Yes, faculty sometimes have political conflicts with students, and putting up your dukes is not the answer. But what counts as real harm? And why do universities believe that firing professors who have gotten into hot water sends the right message to their students?
I am not saying it is never appropriate to fire or suspend someone. When harassment, sexual violence, lying and plagiarism are at issue, we can point to clear harms done to specific people, or to the university community at large. There are also episodes that are simply bizarre: James F. Tracy, a tenured associate professor of communications at Florida Atlantic University has been using social media and email to persecute parents associated with Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012 with cruel accusations that their children had not been murdered at all, but were part of an Obama administration hoax designed to manufacture bad publicity about gun ownership. He was fired in December 2015, supposedly for failing to file forms detailing outside employment.
The Tracy case is an odd one since he is a communications professor and doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish between bizarre conspiracy theories from Rightwingostan and the actual news. However, increasingly, universities seem to think that utterances and behaviors by faculty that, at best, represent principled dissent and at worst, are the wrong words and actions at the wrong place and time, are grounds for dismissal.
First there was Steven Salaita, who settled a lawsuit with the University of Illinois last fall over the Board of Trustees’ decision to retract a tenured position he had been offered and had accepted. Why? Because of tweets he broadcast during Israel’s attack on Gaza in summer 2014 that were characterized as anti-Semitic (I want to acknowledge that I have friends, reasonable people, who would respond: “No, Claire, they were actually anti-Semitic.” I don’t happen to think so, but as we used to say in the blogosphere, MOO.) Because of these tweets, faculty like Cary Nelson argued, Salaita could not be trusted to teach Jewish students.
Now there is Melissa Click, an untenured assistant professor, who has been fired by the University of Missouri following her attempt to physically block a student journalist, Tim Tai, from a campus protest on November 9 2015. Although the students running the protest had previously decided to bar the media from their event, Click was subsequently accused of numerous offenses, including physically assaulting the student (a charge that has now been dropped in a plea deal), and infringing on his first amendment rights. The Missouri Board of Curators, the university’s governing body suspended Click in January 2016, and as the internal investigation proceeded, the university learned that she had also been involved in a tussle with campus police at another protest in October. Via the New York Times:
The board believes that Dr. Click’s conduct was not compatible with university policies and did not meet expectations for a university faculty member,” Pam Henrickson, the board chairwoman, said in a statement released Thursday. “The circumstances surrounding Dr. Click’s behavior, both at a protest in October when she tried to interfere with police officers who were carrying out their duties, and at a rally in November, when she interfered with members of the media and students who were exercising their rights in a public space and called for intimidation against one of our students, we believe demands serious action.
Serious action perhaps, but losing her job? After all, if the conflict with a student journalist is evidence of an inappropriate contact with a student, it was an outcome of Click’s passionate support for other students. Read the University of Missouri’s own internal report: she never hit the reporter, Tai; she knocked the camera out of his hands. Click’s actions in support of barring Tai, if it had been found to violate standards of professional conduct at the university, ought to have resulted in a reparative justice hearing instead of a disciplinary procedure. Click and all the students and faculty involved might have debated the reasonableness — and reasons for — excluding journalists in the first place; and the appropriate role for faculty in supporting or opposing student protests. Instead, the lesson is: every campus encounter with a student is potentially a high-stakes event. Lose your cool and you get the hook.
What stands out starkly in both of these cases are assertions by authorities that students were actually harmed by the faculty in question. But, minus a shocking encounter with the real world, they weren’t. In over a decade in the classroom, Salaita had no record of ever having treated a student cruelly or with prejudice; while the student reporter threatened by Click’s call to “get some muscle over here” seems to have been only frightened and angered by the experience, not hurt. In fact, this reporter might want to try attending a Trump rally for a reality check on how the First Amendment is violated in the real world.
I’m not saying that there isn’t a lot of inappropriate faculty anger out there: there is, and it is getting worse. On one of my social media platforms, I recently had to impose a ban on commenters comparing public figures, and each other, to Hitler. So let me emphasize: threatening, badgering, publicly shaming, verbally attacking or putting an angry hand on a student or colleague is wrong, and can be illegal. Faculty who do these things should be asked to re-evaluate whether their need to perform their political convictions at the emotional pitch they experience them is overriding good judgment and acceptable adult behavior, and undermining their effectiveness as university citizens. Persistently vicious speech or actions towards others on campus is grounds for a university to insist on a faculty time-out, during which retraining, and evaluation of the suitability of that person for a teaching role, could reasonably occur. All of us — yours truly included, who has not been a social media Angel all her life — need to periodically check in with ourselves about what we say and how we say it; the line we draw between our role as educators and our role as political activists; and what counts as productive engagement with our publics and each other.
I have been following these cases and others with interest and, in the case of Salaita, engaged in public advocacy on behalf of his First Amendment rights to broadcast his views without being punished by his employer. I also want more discussion about Melissa Click. While these cases have their differences, they are a troubling trend. They should be the occasion for a larger discussion, on our campuses and in our professional associations, about protecting the right to political speech.