Saturday, September 02, 2006

Well's shrewdly responds to Barrett visit

After the story of Barrett's visit ran on the front page of the Northwestern today, Wells went into damage-control mode and is going to try to turn his visit into a campus-wide learning experience. The most interesting part is that we are inviting a speaker who will talk about why people believe strange things.

I think that this is a great response--the chancellor is handling the situation as well as he can! Here is Well's press release:

Campus Greens, a recognized UW Oshkosh student organization, has invited Kevin Barrett to speak at a program it has scheduled for Oct. 26 at the theatre at Reeve Memorial Union, a student fee-funded building. No state or taxpayer dollars will be used for the program. Members of the campus community will decide on their own whether or not to attend.

We will take all necessary steps to ensure a safe, civil and tolerant setting for the student-sponsored event, which also will include the showing of the controversial film, “Loose Change 2.” We will work with members of Campus Greens to make sure they follow the necessary protocols. Failure to adhere to these protocols would require me to postpone the event, and it would not be rescheduled until I am convinced we have ensured a civil environment.

Many believe that the highly controversial views of Mr. Barrett, who has said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were orchestrated by U.S. government officials to spark war in the Middle East, should not be protected by freedom of speech.

I do not in any way endorse the 9/11 ideas advocated by Mr. Barrett. In my opinion, his ideas are nonsensical. His visit, however, provides our students the opportunity to assess critically his views. Any analysis of the tragedy must conform to the most rigorous standards for scholarly analysis.

Mr. Barrett’s visit offers us a chance to reaffirm our belief that with freedom comes responsibility. Members of a university community do not have absolute freedom of speech in their official capacities. They are free to pursue academic, artistic and research agendas essential to the university mission, but they must also contribute to an open and collegial environment that promotes reasoned inquiry, intellectual honesty, scholarly competence and the pursuit of new knowledge.

Wisconsin has a long-standing tradition of academic freedom. It was eloquently summarized by Helen White of UW Madison in 1957:

“There is today a good deal of dispute over the advantages of various types of bomb shelters for our bodies. But there is no dispute over one fact, and that is that there are no bomb shelters for our minds. Indeed, I know of no readier way to disarm ourselves than to try to hide from disturbing knowledge, and, conversely, I know of no surer way to steady our nerves and find the courage we need than to take arms against a sea of rumors and alarms and by understanding end them.”

In addition, in order to provide a responsible campus environment and a rational, critical analysis of the ideas espoused by Mr. Barrett and the film “Loose Change 2,” we have planned the following events:

· During October, panels of UW Oshkosh faculty, staff and students will discuss such questions as “Why Do People Believe Weird Things?”, “What Social and Psychological Conditions Predispose People to Develop and Accept Conspiracy ‘Theories’?” and “What is the Responsible Exercise of Academic Freedom?”

· On Nov. 7 or 8, we have tentatively scheduled a public talk and classroom lectures by nationally renowned author Michael Shermer, who wrote Why People Believe Weird Things. His topics will include “How thinking goes wrong: 25 fallacies that lead us to believe weird things” and “Why smart people believe weird things.”

These events will supplement the critical thinking that takes place every day in hundreds of UW Oshkosh classes. I know that our students are entirely capable of judging the validity of Mr. Barrett’s views.

Academic freedom is inextricably linked to the equally important need to exercise responsibly that “freedom.” Anything less threatens and diminishes academic freedom. I hope members of the university community will take advantage of our faculty panel presentations and the talk by Mr. Shermer to help engage in the civil exchange of ideas guided by the best use of our critical thinking skills.


lammers said...

Yes, Wells' message to the campus is just about the most lucid and rational thing I've seen written on this whole sorry episode. And inviting an expert to speak on "Why People Believe Weird Things" was a stroke of genius -- I laughed out loud when I read that. I think that will play *very* well in the local press, and should help our stock considerably.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Wells deserves a lot of credit for how he has handled the situation. I have read Shermer's book and recommend it. I look forward to hearing him in person.

Now if the campus greens could only start work on trying to rebuild their credibility...