievances were shortened throughout the events described in this article,  and due process procedures were weakened by the Administration’s practice of appointing to grievance and investigatory committees individuals who were known to be hostile to the grievants.  Currently, tenure track professors are being replaced by untenured limited contract “research professors” and contingent instructors whose academic freedom is not protected by tenure.  Actions by faculty governance bodies are being reduced rubber stamping as the Administration hands down decisions already made. These processes appear likely to continue as long as the University is run by individuals who fully agree with both corporatization and ACTA-like restructuring.

What Did the AAUP Chapter Learn?

Trying to “collaborate up” is extremely difficult, because the only ammunition aggrieved parties have is a moral stand which administrators with opposing principles can ignore, or even co-opt.  This was the case in Colorado, where corrupted versions of due process and shared governance were passed off by university apologists and sympathizers as the real thing.  Further, ideological conflicts—as articulated by ACTA and the AAUP—were passed off as matters simply needing practical or technical solutions, rather than for what they really were– conflicts between groups with powerful vested interests in defining the institution’s culture and purpose.

Universities always will be transparent to outside political influences, so resilience for leaders and continued recruitment of new members  to local AAUP chapters is critical, as are viable communication links [17]. The development and maintenance of independent listservs and newsletters is crucial. Research activities are important, both for public relations and information dissemination, and as a “truth-out strategy” to counteract false assertions made by the opposition. Soliciting support from outside groups stimulates new ideas, legitimates the struggle, and assures activists that they are not acting in a vacuum.  Further, tenured full professors must lead the fight so as to protect those without tenure. Being branded a trouble-maker, a “collaborator” in the negative sense, or a traitor can lead to dismissal. Even tenured spokespeople must be protected from the rampant burnout that characterizes these activities.

Inclusivity also is an effective strategy; the AHCAF/AAUP chapter activists worked hard to give credibility to anyone supportive of academic freedom, even those who had initially been opposed to their actions. As a result, many people who opposed AHCAF efforts to reinstate Ward Churchill and Adrienne Anderson did eventually support the AHCAF’s other efforts to instate tenure for instructors and restore the Silver & Gold Record. (LeCompte 2006, 2008; LeCompte and Bonetti 2010)

Universities are small communities, and in small communities, people have to work together and retain civility despite dire disagreements and conflicts of interest. Being able to discuss different issues actually facilitated membership growth as greater opportunities to participate were created, people got to know one another, and began to share principles.  Perhaps most important is that the activists formed a community.  Because of the long time periods needed for change to occur, activists need to get something valuable out of their efforts beyond the long-term hope of achieving one’s initial goals. Combining business with socializing over pot luck dinners or wine and cheese—as was the standard practice among the CU activists–helped to build friendships and a community that sustained activist enthusiasm over the long haul. Finally, the most effective of the activists learned to be patient.  The struggle for faculty rights is never-ending.  Thus, while none of the strategies that the activist group attempted succeeded as intended, they still constitute part of a yet on-going, unfinished struggle.


Struggles of cultural groups against entrenched and vested interests always are difficult contestations. Indeed, in the case of universities, some of the reluctance of faulty to rise to the support of individuals such as Churchill and Anderson may have been the consequence of deep-seated and romantic notions of the “Academy” as a neutral ground for fact-finding and problem-solving, without the hurly-burly of political struggles.  And yet, universities have not only been havens for controversial thinkers since their inception over a thousand years ago, but they also have protected orthodoxies.  Further, they always have been subject to pressures from outside and from internal groups who view dissent as heresy, and seek to protect the hegemony of powerful stakeholders.  In this article can be discerned, echoes of past political and intellectual struggles in higher education , and more may be expected in the future.  Nonetheless, the principles that informed the struggle to protect the work and persons of Adrienne Anderson and Ward Churchill remain the core of what academic communities – and the culture they represent – must support.

Contributor details

Margaret D. LeCompte earned her MA and PhD at the University of Chicago, after serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Somalia. She taught research methods and sociology in the School of Education, University of Colorado-Boulder, until retiring in 2011. She has authored and edited 14 books and many articles on qualitative research methods, school reform and school organization, and school success among at-risk, ethnically diverse, gifted, artistically creative and language minority students. Dr. LeCompte was president of the Council on Anthropology and Education of the American Anthropology Association and editor of the journal, Review of Educational Research, from 2003-2006. In 2011, the Council on Anthropology and Education awarded her the George and Louise Spindler Prize for lifetime contributions to the field of anthropology and education.


