Any discussion of academic freedom at Duke must begin with the Bassett Affair that occurred Dec. 2, 1903 after Trinity College professor John Spencer Bassett published "Stirring up the Fires of Racial Antipathy" in The South Atlantic Quarterly. His description of Booker T. Washington as the "greatest man, save General Lee" to be born in the South caused an outcry among politicians demanding his resignation. The Board of Trustees' decision to reject his resignation was later commended by President Teddy Roosevelt as an important stand for academic freedom.
Ironically, the University of Wisconsin at Madison is now dealing with a similar situation, except it is a "Barrett Affair" featuring Kevin Barrett, Ph.D., an untenured instructor teaching "Islam: Religion and Culture" this fall. His course syllabus includes a week on the War on Terror during which he will have students critique both the 9/11 Commission Report and alternative theories from the 9/11 Truth movement. News of his intentions provoked 61 members of the state legislature to sign a letter on July 20 demanding his termination.
UW-Madison Provost Patrick Farrell conducted a review of the case and decided to allow Barrett to teach stating "we cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas. Silencing that exchange now would only open the door to more onerous and sweeping restrictions." John Wiley, the University's Chancellor said "he does a good job teaching that course, no matter what his views are. If there's one place controversy should be welcomed, it's universities."
A central issue is that Barrett, a Muslim, is a member of the Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth (www.mujca.com). He said his critics are "welcome to their opinions, but we have a tradition of academic freedom here in Wisconsin of sifting fearlessly in pursuit of truth because our motto has it-The truth will set you free."
He has also said, "I don't inflict my views on students, but it's important they understand that the vast majority of the world's Muslims believe that 9/11 was an inside job, and important to understand why they hold those beliefs."
In that context, Barrett cites Duke Islamic scholar Bruce Lawrence regarding the veracity of the Osama bin Laden audiotape from January 2006, "he says that the recent tape is a fake and that it is possible bin Laden is not even alive." Lawrence's book, Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, has been criticized in an Amazon.com review as "evidence of the continuing alliance of Western leftists and Islamic terrorists," but he has not provoked the ire of local politicians or a review by the Duke Board of Trustees.
More recently, another scholar has come under fire for his views on 9/11, tenured Professor of Psychology William Woodward at the University of New Hampshire. Woodward stated, "there was a genuine conspiracy on the part of insiders at the highest level of our government," and he plans to teach a course to explore 9/11 "in psychological terms-terms like belief, conspiracy, fear, truth, courage, group dynamics." Republican State Senator Jack Barnes threatened "maybe we'd better check the UNH budget very closely next year if they have guys like that teaching our kids," but thus far Woodward has not been sanctioned.
Brigham Young University physics professor Steve Jones took a more proactive approach which yielded productive academic discussion for the past year. "I presented my objections to the 'official' theory at a seminar at BYU on Sept. 22, 2005, to about 60 people. I also showed evidence and scientific arguments for the controlled demolition theory. In attendance were faculty from Physics, Mechanical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Psychology, Geology, and Mathematics." However, with his recent authoring of a chapter in the controversial new book, 9/11 and American Empire: Intellectuals Speak Out, by philosopher and theologian David Ray Griffin, Jones was put on paid leave for the semester pending official review by the University. (10)
Unfortunately, the only publicly televised and relatively balanced debate so far has been in a non-academic venue. Democracy Now! featured the "9/11 Debate: Loose Change Filmmakers vs. Popular Mechanics Editors of 'Debunking 9/11 Myths'" on the 5th Anniversary of 9/11. (11) Evaluate it for yourself at www.youtube.com.
Larry Burk graduated from Trinity in 1977 and is a physician in Durham.