Monday, July 17, 2006

Kevin Barrett Fiasco: University of Wisconsin Failed

From the blog of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a comment on the Kevin Barrett situation at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
The University of Wisconsin has an obligation to hire responsibly, but it also has an obligation to defend the academic freedom, not to mention the First Amendment rights, of those it does hire.

After some hemming and hawing, UW did meet its second obligation. But it does not seem to have met the first one. Barrett was the only candidate for the job, and his principal qualification seemed to be that he had gone to graduate school at UW and had once TA’d for the course in question; in other words, he appears to have been hired because he was there, not because he was the best qualified person for the job. He seems to have caught the University by surprise with his announcement of his beliefs (hence the University’s questionable investigation of Barrett once it learned what those beliefs were). And UW seems to have upheld Barrett’s academic freedom not because it really supports either his ideas or his intention to pass them on to students, but because supporting him was the lesser of two evils. Firing Barrett for his views--before he had ever set foot in the classroom, and while he was promising to encourage a diversity of viewpoints among his students — would have been far worse.

The problem here is not academic freedom itself. The problem is sloppy hiring. All university teachers should have the academic freedom to teach as they see fit. But not everyone deserves to be a university teacher, and not everyone can be trusted with the privilege of academic freedom. UW needs to tighten up its hiring practices, and it needs to take the hiring of adjunct lecturers just as seriously as it takes the hiring of tenure-track teachers. Otherwise, it fails the student — and the taxpayer — in a fundamental obligation to ensure that those it allows into the classroom are legitimately there.


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