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[1] This right is clearly described in the University by-laws and the faculty handbook as solely the prerogative of faculty.

[2] Judge Naves, presiding over the Churchill case against the University of Colorado, ruled that University trustees held ‘quasi-judicial immunity’ against prosecution, and that therefore, faculty could not appeal any decisions made by such trustees. The Colorado Supreme court upheld this decision, despite the lower court’s jury decision holding Churchill innocent of charges.

[3] This decision effectively renders University administrators and their Boards of Trustees immune from any legal sanctions in their treatment of faculty, no matter how inappropriate or egregious.

[4] The Supreme Court of Colorado upheld Judge Naves’ decision, and the Supreme Court of the US refused to hear the case.

[5] Though Anderson’s whistleblower case on behalf of the Metro Wastewater workers was handled in district court, the Department of Labor retains jurisdiction over appeals of such cases.  Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao ruled that Anderson did not have standing to bring the OSHA case because, though she had been hired by the Wastewater workers’ union as an expert witness and consultant, she was not herself a wastewater worker (Anderson v Chao and Metro Wastewater Reclamation District.  No. 03-9570.  On Petition for Review of the Final Decision and Order of the Secretary of Labor. Retrieved from

[6] For example, the Coors Events Center—an indoor basketball  stadium  and  the Scripps-Howard funded program for environmental journalism.

[7]Anderson’s classes were requirements for the environmental studies major; the department argued they were no longer needed because of a change in curriculum. However, a tenure-track position in environmental ethics – her area of expertise – was advertised the following fall.

[8] After being fired from CU, Anderson continued her work with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center fighting against pollutants, especially plutonium and other radio-nuclides. Her last employment was with a construction workers’ union, where she investigated potential development sites to assure that they were free from toxic contamination. Anderson died of an aggressive brain tumor in September 2011, perhaps caused by exposure to NDMA, one of the chemicals she was fighting to keep out of the Denver water supply.

[9] The report initially clearing Churchill of wrongdoing and asserting his free speech rights and associated material is available at:  The report of the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct which investigated charges of plagiarism and other violations is available at

[10] Although other factors influenced her resignation, including an ongoing scandal involving the Athletic office and football team, her comments seemed the final straw related to her departure.

[11] The 40-year-old Silver and Gold Record was shut down in 2007 by the CU President and replaced by an Administration-run electronic newsletter, ostensibly for budgetary reasons.

[12] The charges leveled against Churchill could be found in blogs, editorial pages, and emails, but were not made by the authors whose work was said to have been plagiarized or misrepresentedThe University claimed that “many people” had complained about Churchill’s alleged plagiarism.  But when those allegations were chased down, they proved inaccurate.  None of the supposed complainants had actually complained.  The charges were attempts to frame Churchill. When asked where the charges had come from, the Acting Chancellor stated in the February 2005 meeting with the Arts and Sciences faculty, a meeting at which the author was present,  that he himself had brought them.

[13] This statement was contained in a letter from the chair of the CU Health Sciences Campus IRB, to whom the faculty grievances were sent for evaluation by Joseph Rosse, the chair of the University of Colorado Boulder Office of Research Integrity, who had appointed the SCRM. This IRB is designed to evaluate the ethics of bio-medical research and had no expertise in any of the matters alleged in or addressed by the Churchill case. It dismissed the grievance on the grounds that it contained no empirical or scientific research findings.  In fact, the IRBs are not charged with investigating research misconduct of the nature alleged in the Churchill case.

[14] The University of Colorado gets less than 5% of its revenue from the state, putting it at 49th or 50th in levels of funding among American public universities.

[15] By way of example, a work-study student at the CU Foundation was told by a donor that he would not complete his planned donation of an endowed chair to CU until Ward Churchill was fired. Legislators also threatened to delete the amount of Churchill’s salary from the university’s budget  (Eron, Hudson and Hulen 2011).

[16] Files of the author include a variety of emails received during this period, with contents ranging from diplomatic to vulgar and obscene. The Anderson v Metro Wastewater court documents enumerate some of the harassment Anderson encountered.  Eron, Hudson and Hulen’s 2011 Report  on the Ward Churchill case also details the harassment he and his supporters experienced.

[17] This may well have been the impetus the Administration’s elimination of the 40-year old faculty newspaper, the Silver & Gold Record; doing so greatly impeded the ability of faculty to share information across and among the four campuses of the University of Colorado system (Dinegar 2009; Grossman 2009).