BYU takes on a 9/11 conspiracy professor
It was Steven Jones's résumé as much as his September 11 research that rapidly turned the Brigham Young University physics professor into one of the most prominent 9/11 conspiracy theorists. But with the university's decision last week to place him on paid leave and review his work, Jones may trade academic standing for another vaunted status, the movement's first martyr.
Jones, the cofounder of the group Scholars for 9/11 Truth, is not the first academic to have taken heat for promoting September 11 conspiracy theories.
But while other universities have resisted outside calls to remove teachers from the faculty, saying such decisions would violate academic freedom, BYU says it has decided that Jones's "increasingly speculative and accusatory" statements merited concern and has given his classes this semester to other professors.
Jones brought both personal and professional credibility to 9/11 Truth, which sorely needed both. His conservative Mormon background made him an unlikely promoter of conspiracy theories. Even more important in a movement whose academics are often philosophy or theology professors, Jones has taught physics at BYU since 1985 and has "continuing status," roughly equivalent to tenure.
In his paper "Why Indeed Did the WTC Buildings Completely Collapse?" Jones suggests the towers were felled by a controlled demolition rather than by damage caused by the airliners. His claims were tackled head-on in a fact sheet last month from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which created a 43-volume report about the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
In the paper, Jones does not make specific accusations about who brought about the towers' collapse and avoids the casual finger-pointing that characterizes much of the movement. But when pressed, he cautiously blames the supposed demolition on Bush administration officials eager to sow war in the Middle East.
Besides worries about his accusations, Carri Jenkins, a spokesman for the university, said BYU was also concerned that Jones's work on September 11 had not been published in credible peer-reviewed journals. Jones edits the Journal of 9/11 Studies, an online collection of articles that has included his work.
Jones directed requests for comment to his previous writings on September 11. In July, he said his colleagues at BYU were generally supportive of his push to investigate the collapse of the WTC towers and nearby Building 7.
The decision to place Jones on leave marks a departure from traditional standards of intellectual freedom, says Robert O'Neil, a law professor at the University of Virginia and the director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. University faculty are generally punished for making bizarre claims only when such claims relate to their area of expertise, suggesting a lack of competence in their chosen field.
Because he is an electrical engineering professor, for example, Arthur Butz at Northwestern has not been punished for his vocal Holocaust denial. The same would probably not be true of a professor of modern European history. But BYU's explanation for Jones's review cites his accusations about government involvementwhich are outside his area of expertisenot the quality of his research into the collapse's physics, the discipline in which errors would suggest a lack of fitness to carry on his job.
Brigham Young is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and has a fitful relationship with traditional university standards of intellectual freedom.
"BYU is literally the example we use of a university that does not promise strong free speech or academic freedom protections," says Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights on Campus. Those limitations, however, generally apply to religious matters, such as bans on denigrating Mormon doctrine or profanity. Because of its restrictions, the university has been on the American Association of University Professors' list of censured schools since 1998.
Other members of Scholars for 9/11 Truth have had their careers threatened because of their advocacy, but pressure to fire professors has usually come from the state level. Both Kevin Barrett, an associate lecturer at the University of WisconsinMadison, and William Woodward, a psychology professor at the University of New Hampshire, were criticized by state legislators for discussing 9/11 conspiracy theories in their classes. Both say that September 11 represents only a small aspect of their courses and that they also offer students the official explanation. Both continued teaching this semester.
Barrett called BYU's decision a "grotesque violation of academic freedom" but says he is not terribly worried about his own career.
"I'm convinced that within one or two years at most, the entire academic community will agree that the 9/11 commission report is a travesty and a fraud."
But the University of Wisconsin's decision will not stop efforts by Wisconsin state Rep. Stephen Nass, who says he plans to move to cut budgeting for administrative positions at the university if Barrett continues to be allowed to teach after this semester. Nass says that he supports academic freedom but that the university's view is that claims, "no matter how dishonest, have a place in the classroom, and that's ridiculous."
More broadly, Jones belongs to a class of academics who have faced possible career damage for controversial statements about the September 11 attacks. The group includes Richard Berthold, who was reprimanded for telling a class at the University of New Mexico the day of the attacks that "anyone who can bomb the Pentagon has my vote." He retired in 2002. Ward Churchill, who called some of the victims of the attacks "little Eichmanns," is contesting the decision by the University of ColoradoBoulder to fire him for plagiarizing and falsifying information.
If anything, Jones's paid leave will only add to the conspiracy theorists' sense that the establishment is out to get them. James Fetzer, the cofounder of Scholars for 9/11 Truth, noted that President Bush met with Gordon Hinckley, head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Utah on August 31, and both Fetzer and Barrett suggested government involvement in the decision to stop Jones's teaching.
"It's well known that there is a certain Mormon presence in the FBI and the CIA," Barrett says.