Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Defending The Nutty Professor

I think we can all agree that UW lecturer Kevin Barrett is nuts. We also can all agree that he is now the most publicized crazy person in the state, and is loving every minute of it. He's probably sitting back at his house, smoking a cigar and playing poker with Tim Osman, laughing his unsettling beard off. They are likely cooking up another conspiracy theory about how Dick Cheney is responsible for the horrific destruction of Star Jones' career.

The case against Barrett teaching at the UW is an easy one. He's obviously delusional, and the University is hemorrhaging as a result of his unfortunate hiring. While teams of bloggers have done excellent jobs dismantling his delirious rants, I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could make the case for Barrett. I did this exercise a while back for Jim Doyle when Georgia Thompson was indicted, and if I may humbly say so, I think he should have followed my advice.

So if I were the UW-Madison, my statement would look something (although a little more formal) like this:

Every workplace environment has people with unorthodox opinions who may harbor questionable conspiracy theories. It may be Willie in your office's mailroom, or it may be the president of your company. In the case of the UW System, which has over 40,000 employees, it could be a janitor, it could be a department head, or a softball coach. In the Kevin Barrett case, it happened to be a first year part-time lecturer.

Followers of the UW-Madison know well that Barrett's teachings on 9/11 aren't exactly the first conspiracy theories to be floated in the halls of the University. For decades, the UW has had a reputation for being a place where all theories are welcome, no matter how unconventional. Radical thinking is as much a part of the fabric of the UW-Madison as Bucky Badger is (rumor has it Bucky is a Holocaust denier). During the Vietnam era, some of the theories kicking around the UW's halls make Barrett's "inside job" theory sound like an Ann Coulter production.

Students in Barrett's class are adults who are free to either challenge his views, or research them further. Needless to say, after the media coverage of Barrett's views, no student will walk into his class without knowing what they are getting into. Vice President Dick Cheney actually credited the radical thinkers at UW-Madison with helping him become a better conservative while a grad student there, as he constantly worked to disprove many of the campus theories of the time.

Firing Barrett at this time for his views wouldn't be wise for the University. Recently, the UW-Madison took swift action against a Dean who was accused of improper conduct after much pressure from politicians. Now the University is embroiled in endless expensive legal wrangling to justify the firing, and it is entirely possible that a court will rule that he must be reinstated at his original salary. We will continue to monitor Barrett's curriculum to make sure his students are presented an opportunity to challenge any assertions or opinions expressed in his class.

There is no doubt that Kevin Barrett's views are controversial. But the UW cannot set the precedent of "human resources by press release." The idea that taxpayers are paying for Barrett is misleading, as tax money continues to constitute less than 20% of the total UW budget. Barrett is primarily funded by tuition money - tuition paid for by students that are free to take his class or to decide not to take his class.

Someday, there will be a professor or lecturer that espouses unpopular conservative views, and the faculty may apply pressure to have that person removed. In that case, as in the Barrett case, we will stand up for the right of our faculty to challenge their students to either prove or disprove the theories to which they are exposed. We will continue to support our employees, regardless of their personal opinions - unless they are Chicago Bears fans, in which case they will be immediately dismissed.

I'm not sure if I'm even buying it, but I gave it a shot, purely out of boredom. In my next post, watch me defend orange juice against misleading claims of being "low pulp."