Univ. of Kentucky Is Struggling to Squelch Net Rumors

Prof. Jeremy D. Popkin returned to his office at the University of Kentucky on Feb. 19 after teaching a lesson about Vichy France in his course on the Holocaust. During its 30 years on the curriculum, the class has grown perpetually popular, with 60 applicants vying for half as many seats. The university has even created a Judaic Studies program.

Yet, when Professor Popkin opened his e-mail that day, he was informed that his class did not exist. “This week, the University of Kentucky removed the Holocaust from its school curriculum,” the message stated, “because it offended the Muslim population, which claims it never occurred.” All faculty members’ e-mail addresses from the history department were listed among the message’s recipients.

Over the past year, faculty members and administrators at the university’s main campus in Lexington have collectively received thousands of e-mail messages like this one, repeating the same baseless accusation — that pressure from Muslims had led the university to drop its Holocaust course. Like many who have sent these messages, the writer added her own preface to the one that appeared in Professor Popkin’s mailbox, writing in part: “I cannot see how you faculty can go to work each day and face a generation of young adults that will be lied to even more than my generation. What next? Are we going to rewrite the facts of 9/11 so that they fit the Middle Eastern beliefs? This is simply shameful, and I am disgusted by it.”

Any university trades on its reputation, and in recent years, Kentucky has been trying to improve its own. It has vigorously deepened its academic programs and added to its faculty, in hopes of raising its national standing and proving itself to be more than just a perennial basketball powerhouse. The last thing it needs, university officials say, is this smear on its good name.

“Initially, you get a couple of e-mails that on the face of it are ludicrous,” said Jay Blanton, executive director of public relations and marketing for the university. “We thought, surely people aren’t going to take this preposterous rumor seriously. And then you see it doesn’t die, it persists.”

The university’s president, Lee T. Todd Jr., expressed similar consternation.

“I understand quite well the power of the Internet,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “Information flows instantaneously without respect to somewhat arbitrary borders of geography or nation state. That’s a positive. In this instance, though, the University of Kentucky is experiencing the flip side of that power — the negative impact of an unfounded rumor that flows across a world seemingly without check. It’s disconcerting, although perhaps understandable in that context, that so many people would be the victim of a rumor so patently and obviously without merit.”

The false e-mail messages began in late April last year. A few weeks earlier, The Daily Telegraph in London had published an article online about a national commission in Britain recommending the best ways to teach difficult subject matter like the Holocaust. A subsequent article, also in The Telegraph, mentioned a school in Birmingham, England, that had dropped the Holocaust from study for fear that it would incite anti-Semitic comments from Muslim students.

As those news reports made the e-mail rounds, one or several or many readers apparently mistook the suffix for British e-mail addresses, “uk,” not to mean “United Kingdom,” but the “University of Kentucky.” The first version of the diatribe against the university began coursing through cyberspace, urging recipients to keep forwarding it until it reached “40 million people worldwide.” And the message began pouring into various computers at Kentucky, including those of the president, provost and dean of arts and sciences.

A rumor like this, said Kumble R. Subbaswamy, a physicist who is provost of the university, “can cause great problems.”

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he continued. “It’s Kafkaesque. Just when you think you’ve tamped it down, it shows up on another Listserv.”

The initial deluge of e-mail messages subsided by early last summer. By November, however, a slightly different incarnation began arriving in ever greater numbers. At that point, Mr. Blanton drafted a press release refuting the rumor and sent it throughout the educational and general media, as well as to individuals who had sent in complaints.

A few significant media outlets did their own coverage of the rumor. Yet despite articles in The Jerusalem Post and The Minneapolis Star-Tribune and an especially thorough investigation by the Web site — and even despite a statement of Kentucky’s innocence from the Anti-Defamation League — people kept on forwarding the message.

One can only speculate why. Mr. Blanton said he wondered if “people buy into stereotypes,” that Kentuckians are a bunch of ignorant hicks who would believe any rumor.

Professor Popkin suggested that the international visibility of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who has called the Holocaust a “myth” and sponsored a conference of people who denied the mass extermination of Jews by the Nazi regime — may have somehow given undeserved authenticity to the idea that the university would stop teaching the course. And among some advocates of Jewish American causes, mostly but not entirely on the political right, there is a common view of universities as being inherently hostile to Israel and Jews, again making it seem possible that Kentucky would have dropped the class.

Meanwhile, the e-mail messages put blame for something that never happened on people like Yahya Ahmed, a senior at Kentucky and president of the school’s chapter of the Muslim Student Association. “Something of this nature is not in our nature,” he said. “We’ve tried to promote unity on this campus, and this is detrimental.”

Mr. Ahmed has not taken Professor Popkin’s course. Then again, he has found other ways to educate himself. Last month, he went on a study trip to Israel. While in Jerusalem, he visited Yad Vashem, the memorial museum of the Holocaust.