Teacher's radical 9/11 views raise red flags
A university lecturer casts doubt that terrorists plotted the attacks. Is that academic freedom?
CHICAGO — According to Kevin Barrett, the US government planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks, the World Trade Center imploded due to explosives set up ahead of time in the buildings, Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone's plane crash was no accident, and Osama bin Laden has probably been dead since 2001.
Mr. Barrett is not a radical anarchist or a teenager peddling conspiracy theories; he's a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison – a fact that has outraged some state politicians.
The case has drawn national attention and provided grist for conservative talk-show hosts, while the university has been deluged with e-mails against Barrett. Yet it has stuck by the decision to have him teach a planned course on Islam this fall.
Beyond the emotional reactions, the case raises questions about academic freedom: Are there limits to what can be taught, and if so, who decides them? Are certain views indicative of incompetence, as some Wisconsin legislators have said, or does such criticism lead to censorship?
"There should be no limits at all as to what subjects can be subjected to academic analysis," says Stanley Fish, a law professor at Florida International University in Miami. "But you should be performing as an academic and not as a partisan or preacher or moral judge."
That's the view the administration took as well, when they investigated. They found that however outlandish his personal opinions, Barrett – who was given an $8,427 contract to teach this course – was given good reviews for his past teaching. He plans to look at 9/11, including his own views, during one week of the course, but through a range of lenses.
"He does a good job teaching that course, no matter what his views are," says John Wiley, the university's chancellor. Interference from legislators or the public sets a dangerous precedent, Chancellor Wiley adds. "If there's one place controversy should be welcomed, it's universities."
Such controversies are not new or rare. Taboo subjects have included sex, politics, and even butter – in the 1940s when dairy industry grew angry over research into alternatives. More recently, the University of Colorado faced criticism over its defense of Ward Churchill, an ethnic studies professor who called some 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns" in a 2001 essay. The university ultimately voted to fire Professor Churchill for professional misconduct, including plagiarism and fabrication of information – a decision he is contesting.
Earlier this year, an electrical engineering professor at Northwestern, Arthur Butz, raised the ire of some for denying the Holocaust. His critics said such views – even if not discussed in the classroom – showed an incompetence that shouldn't be tolerated.
That argument may be appropriate occasionally, says Jonathan Knight, of the department of academic freedom and governance at the American Association of University Professors. "The faculty member who devotes part of his course on physics to the proposition that the moon is made of cheese could rightly be accused of professional behavior that amounts to incompetence. But short of that, colleges and universities are places where ideas of the most unusual sort ought to be tested before students and peers."
Those sort of defenses seem like a cop-out to Steve Nass, the Wisconsin state representative who has led the charge against Barrett and gained 61 signatures from other legislators for a resolution calling for his dismissal.
"I have no problem with discussion on unpopular ideas in the classroom, but substantiate what you're talking about," Representative Nass says. "This isn't academic freedom. This person can't substantiate his views."
The legislature is on recess until January, but if Barrett is rehired, Nass says he'll introduce a proposal to cut funding to the administration.
Barrett says he's surprised at the uproar, which began when he aired some of his views on a popular state radio show. He understands that they are divisive – although he points to a recent Zogby poll showing that 42 percent of Americans believe they were not told the whole truth about 9/11 as evidence of growing acceptance. He disagrees that they're unsubstantiated, citing experts who have looked into Mr. Wellstone's plane crash, Bin Laden and what could have caused the Twin Towers to fall.
Raising doubt over who caused the plane crashes on 9/11 is critical to understanding the Muslim world, he says. "I don't inflict my views on students, but it's important they understand that the vast majority of the world's Muslims believe that 9/11 was an inside job, and important to understand why they hold those beliefs."
He tends toward a Sophist technique, he says, in which he presents a wide variety of viewpoints and encourages debate on them.
So long as he sticks to that, Professor Fish says, Barrett should be fine.
But Fish says that professors do push their own politics or beliefs. "That doesn't mean you can't bring current political questions into the classroom," he says. "But they have to be academicized."