Francisco Gil-White, an assistant professor in Penn's psychology department, has called the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks "an inside job." He has written articles alleging that NATO framed Slobodan Milosevic. He has tried to convince his colleagues that the United States is a secret enemy of Israel.
And he says he is about to lose his job for holding - and broadcasting - those views.
"The academic establishment is there to protect freedom of thought," said Gil-White, a charismatic 35-year-old who was born in Chicago, raised in Mexico City and hired by Penn five years ago. "That is violated when the mere fact that I question the U.S. government becomes a reason to threaten me with the loss of my job."
The extent of academic freedom is almost always a hot-button campus issue, but the debate has become especially heated in recent weeks. Ward Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado, set off the most recent firestorm with remarks likening some victims of 9/11 to "little Eichmanns."
Gil-White is no Churchill, and he objected to being compared to the Colorado professor. But Gil-White's case raises the same basic question: What are the reasonable bounds of professorial free speech?
For their part, Penn officials strongly deny that academic freedom is an issue in their review of Gil-White's performance.
"We are baffled by Professor Gil-White's assertions about the role of his politics in our review," Penn psychology chair Robert DeRubeis said in a written response to questions.
DeRubeis said that last year Gil-White was given a one-year extension on his contract instead of the standard three years because "questions emerged" about the quality of his research and teaching. Gil-White is now under a second review to determine whether his contract should be extended again.
"My colleagues believe that academic freedom is essential in the university," DeRubeis said.
Gil-White does not buy that, and neither do a diverse group of Penn undergraduates who have signed petitions supporting him and given up evenings to attend a not-for-credit course he offers on the psychology of ethnicity.
"He's a wonderful teacher. His rapport with students is really amazing," said freshman psychology major Michelle Rajunov, who has organized student support for Gil-White. "A lot of people who take his course say it's the best course of their lives."
There is no denying that Gil-White is a charismatic and engaging presence in a classroom. Nor that he is articulate, convincing and undeniably intelligent.
But his frequent clashes with the department and other colleagues suggest that Gil-White has done more than test the limits of academic freedom. He has tested institutional patience as well.
When, for instance, the department curriculum committee sent Gil-White a list of questions and concerns on his Psychology of Ethnicity course, he refused to address them, DeRubeis said. Gil-White said the committee had asked him to "radically gut" the class. He opted instead to teach it his way on a not-for-credit basis.
Gil-White has also alleged that Penn political science professor Ian Lustick, who worked in the State Department 25 years ago, is an agent of U.S. intelligence working to undermine Israel. Gil-White said Lustick was trying to get him fired because of an article Gil-White wrote linking the Palestine Liberation Organization to the Nazis.
And when Gil-White's department-appointed mentor, Paul Rozin, warned him that he was irritating colleagues and risking "academic suicide" with his controversial theories, Gil-White promptly posted the note on his Web site, characterizing the e-mail as a threat. It was just one in a long series of postings Gil-White has made chronicling his disputes with the university.
Lustick and Rozin did not return repeated phone calls and e-mail requests for comment.
Although academic freedom is a cherished principle in higher education, tact and personality matter, too, said Jonathan Knight, director of the American Association of University Professors department on academic freedom.
"The right to express views does not mean that it is wise to do so or wise to express them in a certain way," Knight said, noting that he had no personal knowledge of the Gil-White case. "And over the years faculty have been told their contracts aren't being reviewed because they've demonstrated an egregious lack of professional civility."
Gil-White brushes off that explanation.
"My perception is that I was getting along fine with people," he said.
It was the 9/11 attacks, and the media's coverage of them, that first led Gil-White to stake out his controversial positions. Hungry for investigative reports on the attacks, he came across "The Emperor's New Clothes," a Web site run by a former 1960s activist, Jared Israel, who claims to have "evidence of high-level government complicity on 9/11."
The Web site's 9/11 claims are based on President Bush's reaction on the morning of the attacks, the fact that the Air Force failed to shoot down the jetliners, and the authors' disbelief that federal and military officials couldn't have anticipated such attacks. Gil-White said he examined the claims and found them completely convincing; hence, his "inside job" characterization.
He's now the site's deputy editor and has written extensively for it about the war in Yugoslavia, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. All subjects, Gil-White said, that are related to his academic training in the psychology of ethnicity.
His problems at Penn began, Gil-White said, when he tried to present his ideas to colleagues at the university's Solomon Asch Center For Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict.
"I was like, 'Hey, look, we've been wrong about Yugoslavia. We have to study this. We got it wrong,' " Gil-White said. "Everybody immediately started telling me this was very bad stuff. That it was going to be bad for my career. The more I pressed, the more reluctant they seemed."
DeRubeis, though, denied that Gil-White's dogged attempts to engage his colleagues have played a role in his review. The criteria are limited to teaching, research and university service, DeRubeis said.
According to the Penn Course Review, which tabulates student evaluations of teachers, Gil-White has received slightly lower ratings than the psychology faculty have averaged as a whole. And although some students are strongly supportive, others, such as psychology senior Danny White, are less so.
"He a really smart guy with some very thought-provoking ideas. But he's not fit - so far as his reliability, his dependability - to be a teacher at Penn," said White.
As a researcher, Gil-White has published at least four articles in academic journals that can be considered prestigious, according to journal evaluation system developed by the Institute for Scientific Information. Those articles, though, were all published in 2001 or earlier. Many of his more recent articles have been published in journals not tracked by the institute.
DeRubeis declined to offer his own judgment of Gil-White's teaching and research, saying it was a confidential process that was the responsibility of the department's entire tenured faculty. That review, he said, is now under way and would determine Gil-White's future at Penn.
Gil-White, though, has refused to participate in the review.