At St. Olaf's College, it was a professor's rapid-reaction criticism of the Bush administration that set things off. At Yale University, a faculty panel was accused of blaming the victims. And at California State University at Chico, a political science professor received a flood of hate mail after highly critical comments about US foreign policy.
Across the United States, the standard fall fare of homecoming and football is being eclipsed by campus discussions of war and foreign policy. Students and professors have been gathering in classrooms and at teach-ins to sort through events that have galvanized their communities in ways not seen since the Vietnam War.
But the discussion has been anything but easy.
In a setting often chided for its political correctness, liberal and often critical speech is suddenly butting up against flag-waving patriotism. At a number of institutions, intellectuals have had their knuckles publicly rapped by students, administrators, and commentators for sounding unsupportive of their country.
The increasingly sharp edges of the exchange are raising questions about whether free speech and broad intellectual inquiry into the root causes of Sept. 11 will be tolerated on campus. In some cases, "my-country-love-it-or-leave-it" fervor is dominating. In others, a "peace first" stance threatens to prevent substantive discussion of opposing views.
With emotions running high on and off campus, faculty with reasoned but controversial views may simply keep those views to themselves. And that, observers warn, would mean a dangerous abdication of higher education's traditional role of questioning the unquestioned - and ensuring that students are exposed to a broad range of perspectives.
"We know there have been times in the history of this country when public affairs - national crises - have led to an atmosphere of repression and fear," says Richard Freeland, president of Northeastern University in Boston. An expert on the history of higher education, he points to the "red scare" of the 1950s, when scores of academics lost their jobs.
"My hope as a historian is that we can learn from our past mistakes," he adds. "I think we can weather this crisis. I hope so."
Henry Jenkins, professor of literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a participant in several recent teach-ins, has similar concerns.
"It would be a real corruption of the university if we were to assume that mass-producing patriots is its primary function," he says.
"If you look at the way other institutions in the society have worked to shut down the exploration of ideas in response to this tragedy, it's clear the universities have a critical role," he continues. "We want intelligent assessments of policy in order to have a reasonable chance of success."
George Wright, a political science professor at California State University at Chico, got a firsthand look at what controversial views could yield when he spoke out in the wake of the attacks.
Standing among about 400 assembled at the Free Speech Area on campus, the veteran political science professor - a specialist in third-world political systems, including Marxism - stepped forward.
First, he called the Sept. 11 attacks a "crime against humanity" - to audience approval. But then he castigated United States foreign policy - an area he has written about for three decades.
His critique was unsparing. The administration was not just after terrorists, Wright argued, it was aiming to "kill innocent people," to "militarize" the Middle East, and to "colonize" the Arab world to gain access to oil "for the Bush family," the Chico Enterprise Record reported.
Wright said in an interview that he was trying to show that the attack did not happen in a vacuum. He added that the comments were reported somewhat out of context, noting, for example, that he had said military action "would imply that innocent people would be killed."
Regardless, it was too much for some in the audience. One voice shouted, "this [meeting] should be about the victims."
"This is about the victims," Wright countered.
"We're here for the victims," another voice shouted.
"My sister was on that island when the plane hit," one woman yelled.
Wright's remarks have earned him a slot as whipping boy on conservative talk-radio shows - along with an avalanche of e-mail with threatening subject headings like "Dead Man Walking."
Manuel Esteban, president of Chico State, defended Wright's decision to speak, but suggested his timing and judgment were poor. Wright disagrees.
"This notion that you don't want students to feel bad is not new," he says. "There is a tone on campus ... that students should not feel uncomfortable - that they're not there to challenge or upset their world view. But I think that's what college education is all about."
At Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, the timing of a teach-in didn't boil over into full-blown controversy, but it did lead to some discomfort. The Sept. 20 panel discussion included professors of political science, religion, psychology, English, and sociology/anthropology. Earlier in the day, students had attended an emotional vigil, and many seemed unprepared to make the switch to the teach-in's analytical approach.
