In a case that touches on several key aspects of academic freedom, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has come under fire for hiring an instructor who believes the 9/11 attacks were planned by the United States government to teach a course on Islam.
The instructor in question, Kevin Barrett, was hired by UW-Madison as a one-term substitute lecturer for a course on “Islam: Religion and Culture.” According to several published sources, Barrett has previously taught at UW-Madison, but not on Islam. He received his Ph.D. from the University in 2004 in African languages, literature, and folklore.
Barrett’s appointment as an instructor led to a public furor after he appeared on a Milwaukee radio show to discuss his view that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by a conspiracy between the U.S. Government and the CIA as a “fabricated war-trigger event” planned to instigate war with Iraq. Barrett is also one of the founders of the group “Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth” which cites similar views on its website.
Barrett’s remarks on the show sparked calls for his termination, with one Wisconsin legislator, Rep. Steve Nass, releasing a statement that Barrett “needs to be fired” and that “The fact that Mr. Barrett uses his position at UW-Madison to add credibility to his outlandish claims is an unacceptable embarrassment to the people of Wisconsin and the UW system.”
The relevant question in this case is not Barrett’s publicly stated views on 9/11 as a government conspiracy. His position as a university instructor in no way precludes his right as an ordinary citizen to hold whatever political beliefs he desires—no matter how absurd or heinous—and to shout those views from the rooftops. In short, academic freedom protects his right to make a fool of himself in public, and legislators such as Rep. Nass are wrong to seek his termination on those grounds.
The case however raises grave questions about UW-Madison’s academic standards. By his own admission, Barrett has previously discussed his views on the 9/11 attacks with students in his courses and he plans to spend one week of his upcoming course on Islam discussing both the 9/11 government conspiracy theories and what he terms “the official story.”
In its 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure (long considered the definitive standard on academic freedom within the academy), the American Association of University Professors asserts that “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”
The statement also cautions faculty to remember that their unique status “imposes special obligations” and “they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances” and therefore “should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”
By planning to insert his personal view that 9/11 was caused by a government conspiracy into a course on the “religion and culture” of Islam, Barrett makes a mockery of these academic principles. His view is unscholarly, unstudied, and unsubstantiated and to include it in an academic course is an outrage and embarrassment for his university, tantamount to including a segment on Holocaust denial in a course on Jewish culture or a discussion of why the earth might be flat in a geology course.
As the 1940 statement observes, academic freedom is premised on faculty observing professional standards in the classroom. They are entitled to this freedom because of their unique position as experts in a particular academic field. Barrett’s use of the classroom to expound upon his personal beliefs on a subject in which he has no academic qualifications or background, is a clear infringement of these standards.
Barrett has also violated the second tenet of the AAUP statement, quoted above, which cautions faculty to “exercise appropriate restraint” and judiciousness in their utterances and to understand that when they speak in public, their views will perceived as belonging to the university they represent. While Rep. Wisconsin Representative Nass was unwise to seek Barrett’s termination solely on the grounds of his political beliefs, he is correct that Barrett is an “embarrassment” to the UW system because he failed to exercise this restraint.
It is further questionable why Barrett, with a degree in African languages, literature and folklore, is teaching a course on Islam, particularly one with an apparent concentration on political and historical events in which he has no academic expertise. The Islam course is usually taught by Professor Muhammad Memon who is going on sabbatical this fall, resulting in the appointment of Barrett as a substitute instructor. Asked about Barrett’s teaching qualifications, Memon commented that he was considered a good replacement because he had served as a teaching assistant for the course, and also noted that Barrett was the only applicant for the opening.
It appears that the real scandal at UW-Madison is not Barrett’s controversial political views, but rather that an instructor with his scant qualifications could be appointed to teach a course requiring a great deal of specific historical study and expertise, particularly when he has openly declared that he will use his position as instructor to advocate for an unscholarly and absurd personal belief. It is inexcusable that the University, upon finding he was the only applicant for the position, did not bother to seek other applicants.
Spurred by public outrage, Madison Provost Patrick Farrell has promised to review Barrett’s course syllabus and reading list and past evaluations of his teaching performance. This is a good first step, but it addresses only the symptoms and ignores the cause of the disease. In order to ensure that the academic freedom of both students and faculty are respected, UW-Madison should review its policies regarding the academic standards for faculty and should revise its student handbooks and materials to include clear and specific protections for students’ academic freedom.
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