The University of Wisconsin at Madison — under political pressure to fire an instructor who argues that the United States plotted the 9/11 attacks — has cleared the way for him to teach this fall.
Patrick Farrell, Wisconsin's provost, issued a statement Monday in which he strongly defended the right of Kevin Barrett to teach at the university, whatever his controversial views. "We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas," Farrell said. "That classroom interaction is central to this university's mission and to the expansion of knowledge. Silencing that exchange now would only open the door to more onerous and sweeping restrictions."
While Barrett is scheduled to teach only one course this fall — and as a part-timer — his presence at Madison has infuriated conservative politicians in the state and many others since he went on a radio show last month to share his views about 9/11. After Barrett was quoted as saying that he would share his views in the course, "Islam: Religion and Culture," Farrell announced that he would conduct a review of Barrett's past performance at the university and his plans for the course. Barrett earned his Ph.D. from Madison in 2004.
In his review, Farrell reviewed Barrett's past record at Madison as well as the syllabus and reading list for the course he was hired to teach in the fall. He said that his review convinced him that there was no reason to prevent Barrett from teaching.
"There is no question that Mr. Barrett holds personal opinions that many people find unconventional," Farrell said. "These views are expected to take a small, but significant, role in the class. To the extent that his views are discussed, Mr. Barrett has assured me that students will be free — and encouraged — to challenge his viewpoint."
Many of the political leaders who have called for Barrett to be fired have suggested that he would somehow dupe Madison students, but Farrell rejected that idea. "Our students are not blank slates. They are capable of exercising good judgment, critical analysis and speaking their minds," Farrell said. "Instructors do not hand over knowledge wrapped up in neat packages. Knowledge grows from challenging ideas in a setting that encourages dialogue and disagreement. That's what builds the kind of sophisticated, critical thinking we expect from our graduates."
In an e-mail message, Barrett said he was pleased with the outcome. He said that letters on his behalf swayed Wisconsin administrators. In a note to supporters, Barrett said, "Many of you argued that people who question the official story of 9/11 are not crazy, but patriotic Americans doing their duty as informed citizens. Others argued that university instructors should not be fired for their political opinions. You won both arguments."
He also challenged the many critics of his views on September 11 — including many who defend his right to academic freedom, but say his theories have no validity — to debate him. Barrett's views and writings can be found on the Web site of the Muslim-Christian-Jewish Alliance for 9/11 Truth, a group he founded.
Many of those who had been calling for Barrett's dismissal said that they were dismayed by the decision to keep him on. The vast majority of academics who have spoken out about the case have dismissed his theories as absurd, but most of those people have also suggested that the university would endanger academic freedom by firing an instructor for his political views. Much of the political criticism of Barrett — from lawmakers and on talk radio — has included calls for his immediate dismissal.
"If the overpaid administrators at UW-Madison feel justified in defending Kevin Barrett, then their decision will make it that much easier for me to fight for greater administrative cuts for the UW in the next budget. They have academic freedom, but the taxpayers and the legislature have the power of the purse string," said State Rep. Steve Nass, a Republican. He added that the case shows that "the leadership of UW-Madison fears the wacky left."
Barrett is also an adjunct at Edgewood College, a private institution in Madison, where he will be teaching a course this fall called "Human Issues: The Challenge of Islam." A spokesman for Edgewood said that he didn't know of any problems when Barrett taught the course previously, and that there had not been concerns at Edgewood about the course this year.