Last summer, the right-wing website Campus Reform misrepresented social media postings that I made, leading to a barrage of online and voicemail threats against me and others at my institution, Trinity College in Connecticut. Like other faculty who have been threatened and harassed this year, I was targeted over remarks I made that drew attention to racism. The threats were so severe that I feared for my safety and that of my family.
I expected administrators at my school to defend academic freedom against the right-wing outrage machine that is targeting faculty across the country. Instead, they placed me on involuntary leave and publicly criticized my comments, as if the threat was coming from me.
Fortunately, the AAUP was there. The AAUP chapter on my campus and a large group of other colleagues signed a statement noting that the decision to place me on leave was a clear violation of AAUP standards. Chapter leaders consulted with the national AAUP, which urged the Trinity administration to reinstate me. Ultimately, the administration acknowledged that my posts were protected by academic freedom, noting that “Our understanding of academic freedom in America today is rooted largely in a joint statement from 1940 by the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges that asserted the fundamental importance of academic freedom for the common good and the advancement of truth.”
Now more than ever, we need an organization that exists to protect academic freedom, and that stands up against targeted harassment of faculty. Thank you for being there.
Professor of Sociology at Trinity College
The latest issue of Academe magazinecomes at a timely moment, as it takes an in-depth look at the right-wing assault on academia. The issue includes a series of articles that specifically examine the targeted harassment of faculty.
A profile of the AAUP chapter at Trinity College in Connecticut offers insight into how the newly formed chapter mobilized over the summer on behalf of Professor Johnny Williams after he was attacked on social media and subsequently suspended by the school’s administration. A group of sixty colleagues demanded that the administration rescind its decision, and the chapter’s executive committee issued a statement of support for Williams, citing concerns about academic freedom, due process, and the stifling of “critical engagement with issues of race.” Read more here.
A feature article by Joshua A. Cuevas of the University of North Georgia documents how he was targeted by white supremacists waging a cultural war on what they perceive as the left-wing, intellectual elite. He details the waves of attacks he personally endured as a victim of targeted harassment and argues, “Academia has been too timid in countering such movements. We should not have to speak in hushed tones when we condemn hate groups. We should not have to be apprehensive when we promote democratic ideals and equality.” Read the full piece here.
If you’re interested in Friday’s Facebook Live conversation with Joan Wallach Scott and Hank Reichman, check out an interview Scott gave to Bill Moyers this past fall. Scott says that while attacks on academics are not new, the Trump election empowered a number of different groups whose aim is to stop the teaching of critical thinking. Check out the interview here.
In a final article of interest, Anita Levy, a senior program officer in the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance, provides summaries of several reports of harassment that the AAUP received after asking faculty last year to share their experiences. She notes that in many cases, the triggering event that led to the harassment occurred in the course of faculty members’ normal academic duties as teachers, researchers, or concerned citizen-scholars addressing the public. Read more here.
We’d still like to hear from you—share your stories or thoughts on targeted harassment using the hashtag #FacultyUnderAttack and we’ll post selections on our social media feeds. And remember to join us on Friday for the Facebook Live conversation on targeted harassment. To read all these articles and to see all our resources for the week, check out our page on One Faculty, One Resistance.
2018 looks to be no different, and we’re starting off strong.
In January, an investigating team will visit the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to look into the case of a lecturer who was dismissed at the behest of Nebraska legislators after she protested a recruitment table for Turning Point USA, a radical right-wing organization that maintains the Professor Watchlist website. Her protest, which included the use of anti-fascist slogans, expletives, and obscene gestures, was filmed by the undergraduate student staffing the table and was subsequently posted on websites such as Campus Reform. This case is one of many troubling recent incidents in which right-wing organizations have fomented outrage against higher education, and actions taken by university administrations or legislators in response have had particularly negative consequences for contingent faculty members and faculty of color. We’ll keep you posted as the case develops.
Starting January 22, we’ll devote a full week to sharing resources and information on the issue of targeted harassment of faculty. We’ll share stories from those who have been targeted, provide information on what you can do before and after an incident occurs on your campus, and hold a Facebook live event with a Q&A. Sign up to become part of our action team to help spread the word to as many faculty as possible. We all need to join in this important fight.
