Academic Freedom and Appeasement in the Valley

By Tony Palmeri

From the October, 2006 edition of The Valley Scene


On October 26th, the UW Oshkosh Campus Greens along with the Valley Scene are sponsoring a campus appearance of controversial UW Madison lecturer and 9/11 conspiracy theorist Kevin Barrett. Barrett holds a PhD in African languages and literature from UW Madison and is co-founder of the Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth (www.mujca.com). At UW Madison Barrett currently teaches an introductory course on Islamic religion and culture. In June he espoused his views about 9/11 on Milwaukee right wing radio host and Charlie Sykes disciple Jessica McBride’s program. The radio interview along with McBride’s blogging about it led to a pundit and politician provoked controversy over the appropriateness of allowing to teach in UW classrooms a man who openly argues that the terror attacks of 9/11 were an inside job carried out by a cabal of neoconservatives and the CIA.

In July, Assembly District 31 Republican Representative Steve Nass of Whitewater was able to get 61 members of the Wisconsin legislature to endorse a resolution condemning Barrett and calling on the UW System Administration to dismiss him. Barrett’s course syllabus and teaching methods were then intensely scrutinized by UW Madison officials, politicians and the press. Rarely has a university instructor, tenured or untenured part-time like Barrett, been subject to such an investigation merely for holding an unpopular view.

The UW Madison administration decided to allow Barrett to teach his course, but I would be shocked if he is offered a contract to teach beyond the present semester. The administration of late has expressed concerns about the manner in which he identifies himself as a UW Madison instructor when seeking out or participating in debate activities. For most reasonable people, Barrett identifying himself as a UW Madison instructor represents his stating a simple fact. But for a UW administration intimidated by the state legislature and the mainstream press, such identification represents Barrett suggesting he “speaks for the university.”

Regardless of where Barrett and other members of the so-called “9/11 Truth Movement” are employed or whom they speak for, the effort to dismiss them out of hand as crackpots will not make difficult questions about the tragedy go away. Robert Scheer, respected former Los Angeles Times columnist and now editor of Truthdig (www.truthdig.com), rejects 911 conspiracy theories but has written of the “gaping holes in the 9/11 narrative.” Few people are aware, writes Scheer, that the official 9/11 narrative as represented in the 9/11 Commission Report contains a disclaimer noting that the commissioners did not have primary access to the “key witnesses” with supposed knowledge of the 9/11 plot, nor were they allowed to talk to the agents who interrogated them. Scheer concludes that a preponderance of alternative theories about what happened on 9/11, some plausible and some absurd, is inevitable given that the official version was “stage-managed” by the Bush Administration.

Lest you think it is only Lefties like Scheer calling for critical analysis of the official narrative, consider these words by the “Father of Reaganomics,” Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during the Reagan Administration and former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal: “There are not many editors eager for writers to explore the glaring defects of the 9/11 Commission Report. One would think that if the report could stand analysis, there would not be a taboo against calling attention to the inadequacy of its explanations. We know the government lied about Iraqi WMD, but we believe the government told the truth about 9/11.” Other former officials of Republican administrations have made similar comments.

The Barrett affair ought to provoke serious questions on our campuses not only about the credibility of the official version of what happened on 9/11, but also about the purpose of academic freedom, the proper relationship between the academy and the legislature, and the contemporary persecution of professors for views they express outside the classroom. Instead, administrators and even some faculty view the Barrett controversy as largely a public relations crisis in which the university must be willing to appease legislators and the governor so as to avoid another round of severe budget cuts in the next budget cycle. The handling of the Barrett situation on the UW Oshkosh campus provides a textbook case of the pressures campuses face to run from controversy rather than serve as open, critical spaces for the examination of it.

Barrett at UW Oshkosh: Academic Freedom and Appeasement

The idea to invite Kevin Barrett to the Fox Valley originated with Appleton citizen Lon Ponschock. Last April, the Valley Scene sponsored an Appleton Public Library screening of “Good Night, and Good Luck” and a panel to go along with it. The event was well attended and successful beyond the organizers’ expectations. Given that attempts to ask serious questions about 9/11 often get met with the kind of McCarthyite hysteria dramatized in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” Lon thought it would be a good idea for the Scene and others to sponsor another community oriented conversation about a controversial topic.

A small group consisting of Lon, several UW Oshkosh campus Greens, and myself planned the Barrett visit mostly via email discussion. Lon thought it would be better to invite Barrett to speak off campus so as to make the event as accessible to the general public as possible. But because serious concerns about academic freedom had been raised, I and others thought that UW Oshkosh would be the best venue for a Barrett talk on the academic freedom issues raised by his case. To my knowledge, none of the organizers share Barrett’s views about what happened on 9/11, but all felt that the attempt of the legislature and right wing radio to bully the UW into terminating someone with whom they disagree is something that needs to be examined openly and assertively by UW campuses. We also planned to screen “Loose Change” (the most popular of the 9/11 conspiracy videos in circulation) on the same evening as Barrett’s visit. The screening of the video would be crucial, we reasoned, to allow audience members the opportunity to engage and evaluate for themselves the kinds of claims that motivated 61 members of the state legislature to demand that a UW employee be terminated.

