A new generation of Northwestern University students is learning what many of their predecessors found out during their time in Evanston: A tenured member of the faculty is also a prominent Holocaust denier.
Arthur R. Butz, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, has been sharing his views about the Holocaust since the 1976, when he published The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry, shortly after he received tenure. Northwestern observers say that he tends to make a splash with his views every few years. Since students are by their nature transient, and weren't around for previous debates over Butz, many were shocked when Butz's views again became known this week.
The Chicago Tribune (free registration required) reported that Butz had come to the aid of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been under fire for his assertions that the Holocaust is a myth. In recent interviews with the Iranian press, the Tribune reported that Butz said of the Iranian president and his views on the Holocaust: "I congratulate him on becoming the first head of state to speak out clearly on these issues and regret only that it was not a Western head of state."
Many Northwestern students were shocked by the report, which was circulated widely online at the university, prompting considerable discussion -- among Jewish students especially -- of how to protest Butz.
Stuart Loren, a sophomore who is a history major, organized a petition to demand that Northwestern bar Butz from using the university's computer network to spread his views. "It's ridiculous that a Northwestern professor can give credibility to these views and has a Northwestern Web site to do so," Loren said.
"Butz is entitled to have his opinions," Loren said, "but the university needs to make it clear that those opinions are ethically contrary to what the university stands for."
Some students have discussed asking the university to fire Butz. Loren said that "realistically," students aren't pushing for such a move.
For years now, the university has had a policy that applies only to Butz: If he teaches a course that is required for graduation or any degree program, another section of that course must be offered at the same time, so no student ever has to enroll in one of his classes. However, Northwestern officials and students who are furious about Butz's statement confirm that there are no reports that he has ever shared his views on the Holocaust during class time.
While Butz does have use of Northwestern's system to post his views, the Holocaust is not mentioned on his main departmental or personal pages. Butz did not respond to phone or e-mail messages seeking an interview.
On Monday, Northwestern's president, Henry S. Bienen, issued a statement denouncing Butz, but affirming his right to free expression. Bienen called Butz's most recent statement "a contemptible insult to all decent and feeling people" and said that Butz's views "are an embarrassment to Northwestern."
But Bienen noted that Butz has never discussed the Holocaust in class and has made clear that he does not speak on the university's behalf. "Like all faculty members, he is entitled to express his personal views, including on his personal Web pages," Bienen wrote. "We cannot take action based on the content of what Butz says regarding the Holocaust -- however odious it may be -- without undermining the vital principle of intellectual freedom."
Adam Simon, executive director of Hillel at Northwestern, said that many students were quite upset to learn about Butz. Hillel organized a forum scheduled for last night at which students could talk about their feelings -- and what an appropriate response would be to Butz's statements. "Students are concerned. They want to know that this is a safe space for Jewish life, which it is, but they want to be reassured of that," Simon said.
Simon said that he did not favor trying to have Butz fired. "There is freedom of speech and he hasn't broken any laws or university rules," Simon said.
What's important, he added, is that students "own a voice" in deciding what to do, Simon added. He said that he's pleased that students are already talking about various ideas, such as sponsoring new academic lectures about genocide or finding ways to get involved with preventing genocide today. "This can be about lessons we have learned" beyond just the history of the Holocaust, he said.
One thing that Hillel will not do, Simon said, is just sponsor events to say that the Holocaust happened. That approach would legitimize Butz and not accomplish much of anything, he said. "If the headline on all of this is just 'Jews say Holocaust happened,' then we will have done something wrong," he said.