Move to Fire Professor For 9/11 Conspiracy Views

A student activist group has joined New Hampshire Governor John Lynch in trying to fire a University of New Hampshire professor for his rather bizarre views on the 9/11 attacks.

A small group of students has started a petition to remove a University of New Hampshire professor who believes that Bush administration officials planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks or knew about them and allowed them to happen.

“Basically, we watch professors to just ensure they’re doing their job … they’re not biased in the classroom and are not teaching what they are not supposed to teach,” said Bill Hunt, chairman of the newly formed and unrecognized organization Students for Academic Integrity. The group has set its sights on psychology professor William Woodward for “pushing his personal agenda on … students.”

[…]

Hunt said the Students for Academic Integrity are considering bringing audio and videotape recorders to class to prove their case. “I’ve heard from several students that (Woodward is) indoctrinating them,” he said. “He claims that he wants everyone to have an opinion. The fact is, he doesn’t.”

Woodward, a tenured professor, belongs to Scholars for 9/11 Truth, whose members question the official story about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and contend that the U.S. government either had knowledge of the attacks or had a role in them.

Gov. John Lynch called Woodward’s beliefs “completely crazy and offensive” and asked the trustees to investigate. Andy Lietz, chairman of the university system trustees, said a “careful review” of Woodward found his teaching consistent with accepted standards, “even though he has expressed some ideas that many find objectionable.” Some of Woodward’s students have defended him. Woodward has said he does not push his views on his students but has mentioned it in his classroom in the spirit of full disclosure.

Bruce Mallory, provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs, said he has investigated the controversy surrounding Woodward and has not heard of the Students for Academic Integrity petition. He added that the university still stands by its position that Woodward acted within the bounds of academic freedom. The UNH administration’s reaction is one of the reasons Hunt and his friends started the petition. “I think it reflects very poorly on the university that they have no problem with this,” Hunt said. “I really don’t think we can rely on the university to monitor these professors, so it’s up to the students.”

I’m not sure how Woodward’s views on 9/11 would fit into his psychology lectures, but it’s not my field. If he’s using his classroom to indoctrinate his students, that’s a problem. If he’s doing his job and just happens to have some rather strange off-duty activities, it’s not.

The idea that politicians, let alone students, should have any say as to which professors are hired and fired is nuttier than anything Woodward espouses. The professoriate has always operated as essentially a guild, with experts monitoring the conduct of other experts. That system has worked for centuries.

If we’re to keep our universities the best in the world, professors need to be free to explore their intellectual interests free from political considerations. The faculty and provost should ensure that professors are not abusing their positions, to be sure, but substantial latitude should be given otherwise.

UPDATE: Dave Shuler comments, “I don’t think they should fire him. I think they should ridicule him. Publicly. Relentlessly.” Agreed. That is much more in the spirit of higher education than censorship.

My presumption is that Woodward, a professor at a quite decent school, is a reasonably bright fellow whose obsession with his 9/11 conspiracy theory has him in command of the basic facts. To challenge him in debate, therefore, will require students and others to bone up on the facts themselves so as not to be defeated through ignorance. A few nutty professors are, in this sense, a positive addition to a campus.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. LJD says:

    If he’s using his classroom to indoctrinate his students, that’s a problem.

    If the faculty and provost fail to ensure that professors are not abusing their positions, that is also a problem.

    This is a State school, within the Governor’s area of responsibility. So why is an investigation by the Trustees a problem?

    Incidentally, students DO have say as to which professors are hired and fired. They provide evaluations, which guage the educator’s performance, and they also report abuses (perhaps, such as this)of the position.

    I find it interesting that so many educators cling to this vague ‘academic freedom’ concept when so many students fail to receive the education they pay very dearly for.

    The professor and the university are there for the students. They are there for the State, to have an educated workforce. Contrary to the beliefs of some, they are not there for themselves, their soapboxes, or their crusades.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t think they should fire him. I think they should ridicule him. Publicly. Relentlessly.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Yup. Indeed, that would be much more effective and useful.

