How One Professor’s Tweets Got Her Fired — or So It Seemed at First

At 3:43 p.m. on Tuesday, the University of Memphis made an announcement:

Cue rumors that Ms. Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology, had been fired for statements she made on Twitter about whiteness and the Confederate flag. Conservative websites were abuzz on Tuesday with articles quoting from the sociologist’s Twitter account. For instance, The Washington Times reported that Ms. Robinson called the Confederate flag “the ultimate symbol of white heteropatriarchal capitalism.” National Review reported that Ms. Robinson said the shooting in Charleston, S.C., that left nine black people dead was an example of “white people acting how they’re conditioned to act.”

Throughout Tuesday, Memphis, a state university, endured a flood of angry messages on its social-media accounts demanding that Ms. Robinson be fired. Here’s a taste from Twitter:

A Facebook post from the university advertising a STEM scholarship featured these comments:

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Clearly, the university felt compelled to weigh in. And onlookers, understandably, jumped to the conclusion that Ms. Robinson’s change in employment status had something to do with her fiery remarks. Cue the outrage:

Just minutes after Twitter caught fire with denunciations of the university under the hashtag #ZandriaRobinson, others — including some who said they were close to Ms. Robinson — responded with new information that complicated the narrative:

But the Twitter outrage was hard to contain, and questions still swirled about the scholar’s status. Then Ms. Robinson herself weighed in. Her account is now protected, meaning not everyone can see her tweets. But one of her followers quoted her response below:

Ms. Robinson’s tweets hardly quieted the discussion, which continued into the evening on the topics of racism in academe and the University of Memphis’s response. Angus Johnston, a professor at the City University of New York who runs the blog Student Activism, took Memphis to task for making it seem as if Ms. Robinson had been fired:

When reached by phone about an hour after that tweet was published, a Memphis spokeswoman, Gabrielle Maxey, said the university would not provide further information other than what was in its tweet.

The recent cases of Saida Grundy and Steven G. Salaita have made higher-education observers especially sensitive to alleged violations of academic freedom that stem from scholars’ statements on social media. And the national furor over race can only add fuel to the fire.

By 8 p.m., the hashtag #ZandriaRobinson was quiet. But Tuesday’s episode still left unanswered questions, and demonstrated that the conversation about black scholars and academic freedom seems unlikely to die down anytime soon.

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