It’s winter break at Florida Atlantic University, which means its campuses are deserted. On Tuesday, the few students who could be found strolling the university’s Boca Raton campus seemed entirely unaware that their school’s least-distinguished professor, outspoken conspiracy theorist James Tracy, was, yet again, locked in a shameless fight with the parents of children who died in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. Most of the students New Times spoke to seemed completely unaware that Tracy existed at all, despite the fact that his latest outburst has finally pushed Florida Atlantic University to try and fire him.
Tracy, who believes the shooting never happened — and takes any opportunity to say so — has, as of late, apparently been pestering the parents of Sandy Hook victims to prove that their children ever existed in the first place. On Dec. 10 of last week, the South Florida Sun Sentinel published an op-ed written by two parents, Veronique and Lenny Pozner, whose child was killed in the shooting. In the op-ed, the couple said Tracy had been harassing them, and had, in the oh-so-smug manner in which he conducts himself, accused the pair of fabricating their son’s death certificate and making at least a million dollars off of their allegedly fake son’s death.
The Sun Sentinel op-ed (and ensuing media frenzy) appears to have struck a nerve with FAU, which announced last night that it had served Tracy, a tenured professor at the school, a notice that it is moving to fire him. Tracy has 10 days to respond to the notice, and then undergo a grievance process. In the past, he has published frequently about "academic freedom" on his blog.
Tracy, who teaches mass media courses at Florida Atlantic, has, since 2012, made a literal career out of denying the shooting ever happened. Mere weeks after the massacre, Tracy fired up his blogging fingers, and, in the oh-so-smug manner in which he publicly conducts himself, said flatly that he thought the shooting had been orchestrated by the government, as there appeared to be far too many inconsistencies during the initial press conferences following the attack. (He has said, for example, that because the victim’s families did not speak to the press following the shooting they are likely actors hired by the state to pretend to have lost their children.)
It is, frankly, astounding that Tracy’s career at Florida Atlantic has lasted so long, as he is a walking public relations nightmare, the sort of person who proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is such a thing as bad publicity, especially when your institution relies on public perception and donor support to keep money and new students rolling in. To many people outside the state, James Tracy is the only face they associate with Florida Atlantic, if they can associate anything at all.
In letting him hang onto his job this long, the university has let the blister that was James Tracy fester into a full-on abscess. Though Tracy was a tenured professor, tenured professors around the nation have been fired in recent years for making far tamer statements, like former Marquette University professor John McAdams, whom the university attempted to fire in February after he blogged about a student’s views on LGBTQ rights. Florida Atlantic could have moved to fire Tracy any time in the last three years. Instead, Tracy was able to use what little legitimacy he had as a professor to start his own radio show, develop something of a cult following among fellow conspiracy theorists, and spout off about virtually every other shooting since Sandy Hook.
Multiple representatives from Florida Atlantic University did not respond to repeated requests for comment regarding Tracy’s conduct. Tracy did not respond to New Times’ attempts to contact him, either.
After being informed of Tracy’s thoughts on Sandy Hook, one Florida Atlantic graduate student, who elected to remain nameless for reasons that will immediately become clear, said he actually sympathized with Tracy’s overall ethos. “Yeah, maybe Sandy Hook isn’t exactly the right thing to be denying,” he said, sucking down a cigarette. “But I can’t really knock the guy for speaking his mind. There are a lot of things that get hidden from society.”
However, students who have taken Tracy’s classes in recent years say the courses he’s been teaching, including one called “Culture of Conspiracy,” and another called "Public Opinion and Modernity," the latter a mandatory class for journalism majors, hasn’t exactly been helpful. Savannah Koval, a senior journalism student at the school, said Tracy’s mandatory journalism class, which, the professor told her, would teach kids not to trust anything “official sources” tell them, was little more than a platform for Tracy to spout off about any number of conspiracies, 9/11 chiefly among them.
“We mostly just watched videos about different conspiracies every week," she said. "I never would have taken his course if it wasn't mandatory."
Tracy, who is currently on paternity leave, did not respond to requests for comment. On his blog, however, he questioned what really happened at a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mislabeled one of Tracy's courses, "Culture of Conspiracy," as a mandatory course for journalism majors at the university. We have corrected, and regret, the error.