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About 10 years before James Tracy attracted national attention for private blog posts casting the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newtown, Conn., as a hoax, the professor was wrapping up his Ph.D. in mass communications at the University of Iowa, where he specialized in critical studies.
Several UI professors and colleagues remember Tracy, 50, as a 'thoughtful' student leader who produced solid work. Tracy wrote as a columnist for the Daily Iowan while on campus and was known as a 'student activist,' according to UI News Service reports.
But some of those who recall Tracy — fired last week from his tenured associate professorship at Florida Atlantic University following his inflammatory writing on Sandy Hook — said he seems to have changed from his stint as a Hawkeye.
'From what I've read in the news media about what's happened at FAU, it appears as though James carried the notion of critical studies to absurd lengths, in fact, to the point of fabricating reality,' UI Professor Emeritus Kenneth Starck told The Gazette in an email.
Starck, who served as director of the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication for 17 years, said Tracy, during his time at Iowa, became a protégé of the late UI professor emeritus Hanno Hardt, who was known for his 'visionary and radical writings' and for making a significant impact on 'critical communication studies.'
UI journalism professor Dan Berkowitz said Tracy was a 'thoughtful, engaged and bright student' and a 'leader in our graduate student community.' UI professor Frank Durham recalled Tracy had a 'strong personality.'
But, Durham said, he was 'not nearly as eccentric as he was going to become when this awful business about Sandy Hook came up.'
'His Sandy Hook denial is lamentable,' he said. 'It's a horrible thing to put families of the victims through, and we are not anxious to claim him.'
Durham said he doesn't recall Tracy engaging in conspiracy theories while he was a UI student. Although Tracy did take strong stances in his Daily Iowan column — in 1999 opining on the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., apparently blaming television and advertising for the United States' 'legacy of violence.'
'Today, the hearth around which knowledge and cultural identity were once imparted to children by family elders has been replaced by an odd appliance that enables Viacom, TimeWarner, General Elecrtic, and other such powerful and impersonal corporations to shape consciousness,' according to his column.
After Iowa, Tracy landed at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., where he taught courses 'examining the relationship between commercial and alternative news media and sociopolitical issues and events,' according to his FAU profile — which has been pulled off the website. One of Tracy's classes was titled 'culture of conspiracy,' and he gained national attention three years ago for asserting on his blog that the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that left 26 dead on Dec. 14, 2012, was a hoax.
The FAU administration at that time reprimanded Tracy and issued a statement saying the university doesn't agree with Tracy's claims. In 2013, Tracy wrote about the Boston Marathon bombing, saying it might have been a 'mass-casualty drill' with 'play actors,' according to national media reports, and FAU again released a statement distancing the university from Tracy.
The professor went on to publish repeated blog posts questioning the validity of mass shootings, and Tracy was reprimanded a second time in November for failing to submit required paperwork related to his activities outside the university — including his blog posts.
National media report FAU administrators asked Tracy to submit the paperwork by Dec. 14, and he instead submitted it Dec. 15 — saying he was on parental leave and didn't see the email. On Dec. 16, the university issued Tracy a notice of proposed termination, according to media reports, and he was served official notice of termination last week.
That notice came shortly after the Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale published a letter from one of the Sandy Hook victims, claiming Tracy had been harassing them and asking that he be fired.
Officials said his last day would be Friday, but the Palm Beach Post on Wednesday reported that Tracy could keep his job if he filed a grievance contesting his termination. Tracy told the newspaper he planned to take legal action.
Although the university cited technical violations in firing Tracy, UI professor Durham said it's clear FAU wanted to part ways due to Tracy's controversial conspiracy reports.
'Anyone who is watching the situation can see they wouldn't have looked for that if they didn't want to do something about him,' Durham said. 'In practical terms, they've found a way to do what they want to do.'
But, Durham said, he doesn't think Tracy's firing should concern proponents of academic freedom.
'What happened to Tracy isn't a threat to everyone who has tenure,' he said. 'If anything, it shows how far you can go. They gave an awful lot of line to him, and he kept talking.'
But Frank LoMonte, executive director with the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., said although Tracy might have deserved to be fired if he crossed the line from 'spouting bizarre political ideas to actually harassing people,' the way the university did it could become a slippery slope.
'It's certainly suspicious for the university to remove him for the equivalent of a ministerial paperwork violation,' LoMonte said. 'As a general matter of policy, you don't want to see employers micromanaging paperwork as a pretext for getting rid of people with distasteful views.'
Today, he said, it's Tracy.
'Tomorrow, it could be someone who's outspoken in favor of legalizing drugs or some other political idea that the university wants to disassociate itself from,' LoMonte said.
The university should have asked whether Tracy tried to force his views on his students or whether they interfered with his ability to teach. LoMonte said he hopes FAU didn't consider the controversial nature of his beliefs in terminating him.
'Because people at public institutions, especially institutions of higher education, need space to experiment with ideas that may seem far-out or outrageous,' he said.