Certainly not everyone agrees about what happened on September 11, 2001. When scholars offer their own alternative theories, however, they tend to face scrutiny by their respective academic institutions and communities.
A recent controversy involved Steven Jones, a professor of physics and astronomy at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He was put on paid leave by BYU in September so the university could conduct a formal review and investigation of his 9/11-related research.
Though Jones “fully cooperated in the review,” according to a BYU statement, he instead stepped down in mid-October.
“I have chosen to retire so that I can spend more time speaking and conducting research of my own choosing, particularly on 9/11-related issues,” Jones said.
With his retirement, BYU called off its investigation and review.
The work that started the controversy was a paper Jones wrote, “Why Indeed Did the WTC Buildings Completely Collapse?” In the 48-page treatise, which includes “13 reasons to challenge government-sponsored reports,” Jones presents evidence of what he terms a “controlled-demolition hypothesis” to account for the towers’ collapse.
At the University of New Hampshire, William Woodward, a professor in the department of psychology, was embroiled in problems of his own in August over his views on 9/11.
A story ran in the Union Leader, a New Hampshire paper, that said Woodward “believes an ‘elite’ group within the federal government orchestrated the September 11 attacks on America,” and that Woodward “raised that possibility in his classroom.”
After the article was published, he was allowed to keep teaching and continue his research. “The university said it was not an issue,” Woodward said, adding that the administration looked at 31 years of student evaluations and research, and decided there was no need for an investigation.
In light of UNH’s decision, there was a negative response from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a 501 founded by Lynne Cheney and Sen. Joe Lieberman, among others, which bills itself as “committed to academic freedom, excellence and accountability at America’s colleges and universities.”
A statement from ACTA on Woodward, entitled “UNH Drops the Ball,” decried the decision to allow him to keep teaching, saying UNH had rejected “commonsense proposals to make sure UNH students receive an education, not indoctrination.”
“What we’re saying is that we support and are committed to academic freedom,” said Kim Billings, a spokeswoman for UNH, in a statement at the time of the decision.
Charles Mitchell, a program director with ACTA, disagreed. “One of the myths is that academic freedom means that professors can do what they want,” he said. “That is not true.”
“Academic freedom doesn’t have anything to do with introducing politically motivated material into the classroom,” he added.
Woodward felt as though he was treated fairly by the university, but not by the media or ACTA. “The media were cowardly,” he said.
Of all the talk surrounding his situation, he said, “none centered on the evidence for government conspiracy . It’s a radioactive topic; newspapers don’t want to touch it. Instead, they issue flak against people like me.”
He also called ACTA’s actions a “neo-con effort to stifle dissent” and said that the council had a habit of “picking on people who ‘stray from the story.'”
Mitchell, though, clarified that it was never ACTA’s intent to insist that Woodward be fired. Instead, he said, ACTA wanted UNH to conduct a proper investigation into how much political material was introduced “inappropriately” in other classroom situations.
The problems with views similar to those offered by Woodward and Jones, Mitchell said, are twofold: At face value, they aren’t scholarly, and they aren’t germane to class.
“They are not in reputable journals,” he said. “It’s not clear how they belong in the classroom in the first place.”
Despite the fact that he has been allowed to continue teaching, Woodward believes that other academics who hold alternative views about 9/11 are reluctant to share them. “People will talk informally about this but are afraid to come forward,” he said. “There is a culture of fear . Citizens and scholars alike are afraid to talk about it.”