Rallies for far-right speakers, misrepresentation of professors’ statements, and racist or Islamophobic signs are popping up on campuses across the country. Some faculty members think that trend is more than just a conservative backlash against perceived liberal bias; it’s fascism.
In an effort to push back, Bill Mullen, an English professor at Purdue University, last spring formed a coalition of scholars called the Campus Anti-Fascist Network. Since a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that started on the University of Virginia’s campus turned deadly in August, Mr. Mullen said the network had grown from 40 to 400 members. including faculty, staff, and students.
"This is a very, very bad turn in higher education," Mr. Mullen said. "We invite people from diverse political perspectives to join this network as long as they oppose fascism."
He and David Palumbo-Liu, a comparative-literature professor at Stanford University, formed the network after seeing academics such as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, and Johnny E. Williams, a sociology professor at Trinity College, in Connecticut, face death threats in response to comments that some found controversial.
The Campus Anti-Fascist Network, Mr. Mullen said, is meant to support academics in that position, especially when their administrations hold them at arm’s length.
"We will defend the targets and victims of fascism, defend Muslims, immigrants, Jews, and LGBTQ people who typically come under attack from these forces," Mr. Mullen said. The 400 members receive regular communications from the network and are encouraged to share information about what’s happening on their campuses. There is a vetting process to join; Mr. Mullen said the group wants participants who are connected to a college and committed to countering fascism.
While the coalition does not have a formal relationship with antifa groups, anti-fascist activists known (and criticized) for violent protests, Mr. Mullen said the network does not oppose them.
The group has received endorsements from the prominent novelists Junot Díaz and Viet Nguyen, as well as labor unions like the Duke Graduate Student Union and the University of California Student Workers. Some academic departments have also endorsed the effort, including the English department at the University of Hawaii and Trinity’s sociology department.
‘I Wasn’t Insane’
Mr. Williams said faculty members needed to organize to push back when their words get reported out of context on conservative websites that are dedicated to finding liberal bias. He received death threats after his Facebook posts appeared in a Campus Reform article that made it seem as if he was promoting violence against white people.
Trinity put Mr. Williams on leave, but later cleared him of any wrongdoing. Knowing that his colleagues, at Trinity and elsewhere, supported him has helped him feel sane, Mr. Williams said.
"It’s important to professors who have a tendency to work in isolation, who are individuals, to know that they’re not in this alone," he said. "I wasn’t insane for saying what I said. You need validation; you need community."
Mr. Williams said he was so unnerved by the threats, he found it hard to write this summer. He’s still on voluntary leave, but things are starting to feel normal again.
This week the network has already seen a reason to act. Comments about antifa made by a Dartmouth College lecturer, Mark Bray, appeared in a Campus Reform article along with a statement by Philip J. Hanlon, the Dartmouth president, who said that the college does not support violent protest. On Wednesday the Campus Anti-Fascist Network released a statement asking Mr. Hanlon to withdraw his statement and throw the institution’s support behind the lecturer’s work.
"We need clear, responsible scholarship that can educate the public and equip citizens with knowledge of the history and patterns of far-right extremism and of the efforts to mobilize against them," the network’s statement said.
Also on Wednesday, Mr. Hanlon responded to faculty members at the college who were concerned about his response to Mr. Bray’s media attention. He wrote that Dartmouth had supported Mr. Bray by circulating his findings and helping him conduct media interviews. The college’s statement was issued in response to students, alumni, and "friends of the college" who thought that Mr. Bray was speaking on behalf of Dartmouth during an interview on Meet the Press, Mr. Hanlon wrote.
Educating the public and students of the network’s members is a second prong of the group’s mission. They’ve created a syllabus that they hope will be used to teach about what fascism is, how it grows, and how to stop it.
So far, a handful of campuses have begun to form their own chapters of the network, including at the University of Connecticut, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh, Swarthmore College, the University of Texas at Austin, and two Canadian institutions, Wilfrid Laurier University and York University, according to Mr. Mullen.
Christopher Vials, an associate professor of English at UConn, is spearheading the effort there. About 30 faculty members and graduate students attended the first meeting, which was held before most undergraduates had arrived on the campus.
Though the chapter is still figuring out what it will do, Mr. Vials was clear on one thing: the way to counter fascism is to act.
"The way to respond to people like Spencer is not to stay away and stay quiet, it’s to face it," he said, referring to Richard Spencer, an alt-right leader. "Anti-fascism does not say, Stay home."