No university faculty or staff member’s arrival on campus should incite outrage.
Last month, retired Col. Larry James emerged as one of two finalists for the position of division executive director in the MU College of Education.
James has an international profile due to his work as one of the Army’s top military psychologists during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which included working at the Guantanamo Bay prison and being assigned to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in response to its infamous 2004 prisoner abuse scandal. He has been accused by human rights activists of being complicit in torture and mistreatment of prisoners at both detention centers, and multiple complaints against him have been filed with various psychology boards, none of which produced any probable cause of misconduct. James now serves as dean of the School of Professional Psychology at Wright State University, where he has faced continued objections.
Staff from the College of Education and members of the wider university and the outside community joined together Feb. 1 to protest James’ possible hiring. After marching to Hill Hall, they were met by Dean Daniel Clay, who assured them the College of Education would act with transparency and respect in the hiring process, both toward James and the protesters.
We are not here to judge James’ past behavior or to predict his potential job performance at our university. We are here to say that the negative reactions to James’ candidacy are enough for us to recommend that the College of Education does not go forward with hiring him. This is because the fervent opposition on campus in response to the college even considering him for the job appears a troublesome indicator to us of the kind of reception James would receive at MU and what such a hire would do for the university’s public face.
It is concerning to us that the university would consider bringing someone with such controversial associations to join its administration. By no means should MU avoid hiring a candidate just because that candidate attracts controversy or protest; the severity of the controversy at hand must be considered, and they should take all steps possible to allay such questions and fears from members of the MU community and ensure that the new hire’s arrival on campus is fresh and positive. The lingering questions and inherent confidentiality of James’ past convince us this would not be possible if he were to be hired here, despite Dean Clay taking the time to assure the Feb. 1 protesters that the College of Education would do so.
This is indeed a situation where administrators should listen to those who have spoken up against James’ potential hiring and consider what would occur if they ignored the questions about his behavior at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib: continued opposition and negative attention.
Hiring James would likely disrupt the atmosphere of our university. It might even scare off potential students, particularly international students who feel uncomfortable coming to a school that consciously attaches itself to some of the greatest injustices our nation has committed in the past decade.
Granted, James has been investigated by multiple boards and has never been reprimanded or indicted for any misconduct, either by the military or by a civilian body. But as U.S. involvement in the Middle East begins winding down and more firsthand accounts of atrocities committed in Iraq and Afghanistan could come out, it seems hiring James might bring a liability to MU — what if credible accusations of him committing war crimes were to emerge, or even if he were to be charged by a court?
James has been quite open about the various accusations leveled at him — pointing out no first-person account has ever arisen placing his actions at either prison outside of the law, although he occasionally allowed mistreatment covered under the law. But with the smoke still rising from both Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and much of the reports still stamped as confidential, we believe it would be too risky for MU to assume that nothing will ever indict James of breaking the law during his service.
We want leaders and administrators who will stand up to mistreatment and injustice. In his memoir “Fixing Hell: An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib,” James admitted he did not always stop such wrongdoing at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The risk of bringing such a reputation to our university and our community seems to outweigh the reward of what he could bring to the executive director position.
It has been made clear that James is not welcome at MU, and the last thing our university needs is more controversy and negative attention. We urge the College of Education to avoid advancing the outrage that has arisen at MU over the past few weeks and to avoid associating our school with the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons by hiring someone other than Col. James.
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