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Perspective: The Barrett case and academic freedom at Wisconsin

July 13, 2006

By Donald Downs

(Editor’s Note: Donald Downs, a UW–Madison professor of political science, is a nationally recognized expert on issues regarding academic freedom and free speech issues on campus. His most recent book on the topic is “Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus.” Several other UW–Madison faculty have endorsed this column, including: Lester Hunt, philosophy; Mary Anderson, geology; James L. Baughman, journalism; Stephen Robinson, engineering; Larry Kahan, biomolecular engineering; W. Lee Hansen, economics; Howard Schweber, political science; and John Witte, political science. All are members of the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights.)

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By now, most everyone has heard about the recent academic freedom conflict at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. On July 11, Provost Patrick Farrell refused to fire Kevin Barrett, who is contracted to teach a course in the fall on Islam, Religion and Culture. Farrell’s decision has caused uproar because Barrett is a proponent of a bizarre and outlandish conspiracy theory: that the attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001 were perpetrated not by jihadist terrorists, but rather by the government of the United States. That’s right: We did it to ourselves. When Barrett’s dedication to this theory became known, numerous people, including some state politicians, issued strident calls for Barrett’s immediate termination.

The main argument against retaining Barrett is that anyone who believes in this conspiracy lacks the competence to teach a class at a major university. But when the dust settles, some fundamental principles of academic freedom support the provost’s decision.

First, Farrell’s investigation of Barrett’s course and previous lecturing experience indicated that Barrett, regardless of his beliefs concerning 9/11, would teach the course responsibly, and that students had rated him a decent teacher. If the relevant department (in this case, languages and cultures of Asia) had decided against offering Barrett the one-course contract in the first place because of its assessment of his scholarship and teaching, that would have been the department’s choice to make, based on its own academic judgment. But that is not the situation that we confront.

Second, firing Barrett from his one-course contract for this fall in the face of political pressure would set a bad precedent. Indeed, it would constitute the first time in anyone’s memory that the university fired an instructor — hired by a department through the normal channels — before the termination of his contract because of political pressures exerted on account of the instructor’s views. Even those who agree with Barrett’s strongest critics on substantive grounds — as we do — should pause before opening this Pandora’s Box.

Not allowing Barrett to teach according to the limited terms of his contract would mean that members of the media and legislature could dictate who teaches and who gets fired based upon their agreement or disagreement with the conclusions certain teachers reach. Though universities are hardly infallible in making their hiring decisions, such a precedent would seriously compromise the wide-open pursuit of truth for which the university properly stands.

Conservatives in the legislature need to remember that the principle of academic freedom protects the right as well as the left. And for most of the last 15 years, it is the right that has needed protection. During the 1990s, Wisconsin and many other schools enacted speech codes and related policies that they applied almost exclusively against conservatives who expressed ideas that conflicted with the agendas of political correctness. In reaction to these threats to academic freedom and free speech, several faculty members and students at Wisconsin forged a movement that has aggressively and successfully defended academic freedom across the board. Our movement (based on the independent Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights) was instrumental in causing the demise of the faculty speech code in 1999, and in defending the rights of several individuals who had run afoul of the dictates of political correctness.

We have also aggressively supported the conservative Badger Herald several times when that newspaper came under attack for publishing cartoons deemed politically incorrect. Last spring, for example, we took a strong stand defending the Herald’s right to publish one of the notorious cartoons of Mohammed that had generated such controversy in Europe — a stance which was backed up by UW–Madison Chancellor John D. Wiley, who has striven to defend academic freedom and free speech of both the right and the left since he became chancellor in 2001.

In thinking about Provost Farrell’s decision, we should keep in mind the words of Alexander Meiklejohn, the famous philosopher of free speech, citizenship and education who founded the Integrated Liberal Studies program at Wisconsin: “To be afraid of an idea — any idea — is to be unfit for self-government.” In the long run, defending Barrett’s right to teach this one course this fall is necessary if we want to defend something that is a lot more important than this one conspiracy theorist.