Our work fighting political interference on campus continues with a strong showing in the courts. We scored a victory for science this fall when a court rejected harassing public records requests against two University of Arizona faculty members. The case started with a lawsuit filed by a “free market” legal foundation that targets climate scientists in an effort to “put false science on trial.” In an amicus brief in support of the scientists, we argued that public records laws should not be misused in order to chill academic freedom. The court agreed, but the foundation has vowed to “keep peppering universities around the country with similar requests under state open records laws.”
We’re working to ensure that the free flow of information and international academic exchange is not hindered by dangerous governmental interference like the Trump administration’s travel ban. In September the AAUP joined with the American Council on Education (ACE) and other higher education groups in an amicus brief before the US Supreme Court opposing the travel ban. As the case around the revised ban continues to move through the courts we will likely join ACE again in filing a brief. We’re also heartened by your support on this matter–our petition against the ban earlier this year was widely shared and signed.
In November, we filed an amicus brief supporting a challenge to a Texas mandate compelling faculty to permit concealed handguns in college classrooms. Citing decades of social science research, we argued that the presence of weapons has a chilling effect on the rigorous academic exchange of ideas. Our work on this case is ongoing, and we’ll keep you apprised of developments. Want to continue to support our legal work? Donate to the Legal Defense Fund now.
One case that could have a profound impact on the collective voice of those who teach and research in higher education is Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, set to be heard by the Supreme Court in the spring term. This legal threat to union rights is part of a broad and well-funded attack on working people, including faculty members and other academic professionals. We anticipate submitting an amicus brief in the case.
The urgency that our members and supporters feel in fighting such attacks is evident in the overwhelming response to provisions in the GOP tax bill that would devastate graduate education by reclassifying tuition waivers as taxable income and repeal the current student loan interest deduction, a change that would result in an increased cost of roughly $24 billion to student borrowers over the next decade. Thousands of you signed a petition to key members of the House, and many followed up with calls to the Senate and public activism both online and on the ground.
As we head toward January and prepare to shine a spotlight on the targeted harassment of faculty, it’s nice to be able to report a victory for academic freedom. Earlier this year, Professor Johnny Williams of Trinity College in Connecticut was subjected to threats of violence after the radical right-wing organization Campus Reform inaccurately reported on statements he had made on social media. Rather than receiving immediate support from his administration, he was suspended. When the AAUP came out strongly in his defense, the administration acknowledged that the social media posts were protected by academic freedom. We thank our Trinity College AAUP chapter and all those who worked hard to ensure that Williams’s academic freedom was protected.
We look forward to your active participation in our work as we head toward what promises to be an exciting year!
In a victory for academic freedom, the administration of Trinity College in Connecticut acknowledged today that Professor Johnny Williams’s social media posts “were protected by academic freedom and did not violate Trinity College policies.”
The administration observed that “Our understanding of academic freedom in America today is rooted largely in a joint statement from 1940 by the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges that asserted the fundamental importance of academic freedom for the common good and the advancement of truth.”
Williams had been placed on involuntary leave after reports on the website Campus Reform about his posts were followed by threats and the closure of the campus. The administration’s statement notes that “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.”
The AAUP had urged the Trinity administration to lift Williams’s suspension and planned to send a committee of inquiry to visit Trinity on July 20. With the resolution of this case, our further intervention is no longer warranted. Professor Williams has agreed to remain on a leave of absence through the fall semester.
We applaud the excellent work of our local chapter at Trinity College, which organized expressions of solidarity and opposition to the administration’s actions.
The AAUP has written a letter to the president of Trinity College, urging her to immediately reinstate Professor Johnny Eric Williams to his normal faculty duties after the institution placed him on leaveon Monday. Professor Williams, an associate professor of sociology with twenty-one years of service at Trinity College, was the target of a flood of threats following reports about his social media postings by the right-wing media outlet Campus Reform.
The AAUP has long held that academic freedom includes the freedom to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, or other interest without institutional discipline or restraint, save in response to fundamental violations of professional ethics or statements that suggest disciplinary incompetence. The AAUP is concerned that the administration’s actions may have violated Professor Williams’s academic freedom. It also appears that the action taken against Professor Williams is entirely at odds with normative standards of academic due process.
The case of Professor Williams comes at a time of heightened targeted harassment of faculty. We condemn the practice of bombarding faculty members and institutions of higher education with threats. Such threatening messages are likely to stifle free expression and cause faculty and others on campus to self-censor so as to avoid being subjected to similar treatment.