A Skeptic on 9/11 Prompts Questions on Academic Freedom
By Gretchen Ruethling
The New York Times
August 1, 2006
MADISON, Wis., July 26 ? Sipping on a bottle of water and holding a book about the history and future of Islam, Kevin Barrett ticked off a few examples of what he saw as evidence that the Sept. 11 attacks had been an “inside job.”
As children zoomed by on tricycles and shot basketballs at a community center near his home, Mr. Barrett, 47, described how some news orgainzations (the French daily newspaper Figaro and Radio France International, in fact) had reported that an agent from the Central Intelligence Agency visited with Osama bin Laden two months before the attacks. He also said fires could not have caused the collapse of the World Trade Center towers at free-fall speed, as reported by the special Sept. 11 commission. “The 9/11 report will be universally reviled as a sham and a cover-up very soon,” said Mr. Barrett, who has been a teacher’s assistant or lecturer on Islam, African literature and other subjects at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, since 1996. “The 9/11 commission has its conspiracy theory, and we have ours.”
Mr. Barrett’s views, which he described on a conservative radio talk show in June, have outraged some Wisconsin legislators and generated a fierce debate about academic freedom on a campus long known as a haven for progressive ideologies and student activism.
“They apparently have no limits to what can be taught in the classroom,” Representative Steve Nass said of the university’s decision to allow Mr. Barrett to teach a class this fall titled “Islam: Religion and Culture.”
“Barrett has got to go,” Mr. Nass, a Whitewater Republican, said. “It is an embarrassment for the state of Wisconsin. It is an embarrassment for the university.”
The week of July 24, Mr. Nass, who is up for re-election this year, sent a resolution signed by 61 state legislators ? all but one of them Republican ? to Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat, and university officials condemning Mr. Barrett’s “academically dishonest views” and demanding that his one-semester contract to teach the class for a salary of $8,247 be terminated.
Mr. Barrett, a co-founder of a group called Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth, argued that he had never presented his personal opinions in class and that he was free to offer those opinions on his own time outside the classroom.
“Why is liberal Wisconsin going bananas over an $8,000-a-year lecturer who’s not even teaching his own views in the course?” Mr. Barrett asked. “I go out of my way to bring in diverse interpretations for students to look at.”
The university’s chancellor, John D. Wiley, said that he was baffled by Mr. Barrett’s beliefs but that they were irrelevant in the classroom, where he must stick to a syllabus that has been approved by the department. That syllabus includes a week devoted to the war on terror.
A 10-day university review had determined that Mr. Barrett presented a variety of viewpoints and that he had not discussed his personal opinions in the classroom, Mr. Wiley said.
“I think it would be a serious mistake for legislators to try to get in and micromanage curriculum,” said Mr. Wiley, who added that university officials would keep an eye on Mr. Barrett by meeting with him throughout the semester. “We don’t go around and question all our instructors to find out what all their views are.”
At the University of Colorado, a committee voted in June to fire Ward L. Churchill, an ethnic studies professor who had compared some victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to a Nazi official. Professor Churchill appealed this month to keep his job.
And early this year at Northwestern University, Arthur R. Butz, a tenured professor of engineering, drew strong criticism after saying he agreed with the belief of the president of Iran that the Holocaust was a myth.
Patrick V. Farrell, the provost of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said the university was not focusing on Mr. Barrett’s political views but on the teaching and learning experience in the classroom.
“I want to avoid as much as we can creating some kind of a political test for instructors or faculty, to say that only those whose thinking fits within some predetermined mold are well equipped to teach our students,” Mr. Farrell said. “I think that creates a dangerous precedent.”
Some Wisconsin students said they thought it was a crucial part of a college education to learn about a variety of theories, including radical ones, before forming opinions on a topic.
“It’s a student’s decision in a class whether they believe what a professor is saying,” said Jillian Alpire, 22, who graduated this year. “Just because he said his opinions on a radio station does not mean that’s what the course is going to be about.”
Ben Kopish, 20, a junior, said that such a controversial discourse should be welcomed at a public university that is known for fostering outspoken academic debate.
“If it doesn’t happen somewhere like the Madison campus,” Mr. Kopish said, “then I don’t know where else it would happen.”
But Katherine Brown, 20, who had finished a summer course on Islam, questioned the role of such a political discussion in a religion class.
“I just feel like it isn’t relevant because Islam is a religion,” said Ms. Brown, who added that she agreed with her own professor’s decision not to discuss the war on terror. “It’s not about what’s going on currently in politics so much.”
Mr. Barrett’s ideas place him squarely within a loose confederation of skeptics who think the American government had a role in the Sept. 11 attacks and whose theories are spread through the Internet and other means.
Mr. Barrett and Chancellor Wiley both said the controversy might actually be helping provide Mr. Barrett with a larger platform to voice his ideas. It has sparked curiosity in students like Ms. Brown, who said she was interested in finding out more about why Mr. Barrett believes what he does.
Although Ms. Brown said she did not believe that the government could have been involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, she added, “So many very important things that we know now were considered radical when they were first presented as ideas.”
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