WASHINGTON, DC—University of New Hampshire professor William Woodward thinks the World Trade Center was destroyed five years ago by a government conspiracy. He mentions such conspiracy theories in class. Yet UNH’s governing board has rejected the nonpartisan American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s commonsense proposals to make sure UNH students receive an education, not indoctrination.
“UNH doesn’t get it,” ACTA president Anne D. Neal said. “A nationwide network of conspiracy theorist professors has surfaced. Some of them bring their unscholarly theories into the classrooms. The public is concerned. And they deserve a response.”
Woodward’s classroom practices came to light due to recent press accounts in New Hampshire. The tenured psychology professor—like University of Wisconsin-Madison religion instructor Kevin Barrett—brings theories on building collapse into his classroom.
When outsiders have suggested that conspiracy theories have no place in responsible classrooms, universities have essentially responded that academic freedom means “anything goes.”
Kevin Reilly, the leader of the University of Wisconsin System, insisted that he does not “find Mr. Barrett’s arguments about 9/11 at all credible,” but concluded that a “core part of a university’s mission is to be a forum for the free exchange of ideas, even when many of us find some of those ideas ridiculous or offensive.”
Acting UNH president Bonnie Newman told the media that even though Sept. 11 is known to be the work of terrorists, the university encourages “the open inquiry of ideas.”
“The assumption here seems to be that professors’ free speech rights insulate them from professional standards,” noted Neal, a former First Amendment attorney. “But freedom of speech and academic freedom are not the same. Freedom of speech protects all sorts of vulgar or silly expression. Academic freedom protects a professor’s right to instruct students on the subject of his expertise—not on whatever he wishes.”
ACTA wrote to trustees of the University System of New Hampshire on September 1, reminding them that “academic freedom does not mean anything goes.” ACTA referred the trustees to American Association of University Professors statements making clear that—as the AAUP’s general secretary recently put it—“with academic freedom comes academic responsibility.”
ACTA’s letter said that since “fanciful and unfounded ‘conspiracy theories’…would not appear to deserve the special protections of academic freedom,” it is proper to be concerned about Woodward’s teaching.
More importantly, ACTA encouraged the trustees to implement systematic steps to ensure integrity in classrooms throughout the system. In a 2004 ACTA survey of the top 50 American universities, huge numbers of students reported that professors “use the classroom to present their personal political views.”
ACTA’s proposed solutions came from its 2005 report Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action, which trustees praised for its sensitivity to academic freedom. These commonsense reforms included:
An institutional self-study of the classroom atmosphere;
Assessing hiring and promotion practices to ensure that quality research and teaching (not ideological litmus tests) are the criteria for job security; and
Incorporating intellectual diversity concerns into teaching guidelines and course evaluations.
Andrew E. Lietz, chairman of the University System of New Hampshire Board of Trustees, rejected ACTA’s suggestions in a September 6 letter.
“Standing pat here is not an option,” Neal concluded. “To retain the public trust, it is incumbent upon trustees to ensure that teaching adheres to scholarly standards. If they continue to fail to call for action, they will be abdicating their fiduciary responsibility to the parents and taxpayers of New Hampshire.”
ACTA is a national education nonprofit dedicated to academic freedom, academic quality, and accountability. It has issued numerous reports on higher education including How Many Ward Churchills?, Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action, The Hollow Core, and Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century.