Kevin Barrett is a lucky, lucky guy.
Against all odds — from skeptical University of Wisconsin administrators to scathing criticisms by newspapers across the nation — Mr. Barrett survived the fall semester and the controversy surrounding his course, "Islam: Religion and Culture." In fact, he did far more than simply survive the term: He emerged from the entire episode with bragging rights, thanks to glowing reviews from his students.
To backtrack a bit, Mr. Barrett is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist who, over the past year, has garnered a massive amount of media coverage. He believes the Bush administration was behind the terrorist attacks.
But things got complicated when UW hired him as a lecturer — much to the dismay of students, faculty and administrators, as well as legislators like state Rep. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater. Critics worried — understandably — that his outlandish views would reflect poorly on the university and that Mr. Barrett would be unable to separate his own beliefs from the course material.
And now, just as Mr. Barrett's name had slipped from the headlines for a few months — a void that was surely welcomed by students and faculty alike — he's back. But this time, in a good way. According to anonymous student evaluations filled out by students who took his course this past fall, Mr. Barrett's lecture wasn't so bad, after all.
So I can't help but wonder, if Mr. Barrett decides to reapply for a position at UW come spring, should the administration take him seriously? Would they dare welcome back the very man they despised just months ago for his ability to drag the university's name through the mud — and on Fox News, no less?
At the end of the day, it's hard to dispute that Mr. Barrett fought a good fight and apparently conducted himself professionally within the classroom. What's more, he's got the paperwork to prove it.
Students debunked concerns many had expressed that Mr. Barrett would force his 9/11 theories down their throats and also attested to the fact that very little of the course was focused on the conspiracy theories. In fact, one student was quoted in The Badger Herald saying he wished Mr. Barrett could teach an entire course on conspiracy theories.
And the negative evaluations? Most criticized a lack of organization by Mr. Barrett, certainly a common student complaint about professors.
If the decision faces administrators as to whether they should consider rehiring Mr. Barrett, get ready for a bumpy ride. It will surely evolve into an issue — undoubtedly throwing Mr. Barrett back on the front page — certain to affect many parts of the university community.
On one hand, many students may resent an administration that, in a selfish effort to protect the university from additional unwanted publicity, would choose to pass on hiring Mr. Barrett. These students are paying tuition to go here, and they were the ones who actually dealt with Mr. Barrett as a teacher. Shouldn't their opinions of him matter?
But what about the reality that having such a controversial lecturer on campus may drive away potential students? And what about the probability that more donors will be dissuaded from giving money to the university?
While both sides of the argument have merit — and more points can be made on both sides of the issue — it would be surprising for a university like ours not to care about its image. Although it would be nice to think these student evaluations weighed heavily in the minds of the decision makers, I doubt very much they will.
I am a firm believer in both the power of the student voice and in the marketplace of ideas. I do not question the ability of students to sift through what they do and do not believe in, Barrett or no Barrett. I respect an institution that can keep different lecturers and professors on campus, with their own sets of ideologies, whether I agree with them or not.
But it has become increasingly evident that Mr. Barrett can be a loose cannon, and the risk of rehiring him is too great. Now that we have survived the semester, we would be stupid to not run while we can. To do otherwise would only be asking for trouble.
Emily Friedman ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism and legal studies.