Academic Freedom

Under Fire, These Professors Were Criticized by Their Colleges

June 28, 2017

Mark Makela for The Chronicle
George Ciccariello-Maher, of Drexel U., is one of several academics who’ve found less than unqualified support from their own colleges after drawing criticism online for controversial comments.

Some scholars have become increasingly alarmed in recent weeks about professors who have come under intense criticism for controversial remarks. Prominent scholars such as Tressie McMillan Cottom and Corey Robin have voiced their frustrations with how quickly some colleges and universities have distanced themselves from scholars who are targeted by right-wing media websites.

Not all of this year’s free-speech controversies involving professors have elicited critical responses from their colleges or universities. But several have, and we’ve listed them below, while excerpting from those public statements. (To keep the scope manageable, we are including only controversies from 2017.)

Did we miss any cases? We’ll be tracking future blowups here. Email chris.quintana@chronicle.com.

Johnny Eric Williams, an associate professor of sociology at Trinity College, in Connecticut, wrote two controversial messages on his Facebook page on June 18 and later shared an article posted by an anonymous author on Medium that argued that minority first responders to the recent shootings at a congressional baseball practice should have left white victims to die.

On June 20, Campus Reform, a conservative news outlet with a focus on higher education, reported on Mr. Williams’s messages, and shortly afterward, the professor’s remarks went national. He initially stood by his comments, though he later said his words had been misconstrued and apologized for the trouble they had caused. Trinity’s president, Joanne Berger-Sweeney, announced on June 26 that he was being put on leave. She also said that a review of "the events concerning Professor Williams" was continuing, and she suggested further discussions about academic freedom and freedom of speech, and the responsibilities that accompany them.

"As scholars and citizens, and as individuals and as a community of higher learning," she wrote, "our roles in and relationship to social media and the public sphere are complicated. We must be able to engage in conversations about these difficult and complex issues, and Trinity College and other places like it are precisely where such conversations should occur. I, for one, welcome them."

Mr. Williams told the Hartford Courant it was not his choice to be placed on leave. He said he thought Trinity administrators "had pressure to do something. They want this to die down and go away."

On July 14, Ms. Berger-Sweeney said Mr. Williams had been cleared of wrongdoing, though she said she didn’t condone his remarks. She also blamed much of the national outcry on "misleading and incorrect reports" about what Mr. Williams had actually said.

"In particular, the initial report by Campus Reform led to distortions and an ensuing harassment that has become troublingly common for people of color and those who speak out on issues of race and racism," Ms. Berger-Sweeney wrote. "Such harassment, intended to intimidate, is appalling and, indeed, a threat to freedom of expression and to robust debate aimed at discovering truth and knowledge."

In the same statement, Ms. Berger Sweeney said Mr. Williams would remain on leave through the fall semester to "provide some time and distance from this recent controversy and to allow him to continue his scholarship on race, racism, and academic freedom."

Katherine A. Dettwyler, an adjunct lecturer in anthropology at the University of Delaware, wrote critical comments on a National Review article and on her Facebook page about Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who recently died following months of imprisonment by North Korea.

Her remarks, first featured on Campus Reform on June 22, quickly spread across the internet. Someone took to the institution’s Facebook page, calling on the university to fire the faculty member.

The institution initially condemned her remarks on June 23, saying they didn’t reflect the university’s values. "The University of Delaware values respect and civility, and we are committed to global education and study abroad: therefore we find these comments particularly distressing and inconsistent with our values," the university stated. "Our sympathies are with the Warmbier family."

On June 25 the university severed its relationship with Ms. Dettwyler, saying she would not be rehired.

Ms. Dettwyler declined to speak to news-media outlets, including The Chronicle, citing numerous threats.

Lisa Durden, an adjunct at Essex Community College, in New Jersey, appeared on June 6 on the Fox News program Tucker Carlson Tonight to discuss a Memorial Day event hosted by Black Lives Matter organizers that was open only to black attendees. In that appearance she did not say she was associated with the community college.

