From Dr. Aaron White, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center:
A University of Wisconsin-Madison teacher made headlines recently for stating his belief that the U.S. government, Dick Cheney in particular, masterminded the terrorist attacks of 9-11.
Obviously, this is crazy talk. However, freedom of speech has always been trumpeted on college campuses, so this poses a difficult situation. In this case, the university investigated the conduct of the employee, Dr. Kevin Barrett, and found no reason to remove him from the classroom.
The university's decision angered state lawmakers who wanted the provost to fire him for his potentially incendiary views. CNN.com quoted Wisconsin state Rep. Steve Nass as saying, "When 61 legislators condemn a decision by UW-Madison and demand the dismissal of Kevin Barrett, the leadership of the U.W. system operates at its own peril if it continues to ignore views of the taxpayers."
However, two additional facts are worth considering. Views of 9-11 similar to Barrett's are not uncommon among commentators in the Islamic world. And the provost's inquiry into Barrett's teaching found that he not only allowed but encouraged opposing viewpoints in his classroom.
For me, the prospect that the university would fire Barrett for voicing his opinion is more frightening than the risk that his ideas might corrupt his students in some way.
As a college educator, I can assure you that students do not enter classrooms as blank slates ready to be filled with the views of their instructors, without regard for how enlightened or ludicrous those views may be.
In programs from history to physics, a central objective is to strengthen students' abilities to evaluate hypotheses, draw conclusions and buttress those conclusions with facts. Do Wisconsin lawmakers honestly believe someone like Barrett could whip a room full of bright students into an anti-American frenzy? It seems unlikely. It also seems insulting to UW-Madison students.
Beyond the short-term damage it would do to the open inquiry that is essential to education, the forced removal of Barrett by state politicians could pose a risk of backfiring in the long-term. Few students today would fall for Barrett's rhetoric after examining the facts closely. However, allowing politicians to systematically force universities to fire faculty with unpopular opinions would further homogenize the educational system and deprive students of an opportunity to learn to think creatively and critically. If this happens, perhaps one day a wave of students could come through UW-Madison that would accept views like Barrett's without much resistance because they hadn't learned to evaluate controversial claims.
As the public furor over Barrett's claims demonstrates, an instructor's point of view is hardly the last word students hear on controversial topics. UW-Madison students should be allowed to decide for themselves whether Barrett's opinions are worth paying to hear. Freedom to choose is the essence of the college experience, for it helps to develop the critical skills that are a primary goal of higher education.