CU weighs buyout for firebrand prof
University of Colorado officials are considering offering Ward Churchill an early retirement package that could end an increasingly uncomfortable standoff with the controversial professor. Two people familiar with internal CU discussions said the still-undetermined offer is in the idea stage. The discussions come just a week before a three-person panel is scheduled to deliver a report on Churchill’s fitness for tenure. David Lane, Churchill’s attorney, said he has not been contacted about a buyout offer. But, he said, while his primary focus is on protecting Churchill’s constitutional right to speak out, he would be willing to listen to a university proposal. “If they offer $10 million, I would think about it. If they offer him $10, I wouldn’t,” Lane said. Attorneys for CU were not available for comment Friday afternoon. Since it was first reported that Churchill, a CU ethnic studies professor, had demonized some of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the university has faced relentless scrutiny of its hiring practices and faculty qualifications. Churchill has undergone an extensive media review of his scholarship, artwork and genealogy, while everyone from radio talk-show hosts to syndicated newspaper columnists have questioned his integrity, his ancestry and his military career. CU regents have said they are bound by due process and authorized a review of Churchill’s writings and speech by a panel comprising the interim Boulder chancellor, the arts and sciences dean, and the law school dean. Depending on the panel’s findings, due the week of March 7, CU president Betsy Hoffman could inform Churchill of the university’s desire to terminate his employment. Churchill would then have the right to appeal through a faculty committee. Typically such dismissals – even if done by the book – result in years of expensive lawsuits that Hoffman told legislators last week the university would like to avoid. Sources involved in the talks said if an arrangement could be made, it could get everyone off the hook, including Churchill, the subject of daily press revelations. The latest controversy is whether an artwork by Churchill titled “Winter Attack” was copied from a 1972 piece by Thomas Mails, “The Mystic Warriors of the Plains.” Churchill told KCNC-Channel 4 last week that he had permission to use Mails’ work in his art. However, Mails has died, and copyright experts say an agreement could be as informal as a telephone conversation. The original drawing by Thomas Mails, top, and professor Ward Churchill’s disputed piece. It is clear that Churchill’s work is extremely similar to Mails’, said Denver attorney James Hubbell, who handles intellectual property cases. “Is Churchill’s work different enough to constitute a different work? The answer to that is, ‘No, it doesn’t,”‘ Hubbell said. “It’s awfully similar, and probably too similar.” An Aurora art gallery removed the Churchill print from an Internet auction site after its attorney advised the gallery that it might violate copyright laws by selling it. “It’s just too much of a headache for a few hundred dollars’ sale,” said Darren Zueger, general manager of American Design Ltd. Another copy of “Winter Attack” remains for sale on the Internet by someone other than American Design. American Design is selling several other Churchill pieces, which were written off the books and placed in storage, since the controversy brought the CU professor’s name to a nationwide public. At least two other Churchill works are painted from historic photos of Native Americans, but Zueger said it is common for artists to use photos in their work. Duke Prentup, who bought a copy of “Winter Attack” for $100 in the mid-1980s from Churchill, said he feels taken advantage of because he thought it was an original work. “I was a little shocked, a little disappointed,” he said. Prentup was reviewing his Indian library last month when a book by Mails broke apart at the binding and opened to the page with Mails’ “Mystic Warriors of the Plains” drawing. “I’ve seen this before,” Prentup said to himself. “It’s on my wall.” Questions also remain about Churchill’s resumé. In a version provided to American Design by either Churchill or one of his publishers, he says he served with the 101st Airborne Division during the Vietnam War. Military records, however, show he worked as a light-truck driver in South Vietnam. Regents, who may one day be called upon to vote on Churchill’s job, are upset about the daily publicity over the controversial professor, saying it could cause long-term damage to CU’s reputation. “The possible damage to the university this controversy has created will take years to recover from,” said Regent Peter Steinhauer.