"I talked to students who were turned off by the intellectualization of the whole issue," says Jeremy Schifeling, a junior. "It did come off as a little cold.... It's almost like [the professors] were trying to take a step back and look at it from a larger perspective, when everybody was still stuck on a primary level."
But while they may have trouble reconciling their gut reactions with academic viewpoints, many students now seem willing to hear criticisms of the United States, as long as they feel like the people voicing those ideas have some degree of objectivity.
"Professors have to be particularly careful, because they do occupy a position of authority and knowledge," says Sara Nordstrom, a junior anthropology major at Rutgers University, who last week went to her first teach-in, entitled "Why is America hated so much?"
Though the speakers represented various disciplines, she says their opinions were similar. Most took issue with the government and the media's us-vs.-them message. Many also said Middle Eastern people may dislike US policies, but don't hate all Americans.
Ms. Nordstrom didn't take issue with the fact that the professors criticized US policy, but she thinks it's important that they "articulate their opinions carefully, and admit when they don't know something, because students look to professors for answers."
Many outsiders peering in at the US wonder why there is so much self-criticism - much of it concluding that US foreign policy and American culture are at least partly responsible for creating a context within which terrorists thrive.
Nowhere has this aspect of the debate been more clear than at Yale University, in the wake of a forum that seemed one-sided to some.
"Suppose that there existed today a powerful, unified Arab-Muslim state that stretched from Algeria to Turkey and Arabia," said Paul Kennedy, one of six panelists and a professor of history at Yale.
He continued, describing a world in which America was split into small factions, and a Muslim state had the biggest economy and most powerful military in the world, the Yale Daily news reported. Also, that imaginary state spreads offensive cultural messages about women and sexuality. "In those conditions, would not many Americans grow to loathe that colossus?" Dr. Kennedy wondered. "I think so."
After the forum, some criticized the panel for lacking a diversity in viewpoints, saying there was little or no counterpoint view suggesting that the US had a right to respond forcefully.
"Here is a classic example of blaming the victim," Donald Kagan, a Yale history professor, wrote in a guest column in the school paper: "Surely it is wise to try to understand why people do terrible things. But to understand should not be the same as to justify their actions by blaming whatever it was that produced the anger, resentment, and hatred that led to these terrible murders and destruction."
The Yale event raised the specter of renewed "culture wars" on campus as liberals and conservatives vie to promote their views about the causes of and solutions to the Sept. 11 attack.
Catherine Labio, an Belgian-born assistant professor of comparative literature and French at Yale, saw the discussion through a different lens.
"I don't know to what extent what was said is typical of academics in general or Yale academics in particular," she wrote in an e-mail interview. The intellectual message seemed to lay blame at the feet of US foreign policy, a view she is not convinced the larger academic community shares.
As a European, she explains, she has seen much anti-Americanism and has thought a lot about its roots. Dr. Labio does not personally believe the attack had its roots in policies or culture, but rather in an antagonism to what America "has done right."
"I can't help but wonder sometimes whether our willingness to expose our own flaws has not blinded some academics to the strengths of a system that allows them to engage in critical inquiry," she writes.
At St. Olaf College, some faculty on the Northfield, Minn., campus began the day of the attacks to evaluate the government's ability to deal with the crisis.
For some students, the instant, cold analysis and open criticism was not welcome. Two asked the dean if professors could show more concern for their fears by offering fewer "negative comments regarding the leadership abilities of the American government in solving the crisis at hand."
"Students spent the morning watching planes hitting buildings and blowing up," says Greg Kneser, the dean. "They weren't prepared for this political analysis critical of the US government. When your house is on fire, you don't want individuals standing there saying how stupid the firefighters are."
The faculty has since debated whether there is a line on criticism involving personal views and criticism of US policy that should not be crossed, especially in crisis. There was no consensus.
Staff writers Marjorie Coeyman and Mary Wiltenburg contributed to this article.