  4. jeff says:

    I would agree with the belief that politicians should have no say whatsoever in the hiring/firing of professors. However, I have to disagree with the idea that students shouldn’t have a say. While your point that professors must be able to explore unpopular “intellectual” ideas is a valid one, that does not mean that they should be free to say whatever they want with no checks or balances. It is, after all, the students who are spending outlandish sums of money to pay these people. If the students do not feel that they are getting a proper education–and they can offer proof–then they should act to–at the very least–make their views known with the hope that some action will be taken.

    Should he be fired? Well, I think that, as you said, this depends on the context of his nutty rants. Is he somehow tying them into psych class? I seriously doubt it, but if he is doing so in a valid manner, than this must be considered. If he, as you said, is simply using his classroom as a platform for his views, then he should be dismissed.

    As a current college student, I believe that the students actions should be applauded–they’re standing up and saying they don’t want to pay this guy to spout absolute garbage (which I think we can agree is what he is, in fact, spouting).

  5. James Joyner says:

    LJD/jeff:

    At most schools, tuition receipts fall far short of meeting the budgetary requirements. Subsidies from the state (in the case of public institutions), private donations, athletics (in the case of big-time football and basketball schools), interest from the endowment, and other monies fund faculty pay.

    Students have a customer service relationship with the school from an administrative standpoint, not an educational one. Students aren’t customers of professors, they are apprentices to be mentored.

    LJD:

    Professors at state schools are not political appointees of the governor. Indeed, they’re not ordinary civil servants, either. They’re subject matter experts hired to increase the body of knowledge in their field and to engage their students.

  6. Bandit says:

    How about they just instruct him to do his job and keep his private beliefs to himself?

  7. Joe says:

    James,
    I’ll add my vote to the “ridicule Woodward” group. He has a right to hold his views, speak his views and even use his views to illustrate “delusional” syndromes, which would fit his coursework. And like he has a right to his views, we have a right to mock those views and those who hold them.

    I wrote this about a month ago when Inside Higher Ed first reported on this story.

    While many groups, notably the Kos Kids, have purity tests for their candidates and standard bearers, as a nation that values free speech, we should accept the dissent of others.

    I don’t agree with Woodward. I find the student action to work to get him fired troubling.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Bandit: Professors are not mere schoolteachers. Their expert opinions on various matters are part and parcel of “doing their job.” To the extent his private views have nothing to do with his subject matter–as would appear the case here, although, again, it’s not my field of study–then he should indeed keep them out of the classroom.

    It’s not inconceivable to me, though, that he could have a lecture on how people perceived the 9/11 attacks or how people process information and form opinions based on media reports and use his revisionist belief as part of an interesting to-and-fro with the students. Controversy and going against student preconceptions are excellent teaching devices if properly employed.

  9. Steven Plunk says:

    Hiding behind academic freedom to avoid responsibility for ones words is common for these nut jobs. I don’t see a connection to academic freedom in this case.

    While tuition is only a part of the overall revenue needed to run a college or university it is still a great deal of money. Students must have a right to monitor and speak out against abuses such this.

    At the undergraduate level these guys are not much more than teachers, so teach. Academic freedom should be exercised when writing papers or articles for professional journals, those are the peers who should ridicule, not students, it’s not there place or responsibility to take on those who grade them. Disputes with professors usually end up with the student losing.

    This is typical public sector nonsense with everyone expecting accountability to addressed by the offending parties themselves. It doesn’t happen. In an effort to just get along many of these abuses are swept under the rug and ignored. Outside intervention is long overdue.

  10. […] A similar view was posted on OTB. […]

  11. LJD says:

    Aside from the special class of citizen manufactured by this intellectual elite (no offense), teaching is a job. Most people cannot spout off at the mouth (outside of their job description) at work and get away with it.

    Students deserve the education they are promised, regardless of who pays for it. According to the information a few posts down, it’s not happening.

