July 12, 2006

The trouble with Kevin Barrett

So after considerable pressure by politicians and talk radio, the University of Wisconsin-Madison will not be summarily dismissing religious studies adjunct Kevin Barrett, who believes that 9/11 was a conspiracy of non-religious, Machievellian-Straussian cynics who believe that hatred and hostility are what move the world. After the provost's statement, Barrett appeared on Fox News's Hannity and Colmes, which I suppose shows that the best way for someone with a Ph.D. to get air time is to be a total nutter.


The analysis of this case is made harder by the fact that 9/11 is a marginal part of the course Islam: Religion and Culture but not entirely outside it. According to Inside Higher Ed, his doctorate is in "African language, literature, and folklore," which overlaps with the course he's teaching, but it's not as though either Islam or terrorism is in his area of expertise. But it's also not exactly true, as Ann Althouse claims, that Barrett's hiring was as "if we [UW-Madison had] found someone hired to teach evolution was a young earth creationist planning to devote a week of his course to his theory."

Some, including Althouse, have raised questions about whether Holocaust deniers, rabid White supremacists, etc., would be allowed to teach. There is the occasional racist whose academic freedom is protected—for example, Glayde Whitney, the late psychologist at Florida State University whose writings were clearly supremacist. However, those situations are usually about statements made outside the classroom. If the whole course were about 9/11, then conspiracy claims would constitute incompetence in one's area of supposed expertise. Someone who teaches European history is incompetent when they claim that the Holocaust never happened. But 9/11 isn't the core of the course.

I think the fundamental problem, as Ralph Luker has noted, is that Barrett is teaching outside his area of expertise. He should not have been hired as an adjunct to teach something that's tangential to his training, which is the case if the reporting is correct. If he were teaching a course in African culture, he wouldn't have a reason to talk about 9/11 in class and who cares what he said on Hannity & Colmes in that case.

What's very troubling, and unremarked, is that the UW-Madison provost engaged in an ad-hoc investigation primarily to address the embarrassment factor, and if UW-Madison had fired Barrett, it would have been for embarrassing UW, for the most part. I don't care that the provost decided not to take further action; his choice was foolish from the start. The better course, by far, would have been to say something like the following: "We have a contract with Dr. Barrett, and unless there is clear evidence that he intends to breach his contract, it's not a wise use of university resources to engage in an in-depth investigation of his teaching. It would also be a problematic step for any administrator to interfere in classroom teaching at a university without extraordinary evidence of irreparable harm to students or their education. On the other hand, there have been concerns raised about the expertise of Dr. Barrett with regard to the course, and we have an obligation to our students and accrediting agency to make sure that adjunct instructors truly are experts in the courses they teach. My office will shortly begin a review of university procedures to make sure that all adjuncts have the appropriate expertise and meet our accreditation standards."

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Posted in Academic freedom on July 12, 2006 7:40 AM |