When she arrived on the campus to teach, on June 8, she was suspended, and about two weeks later she was fired. She told The Washington Post that the college had "publicly lynched" her in the wake of negative publicity over her comments on the show, in which she defended the Black Lives Matter organizers.

In a pages-long statement defending the college’s decision, the institution’s president, Anthony E. Munroe, wrote that Essex had been flooded with feedback "expressing frustration, concern, and even fear that the views expressed by a college employee (with influence over students) would negatively impact their experience on the campus."

"In consideration of the college’s mission, and the impact that this matter has had on the college’s fulfillment of its mission, we cannot maintain an employment relationship with the adjunct," he wrote. "The college affirms its right to select employees who represent the institution appropriately and are aligned with our mission."

Tommy Curry, an associate professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University at College Station, about five years ago participated in a YouTube interview in which he discussed race and violence. Those remarks resurfaced in May in a column titled "When Is It OK to Kill Whites?" by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative.

Mr. Curry said of that piece that he wasn’t advocating for violence and that his remarks had been taken out of context. He told The Chronicle that online threats had arrived in force shortly after that. Some were racial in nature.

At the same time the president of the university, Michael K. Young, issued a statement in which he appeared to rebuke the remarks made by Mr. Curry.

"The interview features disturbing comments about race and violence that stand in stark contrast to Aggie core values — most notably those of respect, excellence, leadership, and integrity — values that we hold true toward all of humanity," Mr. Young’s statement read. "As we know, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of others to offer their personal views, no matter how reprehensible those views may be. It also protects our right to freedom of speech, which I am exercising now."

About a week later, after some faculty members and students criticized his response, Mr. Young issued a new statement apologizing for how his remarks had been received.

"For those of you who considered my comments disparaging to certain types of scholarly work or in any way impinging upon the centrality of academic freedom at this university," he wrote, "I regret any contributions that I may have made to misunderstandings in this case, including to those whose work is contextualized by understanding the historical perspectives of events that have often been ignored."

Lars Maischak, a lecturer in the history department at California State University at Fresno, tweeted in February that, "to save American democracy, Trump must hang," as part of a larger thread. At the time, Mr. Maischak had just under 30 followers on the social-media site and thought his messages would never "be read by anyone but a close circle of acquaintances who would know to place them in their context."

But a Breitbart writer featured them in April. Thousands of people responded with tweets and emails calling for Mr. Maischak to be fired, deported, or killed, according to Mr. Maischak. From the start of the story, the university’s administration said it would cooperate with any future federal investigation.

"While Fresno State is committed to state and federal constitutional rights of free speech, the content of statements by Dr. Maischak warrants further review and consideration," Joseph I. Castro, Fresno State’s president, said in a written statement. "The review of these and any other statements will be conducted in the context of rights of free expression, but also for potential direct threats of violence that may violate the law."

Mr. Maischak later went on leave for the remainder of the spring semester.

The academic initially stood his ground on the statement but later apologized for it and deleted his Twitter account. "To treat Twitter as of no more consequence than a journal was a poor decision," he wrote in a public statement.

George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University, made headlines in December 2016 after tweeting, "All I want for Christmas is white genocide." The university initially condemned the remarks and said it had contacted the professor to discuss his comments.

"While the university recognizes the right of its faculty to freely express their thoughts and opinions in public debate, Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s comments are utterly reprehensible, deeply disturbing, and do not in any way reflect the values of the university," it said in a written statement. "We contacted Ciccariello-Maher today to arrange a meeting to discuss this matter in detail."

A few days later the university issued another statement in which it clarified that it supported the rights of the professor while taking pains to distance itself from his remarks:

"The university vigorously supports the right of its faculty members and students to freely express their opinions in the course of academic debate and discussion. In this vein, we recognize Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets as protected speech. However, his words, taken at face value and shared in the constricted Twitter format, do not represent the values of inclusion and understanding espoused by Drexel University."

Mr. Ciccariello-Maher made headlines again in April for saying he wanted to "vomit" when he spotted an airline passenger giving up a first-class seat to a soldier. After that incident the university launched a review of the professor’s conduct. He recently told The Chronicle that he remained under investigation for his social-media messages and that he felt his academic rights were being violated.

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.