  12. jeff says:

    James,

    I’m with Steve. Regardless of where the money that actually goes into the paycheck of the professor, the student (ME) still spends too much money to not have at least a say in what goes on in the classroom. Besides that, if we’re going to say that it’s state subsidies that go to the actual paycheck (in the case of state schools such as the one I’m at) then are we saying that the state should have control over what they say? Same with if the money comes from private donations. If John Doe the millionaire donates a million bucks to pay for the salaries of 10 professors at a private university, is that saying that John should be able to help decide if the professing of those professors is appropriate? Probably not. The ultimate responsibility (and therefore the power) MUST reside with the students–they (we) are the ones who are forced to sit and listen to the mad rantings of such profs and as such they should have the power to recommend–even strongly recommend–what kind of teachers should be at the university.

    As for the belief that “professors are not just school-teachers” I think that depends on the context. Inside the classroom they ARE just school teachers, especially at the undergraduate level–they just happen to be more highly trained. Another person pointed out that essays, articles, opinion papers etc. are the place for them to present their theories, not the minds of the impressionable students in their poli-sci 101 class(or whatever under-grad course). Too often professors think that they have a platform to use for whatever they want and that belief goes unchecked. And that is just not acceptable.

    (on a side note, one of my education professors here says that–though he is not a fan of all aspects of NCLB–he thinks having a standards based curriculum at the college level where professors are held accountable is a good idea and that the tenure system is “fundamentally flawed.” I don’t know that I agree with that, but it certainly is something to ponder…)

  13. James Joyner says:

    jeff: One does not let the inmates run the asylum. Frankly, few 18-22 year olds have any clue about how they should be educated, let alone the capabilities of professors who have, by definition in most cases, passed professional muster by earning their doctorate.

  14. Bandit says:

    ‘Professors are not mere schoolteachers.’

    Mere? Oh – I know they don’t work as much.

    ‘It’s not inconceivable to me, though, that he could have a lecture on how people perceived the 9/11 attacks or how people process information and form opinions based on media reports and use his revisionist belief as part of an interesting to-and-fro with the students. ‘

    Well then that wouldn’t really be keeping his personal opinions to himself.

    All I’m saying is that while I don’t agree with him I don’t see why even if he does convey his beliefs as his beliefs in context of what he’s supposed to be doing it’s a firing offense. The last I heard it was still a free country.

  15. James Joyner says:

    they don’t work as much.

    They spend, on average, less time in the classroom, to be sure. Research, writing, and other professional obligations tend to eat up a lot more time, though.

  16. jeff says:

    Firstly, two things about your response to me: 1) Students and inmates are vastly different as students chose to be in college (for the most part) and inmates are placed in prisons or asylums involuntarily. 2) while it may be argued that “few students 18-22 have any clue about how they should be educated, chances are that the “few who do” know how they should be educated are those same ‘few’ who are working so hard to call attention to the behavior of their professor. If they didn’t know (or care) about how/what/why to be educated, they wouldn’t concern themselves with taking up arms against a professor who has more training, more power and more clout than even the entire student body combined.

    Secondly, I think you (we) give college professors too much credit. They definitely don’t spend as much time in the classroom as an average ‘teacher’–which you pointed out. However, not all of them–particularly ones at small state schools–do ANY outside, original research projects of their own. I can think of a dozen professors just at the university I attend who A) don’t have their doctorates B) don’t plan to get their doctorates and C) believe that since that A) don’t have them and B) don’t want them they aren’t required to do any original research. That isn’t to say that don’t prepare for lectures by gathering information, but isn’t that what a teacher does five days a week 4,5,7 or 8 times a day? I think it is…

  17. James Joyner says:

    jeff: In the old days, small state schools, especially those which began as Teachers’ Colleges, tended to have underwhelming faculty without terminal degrees and little in the way of research expectation. Many schools still use MA-only lecturers for some survey courses, especially remedial English. Still, even backwater institutions now have the luxury of insisting its profs have PhDs and produce research.

    Schoolteachers, by contrast, tend to have undergraduate degrees in Education with perhaps a graduate certificate, also in Education, which pays them more money. They have little control over their curriculum, teaching rote subjects from rather scanty expertise. It’s just night and day.

  18. RJN says:

    This Professor may be right about a cover-up, or insiders, within or close to the administration, having advance knowledge of the attacks. With all that came out in the days following the attacks it seems to me probable that someone, who could have helped us stop them, had knowledge.

    If his theories contain claims that the buildings were wired with explosives, then I would say, not so.