“We are all a single outrage campaign away from having no rights at all”
by Joerg Tiede
Over the course of the last year, targeted online harassment of faculty has emerged as a significant threat to academic freedom. Fueled by websites such as Professor Watchlist, Campus Reform, and College Fix, campaigns of threats and harassment are directed against faculty members for what they are reported to have said in the classroom or posted on social media. At times, these reports are inaccurate or take quotes out of context. These campaigns clearly have an impact. Multiple faculty members have been placed on extended suspensions. Institutions of higher education had to close for a day over threats. Some especially vulnerable faculty — particularly those who work off the tenure track — have been summarily dismissed. Even the protections of tenure can mean very little when an administration caves in to outside threats. As Professor George Ciccariello-Maher, who recently resigned from Drexel University because of an extended campaign of targeted harassment against him, observed:
“We are all a single outrage campaign away from having no rights at all.”
Repercussions extend beyond the individual faculty members who are targeted. Online harassment campaigns have a chilling effect, causing some faculty members to self-censor for fear of being targeted — especially when these campaigns are seen to cause suspensions and dismissals. As a result, the AAUP has focused our work this past year on combating targeted online harassment of faculty.
In addition to the case of Professor Ciccariello-Maher at Drexel, we have written recently to administrations at five universities because of adverse actions taken against faculty members following campaigns of online harassment. In several of these cases the administration subsequently backed down or agreed to a settlement with the faculty member. One case, that of a graduate student and part-time lecturer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln whose suspension following threats against her was extended through the end of her appointment, is currently subject to an AAUP investigation.
As Professor Johnny Williams, who was suspended from Trinity College in Connecticut following a campaign of targeted harassment, observed, “Like other faculty who have been threatened and harassed this year, I was targeted over remarks I made that drew attention to racism.” Efforts to silence faculty members who speak out on matters of race are not new, as the AAUP has found in investigations dating back to the 1950s. In 1957, a faculty member at Auburn University was summarily dismissed for publishing a letter in the student newspaper in support of desegregation. The faculty member was subjected to threats of violence, which were cited by the administration as evidence that his letter was “dangerous.” As an AAUP investigative report observed:
it must be recognized that academic freedom cannot be measured or limited by vague threats to the welfare of an institution or a community which may or may not result from what a professor says or does. … if faculty members may not speak because they may “cause an alumnus to withhold a gift, a legislator to vote against an appropriation, a student not to register, or a citizen’s feelings to be ruffled,” they will be free to talk only to themselves.