A Professor Reflects on Her Time in the Eye of a Social-Media Storm

April 16, 2017

In March, Areej Zufari, a Muslim professor teaching a course on Middle Eastern humanities at Rollins College, gave a student a failing grade on his first essay assignment.

The student — Marshall Polston, a 20-year-old Christian — took issue with that decision. In a lengthy email in response to the grade, the Orlando Sentinel reported, he sharply criticized Ms. Zufari’s teaching and told her that he planned to get in touch with "national media personalities that I’m good friends with."

Some details of the dispute between the professor, who is an adjunct at Rollins, and the student remain in question. Ms. Zufari and Mr. Polston had been at odds since the start of the spring semester. After the incident went public, Rollins College, in Winter Park, Fla., briefly suspended the student — because of comments he made on social media, not his interaction with Ms. Zufari, the college said — before reinstating him.

What isn’t at question is the digital pillorying Ms. Zufari faced after the disagreement. Reports that she had unfairly targeted Mr. Polston for standing up for Christianity spread like wildfire, especially on conservative-leaning websites, after Mr. Polston spoke to the news media. Kenneth Lewis, Mr. Polston’s lawyer, said his client reached out to the media because "he felt retaliated against and silenced."

In recent weeks Ms. Zufari has received a barrage of attacks on her race and religion by phone and email. Among other things, the professor has faced unsubstantiated claims of ties to terrorism.

Rollins has reported receiving 10,000 angry emails and letters in response to the controversy. The professor, meanwhile, said she will step away from her classes at the college for the semester, though she hopes to return. And though she has continued her course load at Valencia College, a public institution in Orlando, Twitter users have called for the college to fire her.

In an interview with The Chronicle, which has been edited for length and clarity, Ms. Zufari discussed the experience of facing threats and social-media outrage, the importance of supportive colleagues, and the benefits of a new hobby.

Q. I have just been looking at the unrelenting flow directed at you on Twitter. How has it been the last couple of days?

A. It’s not been easy. And I am having anxiety attacks, which is to be expected. It’s amazing and great to have the support of Rollins College and Valencia, where I am tenured.

The latest Orlando Sentinel article gave the number of 10,000 pieces of hate speech and threats that Rollins College got. I have a thick stack, but I don’t think it’s that bad.

So I really don’t know how much is out there. I made the choice to stop looking, so I have missed out on a lot of good and positive comments that people have posted on social media. But I needed to block it all out.

Q. On social media and on conservative websites, some have used phrases like "terror ties" to describe you.

A. Look, I worked for the Islamic Society of Central Florida after 2001, and at the outbreak of the Iraq War. I have seen hate mail; I have had phone messages. I have had people telling me that I am a terrorist just by the fact that I am representing an Islamic organization.

Nothing, nothing to the scale of what this is. Nothing that made the police give me 24-hour police protection. Nothing that had both colleges saying, Oh, shit, what just happened?

If you’re a professor who really puts yourself into your work, then it’s really hard to hear so many people willing to believe ... I don’t want to say "atrocious," but to hear so many people who are willing to believe in exaggerations.

All of the ugly emails and threats, that’s what they felt like, really really ugly.

I also had the benefit of the dean, especially the dean I worked with at Valencia, really having my back. My fellow faculty members, had they not shown so much support for me, I would have been devastated.

Q. That’s crucial because it shows you’re not alone?

A. Not alone, and that so many people know my integrity and would never believe anything so ugly about me. The colleagues that know me well, that kind of camaraderie is essential. Many who don’t know me well wrote strong cards of encouragement.

Q. If you could reply to every email you got or every tweet you have seen, what would you say?

A. We went down straight into safety and security mode. That’s was our primary goal.

Q. So responding to this barrage of voices — that wasn’t really on your mind?

A. No. I refused to. I think to respond is just to keep that polemic of us-vs.-them mentality continuing. I didn’t feel that there was anything to gain or to benefit by responding.

Q. Are you still getting messages at this point, or have you been able to filter them out for the most part?

A. They still trickle in, but very little compared with what it was.

Q. Say in a month or two, you see another professor going through something like this, and you’re asked for advice. What would you say?

A. Ouch. [Laughs] Oh man, that’s a hard one, because there have been many people in my situation and they have been tormented for one reason or another, whether it was decades ago because they taught evolution or other controversial topics.

And I see myself ... I don’t know even know, that’s so hard. I hope nobody is ever in this situation.

Like I said, I had the support of my dean, and that meant a lot because the person who observes me, the person who evaluates me, immediately knew, Oh, this is garbage. And he had my back. But for others, maybe they’re not necessarily that lucky or they’re not tenured.

So I would say my message would be for that professor’s colleagues to continue to support him or her and advocate on their behalf. And that’s going to become a really big issue. There’s a lot of people who make frivolous claims, and the problem with social media and some media outlets is that the accusations are not sifted properly. Whether it’s an issue of academic freedom or someone is bombasted like this because a student didn’t like them, these are going to be trickier lines to define in the future.

Q. You mentioned that you had decided to stop focusing on these things. Did that involve turning off your phone? Going on a trip?

A. I have learned to play mah-jongg. I have been cleaning my house and rearranging my house and keeping busy. I have also had some amazing friends who said, Well, you don’t want to leave your house? Then we’re coming to you. I had a group of friends who invited me to share Passover with them a couple of nights ago. They insisted, This is a holiday you should share with us. That meant the world to me.

Q. The best way to make through a hard situation is with a good support group.

A. [Sings] I get by with a little help from my friends.

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