Last week, several universities did a little late spring cleaning. Trinity College announced that Prof. Johnny Eric Williams was being placed on leave pending “further investigation” into racist comments he made on Facebook, including a call for an end to “inhuman white a**holes.”
Essex County College in New Jersey went a step further and fired Prof. Lisa Durden for her defense of a “blacks-only” Memorial Day, which included an admonition to whites to “stay your asses out!”
The University of Delaware took similar action with regard to Katherine Dettwyler, an adjunct faculty member posted online that “Otto Warmbier got exactly what he deserved.”
You might expect that these actions would be seen as a warning to both benches those in academe. But that’s not how they’ve been received.
Campus Reform chronicles reactions from a number of professional organizations that fear that these firings will “chill” free speech. Here is a portion of a statement released by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) regarding the dismissal of Johnny Eric Williams:
The AAUP has long held that academic freedom includes the freedom to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, or other interest without institutional discipline or restraint, save in response to fundamental violations of professional ethics or statements that suggest disciplinary incompetence. Thus, the AAUP is concerned that the administration’s actions may have violated Williams’s academic freedom. It also appears that the action taken against Williams is entirely at odds with normative standards of academic due process. We have invited the administration to supply any additional information that might contribute to our understanding of what has occurred.
The argument the AAUP makes would be fair and reasonable if it were in defense of a professor with controversial views. But what Williams wrote in his online screeds far transcends the merely controversial. Consider Exhibit A reprinted below for your convenience:
These are incitements to war against an imaginary adversary, and they are expressed in the most petulant and profane manner imaginable. The language and content are beneath the dignity of any self-respecting university, and they should be beneath the dignity of the AAUP.
A second organization that spoke out with respect to these actions is the Heterodox Academy, which describes itself thus:
We are a politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities.
We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.
Fair warning. An op-ed at the site by the fittingly named Jonathan Haidt, who teaches ethical leadership at New York University, identifies what he considers to be “the pattern” that leads to the firings of faculty members:
1) Left-wing professor says something provocative (and sometimes truly inflammatory), usually about race, on Twitter or Facebook or in a speech or media interview.
2) Right wing media sites, particularly Campus Reform and Fox News, pick up the story and report it in a way designed to cause maximum outrage, sometimes distorting or ignoring the context.
3) Readers and viewers of such media become outraged; some of them write racist or sexist social media posts, including rape threats and death threats; many demand that the university fire the professor.
4) The university’s president and other administrative leaders are paralyzed by the public relations crisis; they do nothing to stand up for the professor, and sometimes they move quickly to condemn the professor and put him or her “on leave” in order to begin the process of termination, particularly if the professor is not tenured.
I especially like Haidt’s focus on how “right wing media sites … pick up the story and report it in a way designed to cause maximum outrage.” As though Williams or Durden, both mentioned in the op-ed, done’t “cause maximum outrage” all by themselves.
Because Haidt is a liberal, he is obviously blind to the possibility that some people might take offense at the comments these individuals make.