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UMass teacher blasts colleagues on hoax story

Episode warrants reprimand, he says

The head of policy studies at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth wants the university to suspend a student who made up a story about being grilled by federal antiterrorism agents over a library book and to reprimand faculty members who spread the tale.

Following the student's admission Friday that it was a hoax, Clyde Barrow, chairman of the policy studies department, said UMass should punish the student and faculty members, in particular two history professors who repeated the unsubstantiated assertion of the history student to a New Bedford Standard-Times reporter.

The story, first reported by the newspaper on Dec. 17, was picked up by other news outlets, triggered screeds on left-wing and right-wing blogs, spurred a flurry of concerned e-mails among UMass faculty, and appeared in a Globe op-ed piece written by Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

In a Saturday Globe story reporting the hoax confession, UMass spokesman John Hoey said the university had no plans to discipline the unidentified student because the deception had nothing to do with his studies.

That prompted Barrow, who had no involvement in the episode, to write a sharply worded e-mail message to Hoey.

''It's unbelievable that this student is not being suspended for a semester," wrote Barrow, who said he does not know the student's identity. ''It's even more unbelievable that the faculty who jumped the gun on this story and actively promoted it on campus, the Internet, and blogs will walk away from their misconduct without any consequences."

Barrow said further in an e-mail to the Globe that the professors' apparent lack of skepticism came as little surprise to him because they are a ''dogmatic and zealous group of politically correct but chic anti-Americans."

Hoey said yesterday that the university would not comment on any disciplinary action against students or faculty.

However, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, the two history professors who relayed the student's assertion to the Standard-Times and other reporters, denied that their political views colored their teaching or any action they took in the episode.

Williams, an associate professor of Islamic history, said he prides himself for having middle-of-the road political views and said Barrow's description of the professors was ''incendiary language" befitting someone who ''seems to me to be unstable."

It was Williams who first told the Standard-Times about his former student's claim after the reporter called him for comment about President Bush's approval of a controversial domestic spying program.

After expressing his concerns about government surveillance, Williams told the reporter as an afterthought about the purported visit by Homeland Security agents, and that became the thrust of the story, Williams said.

When the story created a media storm, Williams said, he resolved to check its veracity. Last Friday, he said, his former student confessed it was a fabrication.

Yesterday, the student, who had said that agents from the US Department of Homeland Security visited him at home this fall after he tried to borrow Mao Tse-Tung's ''Little Red Book" for a history seminar on totalitarian governments, did not return a phone call or an e-mail message.

Pontbriand, a lecturer in the history department, said he never initiated any calls to reporters and merely confirmed that the student in his seminar on totalitarianism had asserted that he had been visited by federal agents.

''I have never used the classroom or the public forum to promote any personal political ideology, and I certainly have not done so in this case," he said.

The chairman of the history department, Gerard Koot, could not be reached for comment.

Another professor in the policy studies department, Philip H. Melanson, said he left the political science department, housed in the same building as the history department, because of the ''oppressiveness of what I would call the reigning ideology."

''It's left, it's PC, and it's got a vision of world peace stuck somewhere in there," said Melanson, who has taught at UMass for 33 years and specializes in research on political assassination and intelligence agencies.

But Melanson said that no one involved in the episode should be punished, since it apparently had no bearing on class work.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at

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