When I first said "hello" to Kevin Barrett, I was somewhat taken aback. The tall, bearded lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was seeing students in his office and struck me as soft-spoken, almost laid-back. He just didn't "seem" controversial.
But there is no doubt he has attracted a fair amount of controversy. Sixty-one Wisconsin legislators have said he should stop teaching. So has the governor. The university has received more than one thousand emails from alumni, many saying they'll stop donating unless Kevin Barrett goes.
Barrett belongs to a small but vocal group of academics who are writing and publishing ideas which charge the U.S. government played a role in the 9/11 attacks. He argues that members of the Bush administration knew about the attacks ahead of time, and at the very least, allowed them to occur. The purpose -- to give the United States an excuse to go to war, or as he has written, "...to found a new imperial 1000-year Reich like the ones the Nazis dreamed of."
"It's now very clear," he told me. "The official 9/11 report is a complete fraud." Barrett says a close examination of the twin towers falling shows puffs of smoke, a sign the buildings were pre-planted with explosives, and the collapse of the towers was a controlled demolition.
"It's offensive, not only to America, but offensive to the victims of 9/11," said Scott Suder, one of the Wisconsin legislators calling for Barrett's ouster.
Somewhat to my surprise, I learned that Barrett wasn't bringing a whole lot of his own conspiracy ideas into his lectures. His semester-long course -- "Islam, Religion and Culture" -- spends a week on conspracy theories about 9/11, but Barrett said he doesn't introduce any of his own written work. He said he cites other academicians with similar ideas, such as Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed of the University of Sussex, Brighton, in the United Kingdom.
Students I spoke to were skeptical about what Barrett believes, but felt the controversy has been overblown. Sophomore Aaron Zwicker told me, "It's scary we could lose a professor like Professor Barrett, who I consider to be one of my best lecturers right now, because of stuff he hasn't realy talked about that much in class."
University officials we spoke to clearly wish this story would go away, but they have stood behind Barrett, saying that he's not teaching a political ideology and that feedback on his course has been positive.
While university officials are standing for academic freedom and independence, the political tension shows few signs of dissipating. Barrett, who holds a temporary appointment at the school, told me he plans to re-apply to teach similar classes in the future.
"I hope to be back in the fall, and as Douglas McArthur said, 'I shall return,'" Barrett said with a smile.