Earlier this month, the folklore department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison sponsored an event billed as "9/11: Folklore and Fact."
Held in the university’s social sciences building, two leaders in what is known as the "9/11 Truth" movement—Kevin Barrett and James Fetzer—came to discuss their notion that 9/11 resulted not from the actions of al Qaeda, but from a Bush Administration conspiracy. As Barrett has claimed on many occasions, he doesn’t "believe, but knows that 9/11 was an inside job."
Considering this event was sponsored and hosted by an institution that is funded by taxpayer dollars, the residents of Wisconsin have plenty to be angry about. But the story gets worse, for Barrett teaches a class on introductory Islam at the university. His continued presence at Madison illustrates the tendency of contemporary academe to protect its own, standards be damned.
For despite his crack-pot views, Barrett enjoys the full backing of the university’s top administrators and his department colleagues. Indeed, it’s likely he enjoys more support than if he held mainstream views. Earlier this year, after questions were raised, a panel consisting of the university’s provost, the dean of the College of Letters and Science, and the chair of the department of languages and cultures of Asia pronounced Barrett fit for the classroom. As Provost Patrick Farrell explained to Madison’s NBC affiliate, "He’s welcome to his political opinions."
Calling Barrett’s conspiracism a "political opinion" allows Farrell and Barrett’s other supporters to depict the controversy as a matter of free speech, as if to demarcate his personal opinions from his professional knowledge. University administrators can thereby simultaneously disdain Barrett’s views and defend his employment.
Although few professors agree with Barrett’s "inside job" conspiracy theory, nearly all considered it extremely important to stand by his appointment while being interviewed for this piece. Their reasoning breaks down roughly into three camps:
The first rejects any judgment of professorial speech. Harold Scheub, Barrett’s dissertation adviser in African languages and literature, argued that, "A university is a place for ideas, and when the question of speech and academic freedom becomes relevant, it’s not with the normal, generally-accepted ideas, because these are seldom called into question. It’s when you go to boundary issues and have ideas about them. That’s when—as you can see—people start getting very nervous and upset. And if you start putting barriers and building boundaries around ideas, I don’t know where that stops."
Islamic studies professor Muhammad Memon—whose sabbatical precipitated Barrett’s hiring—asserted that, "we’re wasting our time, resources, money, energy on issues which really are not that important, and least important in a country which prides itself on freedom of thought and freedom of expression."
A second group sees the issue in terms of autonomy for the university—something all the more pertinent given that the University of Wisconsin is based in the state’s capital of Madison: "We all look at this case and we wonder what’s happened to the University of Wisconsin," explained a humanities professor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But on the other hand, we’re really concerned about pressure from the state legislature. Once they get their foot in that door, how we’re going to extract it I have no idea. I don’t know if I’d say we stand by the guy, but we stand by the process."
A third group combines both these arguments. Surprisingly, it includes Donald Downs, president of UW-Madison’s Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights—an organization that exists to confront political correctness on campus:
"I totally reject what Barrett stands for, and I haven’t met any faculty here that agree with him in any way, but that is his belief," said Downs in a phone interview. "And sure, it’s awful. It’s immoral. And the outrage is certainly understandable. But Barrett has already gotten the contract to be a lecturer, so the question is whether or not he’ll be able to teach the class in a responsible way. And the evidence suggests that that is the case."
"And the other issue," Downs added, "is the political pressure: the legislature dictating to us that you’ve got to fire this guy or proceed ‘at your own peril.’ That raises a host of other kinds of questions. It doesn’t mean that you don’t fire the guy simply because you resist the legislature, but you should be very careful."
Because of these sentiments, eight other members of the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights joined Downs in publicly supporting the university in mid-July.
But there were dissenters, led by Marshall Onellion, another member of the committee who’s currently finishing a book on ideology.
"In almost any other discipline," Onellion explained in an interview. "They’d regard the guy as a fruitcake. So when Donald asked the group for our thoughts, I said ‘No way.’ The reason for me is that I simply don’t believe that he could possibly be able to teach a course on Islam in an objective fashion," Onellion continued. "It has nothing to do with his intellect; it’s his passion. Any person who sincerely believes that the U.S. government plotted September 11 is entitled to his beliefs, but he’s not entitled to pretend to possess an objectivity that he clearly doesn’t have. Just as I wouldn’t hire a Holocaust denier to teach a course on twentieth century European history, I wouldn’t hire Barrett to teach a course on Islam. They’d be incapable of objectively going through the events. The analogy is precise."
Expanding Onellion’s analogy, can one imagine any university hiring a professor of modern European history who denied the Holocaust or who taught that the French Revolution resulted from schemes hatched by Freemasons? One would hope that certain ways of thinking are too extreme even in today’s rudderless university.
But that is not the case. Barrett benefits from the strength of the modern professoriate. Administrators don’t so much lead faculties as appease them, the better to maintain their friendships and lucrative jobs (ask Larry Summers). Such faculty strength can lead to particularly noxious results in the field of Middle East studies, which is among the most radicalized in academe. In this context, what a fool believes is less important than where he believes it.