Sunday, July 2, 2017

In the Battle for Control of the Contested Spaces of Speech Within the Business of the Academy: The Trinity College AAUP Chapter Statement on the Suspension of Prof Williams

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2017)

As is well known by now, the contests over control of the "spaces" for "speech" have become much more heated over the course of the last several years. There have been any number of high profile (and by that I mean cases where national media have deemed the events of sufficient interest to report) events in which the social media statements of faculty, as well as the efforts of faculty to speak at academic institutions, have been the subject of agitation and threats.  The events have targeted people of all political views and appear to suggest the intensification of campaigns not just for control of the borderlands of "acceptable" speech but also to regulate not its contents (directly) but the consequences of its use.  To that end the conflation of the ideal of the university as a place for discourse of all sorts is increasingly bumping up against the realities of markets for educational services (and the business of education) with respect to which speech is part of the production of income for institutions. But also changing are the frameworks of academic speech culture that once served to discipline the scope and manner of faculty speech within a common culture of academic speech that has long been shattered  and whose shards increasingly sting their targets. Universities have responded to these increasingly conflicting demands in quite distinct ways (see, e.g., here, here, here, here).  The academy has finally come face to face with the end product of the revolution in academia that began in the second half of the 20th century to the three strands of academic life--the university as an institution, the ideal of the university and the role and place of faculty within both. 

The line drawing between speech, faculty speech cultures, and the business of education have become more risky as individuals (students, other faculty, administrators, and outsider stakeholders among others) have intensified the nature of their responses to speech.  Where once speech was countered by (more) speech, today the most effective (in terms of getting results including drawing media attention) now speech tends to be countered by physical acts and threats. The most powerful speakers today wrap themselves within the emotive and physical power of the mob and of the threat of the use of physical force. These trends ought to be greatly lamented.  And one ought to be troubled by the increasing propensity to back counterspeech with physical acts is likely to dramatically change the shape of the dynamics of discussion about the speech of academics (and others int he academy) in years to come. Yet, perhaps, as culture itself becomes a political objective, it might well be expected that the issues around speech of these sorts no longer are mere matters internal to the university but are now important aspects of larger political battles affecting society. And that also substantially changes both the context in which speech debates may be had.  This is not new--recall earlier periods of substantial political instability in the United States and elsewhere where academic speech became more sensitive as a political matter.  But historical resonance does not necessarily suggest either response or outcome in the peculiar contemporary context.  

One already gets a sense of this, as well as of the increasing irrelevance of traditional patterns of discussion of speech and speech rights within the academy in the latest manifestation of the new emerging pattern of the battle over speech and the power to control it. And it is not clear that the traditionally based responses of academics (see, e.g., Targeted Online Harassment of Faculty,”) are sufficient in the face of substantial changes in the nature and context in which these issues now arise.  Hank Reichman, posted on the AAUP's Academe Blog posted:
The following statement on the suspension of Professor Johnny Williams was issued by the Executive Committee of the Trinity College AAUP chapter. This morning Inside Higher Ed reports that “Williams said he was told by a dean that he was taking leave whether he wanted to or not, and that Trinity made its decision in ‘the best interest of the college, not for my family and me.’ It’s ‘not in the interest of safeguarding academic freedom and free speech,’ he added. ‘It is my hope the administration corrects its course’.’”
To read the statement click here and see below along with the brief statement of the University suspending Professor Williams.

For an update as of July 14, 2017--HERE.

Trinity AAUP Statement on the Decision to Place Professor Johnny Williams on Leave

In response to the College administration’s decision to place professor Johnny Williams on leave, we as the Executive Committee of Trinity College’s AAUP chapter think it important to express publicly the following concerns. We appreciate that the attack on Johnny happened very rapidly, and that the administration had to respond quickly, under threat, and with limited information. We also appreciate that the administration is accountable to a number of different constituencies, including trustees, donors, alumni, students, parents, and the general public.

However, we are still troubled that, after a tenured black professor received death threats in response to speaking out against white supremacy on a personal social media page, the administration’s default response was to lend credence to a politically motivated attack specifically designed to stifle critical engagement with issues of race. The other choice would have been to strongly support Professor Williams in the face of such attacks.

We are also troubled by the fact that the email sent out by President Berger-Sweeney on Wednesday, June 21 was worded in ways that seemed to confirm the validity of the Campus Reform allegations. The relative public silence since, including from the Dean of Faculty, has been disquieting.

In stark contrast to the administration’s response, Professor Williams has thus far received overwhelming support from the academic community. A petition in support of Professor Williams gathered over 2300 signatures in four days. An open letter of support from the Trinity community received over 650 signatures in two days. These numbers continue to grow. The American Sociological Association issued a statement on June 22nd affirming that “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” and that “threatening the life of those whose rhetoric we oppose undermines the robust and democratic exchange of ideas.” We agree, and we are frankly appalled that our own administration has so far been unwilling to make a similarly clear statement endorsing the principles that are so necessary for conducting our work and lives safely and without threat of reprisal.

