U. of Wis. to allow controversial instructor to teach

By The Associated Press
07.11.06

MADISON, Wis. — A part-time University of Wisconsin instructor who says he believes U.S. government officials orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks will be allowed to teach a course on Islam, the school announced yesterday.

UW-Madison Provost Patrick Farrell said Kevin Barrett could present his view as one of many perspectives on the event when he teaches the introductory course as scheduled this fall.

Some state politicians had called for the university to fire Barrett after he spoke about his theories on a radio talk show last month.

Farrell rejected those calls, saying, "We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas."

"There is no question that Mr. Barrett holds personal opinions that many people find unconventional," Farrell said in a statement. "These views are expected to take a small, but significant, role in the class. To the extent that his views are discussed, Mr. Barrett has assured me that students will be free - and encouraged - to challenge his viewpoint."

Farrell launched a review after Barrett spoke on the talk show about his views that the terrorist attacks were the result of a government conspiracy designed to spark war in the Middle East. Barrett is active in a group of scholars who say, among other things, that the twin towers were blown up by U.S. government operatives.

His remarks prompted calls from state Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Green for his immediate dismissal. Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, joined the critics in questioning whether Barrett was competent to teach.

All three politicians quickly blasted Farrell's decision yesterday, while the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin praised him for protecting academic freedom.

Doyle spokesman Matt Canter said "the governor would have come to a different conclusion about this."

Green, a U.S. congressman from Green Bay, said the case "should have been an easy call for UW officials."

"Mr. Barrett can dwell all he wants on the fringe left of society, but he should not be doing it under the banner of the University of Wisconsin," he said. "Teaching students lies is not a Wisconsin value."

Nass, a longtime critic of the UW System, said he would use the decision to push for cuts to the university's budget when lawmakers reconvene next year.

Farrell, who took over as the school's No. 2 official earlier this year, said the university did not endorse Barrett's theories but noted they were widely believed in parts of the Muslim world.

He said his review found Barrett "has a record of quality teaching, including as a teaching assistant in this class." The university will monitor his class closely, he added.

Students are capable of critically analyzing his theories, Farrell said, adding that Barrett's syllabus "appears to offer a sound learning experience for students interested in gaining a better understanding of Islam."

Barrett, who had argued that his views should be protected under the school's long commitment to academic freedom, declared victory yesterday.

"I'm happy that they did the right thing," he said. "This university is a pretty professional organization that is not going to buckle from political pressure from politicians."

Barrett, who earned a doctorate in African languages and literature and folklore from UW-Madison in 2004, has a part-time appointment as an associate lecturer for the course, "Islam: Religion and Culture." He is scheduled to earn $8,247.

In an interview, Barrett said only one week of the course would deal with the war on terror. He said he would present 400 pages of readings that support the accepted version of the attacks while 75 pages of reading would implicitly question that version.

Barrett invited Green, Doyle and Nass to attend his class, saying he could teach them "the ability to weigh different viewpoints, and think critically on the basis of available evidence without being shackled by preconceptions."

"I don't see why they should be concerned about the free-speech activities of people who work for the university," he said.