Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

An Ounce of Prevention


The University of Wisconsin weathered quite a firestorm recently when word got out that adjunct instructor Kevin Barrett not only subscribes to the theory that 9/11 was planned by the Bush administration, but plans to teach his theory to the students enrolled in his introduction to Islam course this fall. In response to public outrage, media scrutiny, and the condemnations of state legislators, UW investigated the matter and eventually declared Barrett fit to teach–which in turn has brought more outrage, scrutiny, and condemnation its way.

The Barrett scandal is a fascinating test case for both the limits of academic freedom and for prevailing academic standards of hiring and review. On the one hand, UW would have violated the principles of free intellectual inquiry if it had fired Barrett for his views; on the other hand, colleges and universities have an obligation to hire teachers who are themselves committed to free inquiry, and who can be trusted to use their classrooms responsibly–to educate, and not to indoctrinate. Barrett’s unqualified endorsement of an outrageous and ungrounded conspiracy theory, combined with his stated intentions to promote that theory in class, raise serious questions about whether he should have been hired in the first place. The ethical and procedural complications here abound.

In a letter to UW’s Board of Regents and selected administrators,

ACTA laid out a course of action that can help UW avoid future repeats of both the bad press and the administrative mess that have dominated the Barrett fiasco. Our recommendations are broadly applicable, and ought to be adopted by any college or university that wishes not to find itself in the sort of damaging morass that UW has had to negotiate of late.

In our letter, we noted that UW was right to investigate whether Barrett’s extreme views would pollute his classroom, pointing out that academic freedom is not freedom from responsibility. We cited the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles, which explains that while a university teacher does not have to hide his views from students, he should “remember that his business is not to provide students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves” and he should be “especially on his guard against taking advantage of the student’s immaturity by indoctrinating him.” We commended UW for taking steps to ensure that Barrett’s course would be taught appropriately, and we stressed that Barrett’s case highlights the importance of scrutinizing the qualifications of part-time teachers as well as tenure-track ones.

As students of academic politics know all too well, the recent events at UW are hardly exceptional. Our May report, How Many Ward Churchills?, documents just how far from exceptional they are. With that in mind, we offered a series of suggestions for how UW can work to ensure that all its courses are taught responsibly, by qualified teachers who respect students’ right to learn. ACTA’s recommendations include:

  • Performing an institutional self-study of the classroom environment; 
  • Instituting post-tenure review of faculty;
  • Assessing hiring and promotion practices to ensure that quality of research and teaching–not ideological litmus tests–are the criteria for job security;
  • Incorporating intellectual diversity concerns in guidelines on teaching; and
  • Including intellectual diversity issues on course evaluations.

Our recommendations are drawn from our 2005 report, Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action, which was lauded for its sensitivity to academic freedom. They also tally with recent actions taken at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where, in response to the Ward Churchill scandal, deans have been charged with reviewing their procedures to make sure that people with questionable scholarly records are not hired or promoted.

UW authorities owe it to taxpayers, families, and students to guarantee that UW deserves the public trust–and dollars–placed in it. So does every college and university in the country. Widespread implementation of the elemental procedures described above–procedures that respect academic freedom while enhancing students’ educations–can go a long way toward restoring both the integrity of the curriculum and the public faith in higher education.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review