Alan Scher Zagier
COLUMBIA, Mo. — A quick glance at Larry James’ packed resume suggests the retired Army colonel is eminently qualified for a top administrative job at the University of Missouri.
He holds a doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Iowa, is dean of professional psychology at Wright State University outsideand coordinated mental health resources at the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 terror attacks as part of a 22-year military career.
But it’s the 16 months he spent during two stints overseeing interrogations at the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay that has shifted an otherwise obscure academic hiring into the broader debate about terror and torture, and drew a packed room of professors, protesters and TV cameras to a campus ballroom Tuesday as James participated in a public interview.
James is one of two finalists for a job at UM overseeing more than 60 people as division director in the College of Education. He spent 20 minutes of the allotted hour sharing his vision for the job. James described his “servant leadership style,” outlined his hopes to recruit and support student veterans and laid out plans for an interdisciplinary research center focusing on gun violence in schools.
After the presentation, just two members of the education faculty asked questions of James. That left the bulk of time for public scrutiny of his military service. And when organizers sought to end the interview, James agreed to remain behind the microphone to field additional questions.
Human rights activists and several psychologists have filed complaints against James alleging that he witnessed the “systematically” abusive interrogation of Guantanamo prisoners but failed to intervene. In one instance, James is accused of initially watching without intervening while an interrogator and three guards subjected a near-naked man to sexual humiliation by forcing him to wear women’s underwear.
As he has in the past, including in the 2008 memoir “Fixing Hell,” James told the crowd he went to Guantanamo, as well as the Abu Ghraib detention center in Iraq in 2004, to clean up what James referred to not as abuse but “some diabolical things” at both prisons. In the sexual humiliation incident, James said he disrupted the interrogation after a 5-minute coffee break.
“I was sent to Guantanamo not to aid these CIA operatives, but to teach these young men and women, how do you sit down and interview someone without any abusive practices whatsoever,” he said. “That’s what my mission was.”
Other audience members, including members of the university’s Muslim Student Organization, asked James about his characterization in his book of the International Committee of the Red Cross as “a bunch of radical left do-gooders” who consider military detainees “completely innocent, and only needed to be hugged more.”
Some suggested that while James has not been found to have violated professional standards or the law, the university should hold its prospective employees to a higher standard. A state licensing board in Ohio has declined to discipline James, as did a similar panel in Louisiana, where he also is licensed.
“I’m disappointed,” said Evan Prost, an assistant professor of physical therapy who opposes James’ hiring. “It’s a smirch on the university.”
A six-member search committee will forward its recommendation to education Dean Daniel Clay, who expects to make a decision by next month.
James’ possible hiring prompted a Feb.1 campus protest by the mid-Missouri chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an anti-war group. On Wednesday, another protest is planned at Mizzou by the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, as well as other civil rights and academic groups.