MADISON – If you harbored a crackpot conspiracy theory about … let’s say, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks … but pretty much kept it outside your workplace, your employer wouldn’t have much to say about it.
But if you used your job as a soapbox and even went so far as to subject your employer to shame, ridicule and financial repercussions, you might expect to be disciplined. At least, that’s how it goes in most of the world.
Not so at the UW-Madison, where lecturer Kevin Barrett has been pushing his luck like there’s no tomorrow. Barrett is the part-time teacher who uses his course on Islam to spout his theory that the U.S. government orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that left 3,000 dead, damaged the Pentagon and destroyed the World Trade Center.
So long as Barrett confined his opinions to the occasional lecture, most people would probably chalk it up to “sifting and winnowing” on the campus of a large, diverse public university. That tradition of academic freedom is why the UW-Madison provost said Barrett could keep his job. But Barrett then hit the talk-show circuit and inflamed half of America, which is certainly his right as a free citizen but arguably outside his job description as the employee of a public institution.
Barrett has whacked the public-opinion beehive so often that the UW System – not the UW-Madison — is now being stung.
Last week in Port Washington, the Ozaukee County Board voted to cut funding for next year’s UW-Extension program by the exact amount ($8,427) being paid Barrett as a lecturer. The organizers of the cut say they want other county boards across Wisconsin to do the same – until Bascom Hill hears the message.
A matter of disclosure: I serve on the UW-Extension Board of Visitors, so I’m disappointed that the Ozaukee County Board took out its frustration on the very arm of the university that is furthest removed from UW-Madison. It’s like those old “Three Stooges” films in which Moe slaps Larry, and Larry retaliates by hitting Curly. Only this time, it’s not funny.
On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why people in Ozaukee County and statewide are upset. They accept “academic freedom” as a management principle within a public university, but they don’t understand how someone at the level of a part-time lecturer can hide behind his job to publicize his personal beliefs outside the classroom. It is a tiny tail wagging a giant dog, and the latest example of how the 21st century UW System is paralyzed by 19th century management practices.
But there’s a deeper question, beyond the Barrett case: Why are so many people in Wisconsin eager to punish the very university that educates their children and helps drive the economy?
Some people believe the UW has broken the historic “compact” it long enjoyed with the people of Wisconsin. For citizens, that compact could best be summarized as, “We’re happy to pay taxes to support the UW, so long as our brighter kids can attend classes at a fair tuition rate.”
So far as many of those citizens are concerned today, they’re paying taxes but even their bright kids aren’t getting admitted — especially to UW-Madison — and tuition keeps going up.
Yes, it’s still possible for kids with modest grades to be admitted to UW campuses outside Madison. Yes, Wisconsin tuition rates are still below the average for Big Ten and comprehensive peer universities. And, yes, the percentage of state support for the total UW budget continues to erode, which makes it all the more difficult to find space for new students and control tuition.
But perception is king, and the reigning perception is that the “compact” has been broken. When Johnny and Jane aren’t admitted to a UW institution, their parents — or Johnny and Jane as they grow older — lose that connection with the UW System. They’re more willing to listen to a message of resentment.
The Barrett case now rests on the patience levels of UW-Madison administrators, who have fairly warned him against further abusing his position. But the UW may be held hostage by future Kevin Barretts until a common-sense compact is renewed with the citizens of Wisconsin.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.