MADISON, Wis. - A part-time instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison taught the first class of his course on Islam Tuesday after drawing intense scrutiny for his belief the U.S. government orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks.
Days before the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Kevin Barrett touched only briefly on them but told students the subject would be covered in discussions in early November during his twice-a-week course, "Islam: Religion and Culture."
Barrett, castigated by some legislators after his views were publicized over the summer, used self-deprecating humor as he began the class, describing himself as an Irish Muslim and introducing the fall-semester course to the 200 students as "Conspiracy Theories 370."
About a dozen reporters attended the class in the William H. Sewell Social Studies Building. Photographers were not allowed in.
UW-Madison Provost Patrick Farrell had warned Barrett in a letter uncovered last month to stop associating himself with the university while he advocates his views.
The letter came 10 days after Farrell defended Barrett's right to free speech and retained him as a part-time instructor despite calls for his firing.
The decision drew a backlash against UW-Madison, with 61 state lawmakers denouncing the move and at least one county board cutting its funding for the UW-Extension by $8,247 _ the amount Barrett will earn for the course _ in a symbolic protest.
Farrell reviewed plans for the course after Barrett appeared on a talk radio show and said he planned to teach students his views that the U.S. government carried out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to spark war in the Middle East.
The provost concluded Barrett, who is active in a group of scholars who share his belief, could present his view during the class, as long as students were allowed to challenge it.
During the first 75-minute class, students seemed attentive and responsive.
Zac Hirschman, 19, a sophomore, said he signed up for the class because he wants a career involving Middle Eastern politics, and he only learned about Barrett's stance on Sept. 11 when he searched the Internet a couple weeks ago.
"Last year in Israel, I roomed with Muslims," he said. "I'm interested to see how he makes the distinction between Arabic and Muslim and see what he has to say. He seems to be an interesting guy with an interesting perspective."
Megan Gill, 21, a senior, said she purposely sought out Barrett's class.
"I think there's too much of, 'You have to be sensitive to everyone,' but I think it's going to be very beneficial to hear a controversial, one-sided argument and his reasons why," she said.
Since the dispute erupted, Barrett has appeared on national television shows and given dozens of interviews to discuss his theories. At times he has been erroneously described as a professor rather than a part-time instructor.
Farrell scolded Barrett for identifying himself as a UW-Madison instructor in e-mails in which he challenged others to debate his theories.
"I don't think he was really telling me to stop doing the sorts of things I was doing before this whole thing exploded," Barrett told reporters after teaching Tuesday's class.
He said he would be in New York City on Monday, appearing at a church with other guest lecturers on the Sept. 11 anniversary.
"I would love to teach a class on Sept. 11, but I haven't been hired to do that," he said. "So I'll go talk about Sept. 11 in New York on Sept. 11 and come back here on Sept. 12 and talk about Islam."
In the syllabus for the course, he wrote that when people loudly proclaim there is only one correct interpretation, they are sometimes labeled fundamentalists.
On the other hand, "people whose job is to try out many different interpretations of many different texts in many different fields and develop a sophisticated, complex, nuanced way of seeing the world are sometimes called college students."