The campus Greens and I assumed, naively as it turns out, that the UW Oshkosh administration would follow the lead of their peers at UW Madison who initially framed the Barrett affair as a test of core academic freedom principles. Back in July, UW Madison Provost Patrick Farrell offered an eloquent defense of the university’s decision to allow Barrett to teach his course: “We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas. 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 . . . It is in cases like this - difficult cases involving unconventional ideas - that we define our principles and determine our future . . . Instead of restricting politically unpopular speech, we will take our cue from the bronze plaque in front of Bascom Hall that calls for the 'continual and fearless sifting and winnowing' of ideas."

UW Madison Chancellor John Wiley’s comments at the time were equally on point: "I think it would be a serious mistake for legislators to try to get in and micromanage curriculum . . . We don't go around and question all our instructors to find out what all their views are." Wiley’s comments are echoed by Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, reacting to New Hampshire politicians who want to fire a University of New Hampshire professor who openly doubts the official version of what happened on 9/11: “That some legislators apparently believe they have an obligation to criticize the content of faculty classroom instruction is of enormous concern to the AAUP. The U.S. Supreme Court has held repeatedly that academic freedom is a First Amendment right of professors and at least six federal appellate courts have followed Supreme Court rulings. So long as the faculty member teaches within his or her discipline and is careful to teach the truth as set by the highest standards of scholarship within their discipline, they and their universities should not be subjected to political intrusions. This rule applies even in highly charged times like today. Professors outside the classroom should speak truth to power as their conscience dictates and inside the classroom they should speak the truths of their discipline.

Keep in mind that Farrell and Wiley were defending a decision, made after a rigorous review, that Barrett would teach his class responsibly and not turn it into a forum to espouse his 9/11 theories to a captive audience. At UW Oshkosh, the campus Greens have merely invited Barrett to speak at an event at which no one is forced to attend. That simple invitation led to a front page, above the fold story in the Oshkosh Northwestern in which UW Oshkosh Faculty Senate President James Simmons characterized Barrett as an “embarrassment” and said of the talk that “it seems to be coming at exactly the wrong time.” The “wrong time” meaning that the university is currently under legislative scrutiny and invitations to allow Barrett to speak could result in Representative Nass making good on his threat to assault the UW budget.

UW Oshkosh Chancellor Wells then sent a message to the entire campus community in which he assured everyone that “no state or taxpayer dollars will be used” for the October 26th visit, a statement that I found to be a degrading capitulation to Nass and other UW haters in the legislature and right wing press. In the same message, Wells announced that during October and before the Barrett visit, “panels of UW Oshkosh faculty, staff and students will discuss such questions as ‘Why Do People Believe Weird Things?’ ‘What Social and Psychological Conditions Predispose People to Develop and Accept Conspiracy ‘Theories’?’ and ‘What is the Responsible Exercise of Academic Freedom?’" Then to top it off, in November the campus will feature a “public talk and classroom lectures” by Michael Shermer. Shermer has written a book called Why People Believe Weird Things. I’m sure someone will be sure to ask him whether believing in the official narrative of 9/11 constitutes believing a weird thing.

To place so much emphasis on exposing the alleged human tendency to believe in “weird” things both before and after the Barrett visit serves only to appease UW critics. Worse, the “weird” language will discourage students, community members and even faculty from attending the Barrett event for fear that such a label might be applied to them merely for listening to Barrett or watching “Loose Change” in public.

Dr. Matthew Streb of Northern Illinois University has recently co-edited a book called Academic Freedom at the Dawn of a New Century: How Terrorism, Governments, and Culture Wars Impact Free Speech (Stanford University Press). He told the Chronicle of Higher Education that “’The real threat is the threat of self-censorship . . . Many professors, he fears, are shutting themselves up for fear of backlash.” In my view, the trend toward self-censorship afflicts not just professors, but all citizens who hold non-conformist and/or unpopular views.

One of the ironies of Kevin Barrett’s visit to UW Oshkosh is that he once wrote “A Guide to Mysterious San Francisco” under the pseudonym of “Dr. Weirde.” Please come to UW Oshkosh on October 26th and make up your own mind about 9/11. Just because university administrators are easily intimidated by pompous and weird politicians doesn’t mean the rest of us have to be.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh
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Event: Screening of “Loose Change II” followed by Kevin Barrett lecture on academic freedom
Date: October 26th
Time: 6-9 p.m. (Barrett will begin speaking at around 7:45)
Place: UW Oshkosh Reeve Memorial Union Theatre
More Information: Call Andy Sabai at (920) 303-1131 or email him at sabaia29@yahoo.com