COLUMBIA — Larry James, on campus this week to interview for a key position with the MU College of Education, fielded questions Tuesday afternoon about his past involvement at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison.
A retired Army psychologist and current dean of the Wright State School of Professional Psychology in Dayton, Ohio, James is one of two finalists for a position as division executive director. If chosen, he would oversee three academic units with about 65 faculty.
At a 75-minute public forum Tuesday, audience members questioned him on topics ranging from his involvement in coercive tactics used on terrorism suspects after 9/11 to his vision for the position he is seeking at MU.
The forum came at the midpoint in James' interview process. His visit concludes Wednesday, and a selection will be announced in early March, according to Education Dean Daniel Clay.
James’ candidacy has prompted protest from community members. Also Tuesday, about 30 MU faculty and staff signed a letter requesting revocation of his candidacy.
The letter, addressed to Chancellor Brady Deaton, noted that "his possible appointment raises unresolved and extremely controversial issues. An ethical and moral cloud hangs over Dr. James's work and reputation, and, if he assumed a high-profile position here, that cloud would hang over MU, generally."
At the forum, a number of questions referred to passages in "Fixing Hell: An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib," a book James wrote about enhanced interrogation techniques used on detainees there and in Cuba.
MU graduate student Aamer Trambu cited one example from the book — James' presence during an interrogation where four men held down a prisoner and attempted to dress him in a wig, pink nightgown and lipstick.
“How terrible did the torture have to be for you to stop it?” asked Trambu, who is also vice president of the MU Muslim Students Organization.
James said he intervened about five minutes after he first witnessed the event. He said multiple times throughout the forum that he did not have the authority to stop the enhanced interrogation techniques he witnessed. He said he worked hard to teach investigators not to use such techniques.
“In order to write this book, I had to retire at great personal cost to me,” James said. “The work I did there literally changed and outlawed all of those abusive tactics.”
Envisioning the future
In the first 30 minutes of the forum, James addressed his vision for the future of the position he is pursuing if he were to be selected.
“This is a nationally and internationally recognized college and university,” James said. “I will do everything I can to help expand its richness and experience.”
If he were to receive the job, James said he hoped to foster a diverse environment and propose the creation of a National Center for the Prevention of Gun Violence at the College of Education.
“This division has unique talent and expertise in educational leadership and administrations,” James said. “Our colleagues in this division will help us determine what are the best instructional methods to discourage a young child from wanting to bring a gun to school.”
John Wedman previously held the job for which James is interviewing, said Steven Adams, spokesman for the MU College of Education. Wedman, who is retiring, was paid $162,314 during the 2011-2012 school year, according to the UM System payroll.
James said he believes he has the skill set and background to guide the College of Education through any financial challenge. He cited a budget surplus at his school at Wright State University under his leadership as an example of his qualifications.
At the forum, faculty and staff also expressed concern that James would have trouble in a leadership role considering the controversy surrounding his past.
“Given that we’ve heard all of these questions, if you are selected for this job, how would you keep your appointment from being a lightning rod for the press?” College of Education associate professor Denice Adkins asked.
“I would support having a one-time, open forum,” James responded. “The one that I did at my university was only supposed to be one hour and ended up lasting four.”
He said the forum at Wright State University allowed him to address any lingering questions to the best of his ability.
After the discussion, Adkins said in an interview that she was divided between her professional perspective and personal opinion.
“We need someone who can do the job, whether that be James or the other candidate,” said Adkins, who will be one of the faculty members under the new division director.
“I think it’s important to hear all sides of the story. I would hate to be judged for something I did 10 years ago for the rest of my life.”
A letter of protest
James' background would continue to taint his position, MU Spanish professor Michael Ugarte said before the forum.
“The question is, why bring a person of such controversy here to begin with?” asked Ugarte, who co-authored the letter directed to the chancellor.
Ugarte said he will continue to collect signatures before sending it to Deaton. He and other members of the MU academic community will join a news conference Wednesday morning at the MU Student Center.
Led by the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the news conference will bring together individuals speaking out against James’ candidacy, he said.
"The best possible outcome is that they hire someone qualified professionally and morally," Ugarte said.
"We as an academic community are very concerned about the people we hire and the ability they have to further our university."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.
About 30 MU faculty and staff have signed a letter to be sent to Chancellor Brady Deaton requesting the revocation of Larry James's candidacy. Some of the letter signers have added their name since this draft.