We believe that the decision to put Professor Williams on leave should not be made out of institutional expediency but rather by those directly under threat: that is, by Professor Williams and his family. Moreover, we are not convinced that this decision is in the best interest of the campus community. Insofar as the administration is genuinely concerned about protecting the community, we urge them to join us in our fight to protect scholars who engage with issues of race, and to dismantle the institutional structures that make such difficult and uncomfortable conversations necessary.

We are particularly concerned about the implications that this decision has for issues of academic freedom and scholarly inquiry on campus, and the precedent that it sets. We have significant doubts about whether this decision is consistent with the College’s rightful and laudable attempts to build a diverse and critically engaged academic community. In conversations we have had among the faculty a common theme is: “If the administration is not going to stand up for Johnny Williams despite his international stature as a first-rate scholar on issues of race and society, who are they going to stand up for?” In these situations, we expect nothing less than a full-throated endorsement of academic freedom. We expect that the administration’s first impulse should be to protect and affirm the College’s faculty, rather than encourage the inaccurate and damaging interpretation of Professor Williams’ comments and to allow these attacks on academic freedom and personal safety to go unchallenged.

We are concerned now not only about the situation involving Professor Williams and his family, but also about the College’s ability to create a safe and protected environment for all of us — students, faculty, and staff alike — who engage with issues that are socially and politically controversial, including but not limited to issues of race. Professor Williams made his comments on a personal social media page, which he has every right to do under the First Amendment. As such, we do not see how this administration manages to reach the conclusion that this is germane to his ability to effectively do his job (which should be the only grounds for forced leaves, suspensions, terminations, and the like). But, like Professor Williams, many of us engage in productive scholarship that grapples with these important and politically sensitive issues, in the classroom, the broader academic community, and in our personal and social spheres of influence. We do it, in part, because we have been — up to now — reasonably sure that our administration would protect us under the auspices of academic freedom if necessary. It is difficult to see how we can maintain that confidence in light of recent events.

We are concerned about the College’s tacit capitulation to a nationwide trend of attacking other scholars, such as George Ciccariello-Maher, Steven Salaita, Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, Lisa Durden, Dana Cloud, Sarah E. Bond, Tommy Curry, and earlier Saida Grundy who also work on critically important and politically sensitive issues. Scholars of color and those opposing racism and sexism have increasingly been targeted. As African American Studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote, after she was forced to end a national speaking tour following a similar campaign of conservative vitriol, “The threat of violence, whether it is implied or acted on, is intended to intimidate and to silence.” Accordingly, we cannot continue to respond to the hate directed towards Johnny Williams or any similar incidents as if they were singular and disconnected. When George Ciccariello-Maher was condemned by Drexel University after his tweets were taken out of context, The Daily Stormer, an anti-Semitic website, proudly declared, “This is what winning looks like.” We fear that by placing Professor Williams on leave the Trinity administration becomes complicit in encouraging further attacks of this sort.

Other institutions have done a far job better in protecting the academic freedom of their scholars than the current administration of Trinity College. For example, Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud responded to similar intimidation tactics against Prof. Dana Cloud writing, “I can’t imagine academic freedom or the genuine search for truth thriving here without free speech. Our faculty must be able to say and write things—including things that provoke some or make others uncomfortable—up to the very limits of the law. The statement at issue is, I believe, within those limits. I intend to act accordingly.”

The Trinity College administration would be wise to consider how a failure to boldly defend academic freedom might affect the College’s ability to attract and retain scholars who work on controversial issues, our reputation as a liberal arts college that encourages independent thought, and in attracting students who are interested in learning about these issues.

It is also deeply troubled that the administration’s response appears to be inconsistent with our own faculty manual, which is grounded in AAUP principles. Appendix B of that manual states that faculty members are citizens as well as professionals, and that “when he/she speaks or writes as a citizen, he/she should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” Yet it appears that our administration has clearly violated this policy: they have subjected Professor Williams to institutional discipline for speaking and writing as a citizen. Worse still, this clear violation significantly undermines our trust in the administration’s capacity to act in accordance with the policies and procedures detailed in the manual.

We demand that this administration reverse course and immediately issue: a public apology to Johnny Williams; a denouncement of the attacks against him; and offer an unequivocal endorsement of academic freedom. We also demand that the administration begin working with faculty governance committees and the AAUP to put policies in place that protect faculty from such attacks in the future.

–Executive Committee, Trinity College’s Chapter of the AAUP


June 26, 2017

To the Members of the Trinity Community,

As a follow-up to my note from last week, I write to inform you that Professor Johnny Williams has been placed on leave, effectively immediately. We’ve determined that a leave is in the best interest of both Professor Williams and the college. The review by the Dean of the Faculty of the events concerning Professor Williams will continue.

Meanwhile, I want to take care to note that the principles that underlie this particular set of events go far beyond the actions of any one person. These involve principles that concern how we think about academic freedom and freedom of speech, as well as the responsibilities that come with those fundamental values. It’s true, too, that as scholars and citizens, and as individuals and as a community of higher learning, 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.


Joanne Berger-Sweeney

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