NAS: Defending embattled Trinity prof is 'morally tone deaf'
A recent string of suspensions and terminations of professors has some academic organizations questioning the commitment of university administrators to academic freedom.
As Campus Reform previously reported, Essex County College fired Professor Lisa Durden after she publicly defended a Black Lives Matter Memorial Day event held exclusively for black people.
“Boo hoo hoo. You white people are angry because you couldn’t use your white privilege card,” she told host Tucker Carlson during an appearance on his Fox News show.
Similarly, the University of Delaware announced that it would not be rehiring Professor Katherine Dettwyler after she declared that Otto Warmbier, who suffered and died at the hands of the North Koreans, “got exactly what he deserved.”
Perhaps most notably, Professor Johnny Eric Williams was placed on leave “effective immediately” by Trinity College after he called white people “inhuman assholes” and shared an article on Facebook that suggested that the victims of last month’s congressional baseball shooting should have been left to “fucking die” by black first responders.
The move elicited outrage from several academic organizations, including the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which demanded that Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney “immediately reinstate” Williams.
“Professor Williams, an associate professor of sociology with twenty-one years of service at Trinity College, was placed on leave Monday evening after being targeted with a flood of threats following reports about his social media postings by the right-wing media outlet Campus Reform,” the AAUP statement declares, adding, “the AAUP is concerned that the administration’s actions may have violated Williams’ academic freedom.”
Jonathan Haidt of Heterodox Academy likewise penned an op-ed—“Professors Must Now Fear Intimidation From Both Sides”—in which he asserts that “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,” albeit without offering any specific examples.
“The bipartisan nature of intimidation is likely to have a chilling effect on speech, and on the quality of teaching. Professors must think twice before trying any provocative teaching exercise or line of questioning,” Haidt goes on to argue, suggesting that “anything you say can be distorted and misreported, potentially destroying your reputation and your career.”
Both Heterodox Academy and the AAUP, though, declined to comment explicitly on whether they believe Williams’ comments fall within the bounds of academic freedom, nor was either organization willing to state whether there are any acceptable limitations to the protections afforded by academic freedom.
The American Sociological Association also issued a statement on Trinity’s decision to place Williams on leave, saying “the ability to inject controversial ideas into this forum is paramount to a better understanding of our society and essential to ensuring a robust exchange of ideas on college campuses,” though spokespersons for the ASA did not respond to Campus Reform’s inquiries as to whether Williams’ comments fall into such a category.
“Threatening the life of those whose rhetoric we oppose undermines the robust and democratic exchange of ideas,” the statement continues, referring to the death threats Williams says he has received over the controversy, as opposed to his use of the phrase “let them fucking die.”
Conversely, while still “unequivocally” condemning “the reported threats against Professor Williams and his family,” the National Association of Scholars (NAS) stated that is is “gravely disappointed in the AAUP's morally tone-deaf response, which does not even mention what Williams actually said, much less condemn it.”
“It is difficult to take seriously an organization whose protestation in favor of the principles of academic freedom cannot state explicitly the murderous words it desires to protect,” NAS Director of Communications David Randall told Campus Reform, noting that his organization “takes academic freedom to be a means to support the search for truth within universities.”
“While there are interestingly borderline cases out there, this isn't one: incitement to murder (or criminal neglect of the gravely wounded) on the grounds of race hatred doesn't serve the search for truth in any manner whatsoever,” he continued, calling Williams’ remarks demonstration of “so severe a character flaw as to justify immediate removal from his position at Trinity.”
Randall also noted that Williams’ comments bring into doubt both “whether any white students of his henceforward could feel confident that they would be graded fairly in their class, because of their skin color” and “whether any students henceforward would feel confident that they could oppose Williams' racist views in class and feel confident that they would be graded fairly.”
He did suggest, however, that the NAS desires “that President Berger-Sweeney state explicitly her grounds for putting Professor Williams on leave” while making “a comprehensive statement of the principles of academic freedom which govern Trinity College,” saying such a statement must defend “robust principles and practices of academic freedom,” but “discriminate between seeking truth and inciting murder.”
“Charles Murray and Heather MacDonald should be able to speak on campus without fear of a mob; recruiters for Al Qaeda and promoters of race-murder are not protected by academic freedom,” Randall concluded. “President Berger-Sweeney should commit herself, and Trinity, to defending academic freedom. She should also forthrightly condemn Professor Williams for his odious words, and call on all other members of Trinity to condemn his incitement to race hatred and murder.”
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