Reject white supremacy at Virginia Tech: An open letter to VT administrators from alumni of the English Department
We are a collective of 42 alumni of Virginia Tech’s English Department graduate school. Below is our open letter to VT President Timothy Sands & English Dept. Chair Bernice Hausman. After you’ve read the letter, please sign on to our petition on Change.org & share.
As former graduate students and instructors in the English Department at Virginia Tech, we were disturbed and horrified to hear that Mark Neuhoff, a current English MA student & English composition teacher, is an avowed white supremacist.
We were even more disturbed to see how the department, and the university as a whole, have handled the complaints lodged against Mark.
Emails from English Dept. Chair Bernice Hausman sent to department faculty described complaints about Mark as “chatter and disruption” that “have made the early fall difficult for many of us in the department.” Her emails failed to reference any real action being taken to address the situation. Instead, they claim that her “messaging to others” has reiterated the “careful work of our dedicated department to train, supervise, advise, and review our novice teachers” — an indication that the status quo is working as intended and will be maintained.
Her emails also failed to acknowledge the very real fear many students of color feel knowing that their teacher believes America must be led by white leaders, that “whites must be in control if we are to preserve western culture,” that the world would be a better place if Hitler had won WWII — and that their teacher openly describes himself as a “white supremacist.”
The response from the university has been similarly tone-deaf and tepid: President Timothy Sands argued that the university is an ideal “laboratory” to “work all this out.” When students, who have been raising this issue with university administrators for over a month, organized a protest at Sands’ State of the University speech on Sept. 29, Sands continued his speech while university security removed them from the building.
On October 6, President Sands released a “special statement” through the university website which seemed to allude to Mark Neuhoff’s situation. He called the ideology of white supremacy “abhorrent” and talked about the “conflict” between “free speech” and “our commitment to respecting others,” but failed to name the actual threat to students, or even to acknowledge that there’s an ongoing situation related to white supremacy on campus. The statement was so sanitized that a reader who didn’t know about Mark Neuhoff might think it was made apropos of nothing.
As former graduate teaching assistants at Virginia Tech, we know that the role we play in our students’ lives is a meaningful one — and one that comes with a great deal of responsibility. Our students are not experiments in a laboratory, and their concerns for their safety & well-being are not “chatter and disruption.”
At moments like this, administrators like Bernice Hausman & Timothy Sands like to reference Virginia Tech’s “Principles of Community.” Those principles encourage “open expression within a climate of civility, sensitivity, and mutual respect,” affirm “the value of human diversity,” and reject “all forms of prejudice and discrimination.” They also “take individual and collective responsibility for helping to eliminate bias and discrimination and for increasing our own understanding of these issues through education, training, and interaction with others.”
Bernice Hausman & Timothy Sands: How are you upholding VT’s Principles of Community? What are you doing to take responsibility for eliminating discrimination? How does keeping a white supremacist on your payroll serve to reject prejudice at Virginia Tech? How can you encourage open expression & appeal to free speech while throwing protesting students out of a building for asking questions?
As President Sands argues, the Principles of Community are “just principles” — they’re not legally binding, and no one “signs on to” them. But if the university’s own president and department heads refuse to uphold them, what meaning do they have?
The recent InclusiveVT initiative acknowledges the foundation of Virginia Tech as a land grant university with responsibility to “actualize the vision of providing access and education to our country’s most vulnerable populations.” Virginia Tech’s “most vulnerable populations” are not being protected on campus. As a university that touts itself as one of ten leading “diversity champion universities” with plans to increase student diversity by 2020, Virginia Tech’s insistence on hiding behind language of “free speech” and refusal to, at the very least, directly address this issue flies in the face of what the university claims to represent and the goals it claims it strive towards.
As graduates of VT’s English Department, we’re deeply disappointed by the lack of leadership, accountability, and compassion we’ve seen in the university’s response to white supremacy on campus. University administrators have the privilege and responsibility of creating an inclusive campus for all students. That means acknowledging the fear that students and colleagues of color feel when they’re faced with a white supremacist on campus. It means taking real action to mitigate that fear. It means being willing to step up and speak out against white supremacy.
VT administrators seem to believe that valuing free speech means neglecting to speak out against racist speech. In comparison, look at how VT administrators responded in 2013 when Dr. Steven Salaita, a VT professor, was criticized for an anti-war article he published on Salon. In that case, a university spokesperson publicly stated that Salaita’s opinions did not “reflect the collective psyche of the Virginia Tech community.” Why does arguing against blind support of the military warrant an explicit rejection from the university, while arguing in favor of white supremacy does not?
The conclusion we’re forced to draw is that administrators at Virginia Tech don’t feel the same need to disavow a white supremacist as they do to disavow a professor who criticizes pro-war culture.
Administrators like Hausman and Sands may argue that Mark Neuhoff must be allowed to continue teaching because he’s advocating for white supremacy off the job, on social media. But as graduate students at VT, we knew and accepted that our behavior — on campus or off — reflected on the school as an institution, and that our professionalism on social media was subject to scrutiny. Every teacher knows that their online presence is easily discovered by students and colleagues. Every teacher is aware that they’re responsible for upholding standards of professionalism and civility in and out of the workplace.
Furthermore, Neuhoff’s ideology and behavior — whether it’s been exhibited in the classroom or not — creates a racially hostile environment for students. Administrators not only have the ability to remove or penalize teachers who create such an environment, but the ethical duty to do so.
As alumni of Virginia Tech, we stand with students who are protesting Mark Neuhoff’s continued employment with the English Department. It’s long past time to take real action. We want to see Bernice Hausman, Timothy Sands, and other university administrators respond to these concerns with the gravity they warrant and remove Mark Neuhoff from his teaching position.
Bernice Hausman and Timothy Sands: Are the rights of white supremacists more important than the rights of Jewish students and students of color? We are not calling to take away Mark Neuhoff’s freedom of speech, or even his right to attend Virginia Tech as a student. But allowing him to continue teaching at VT means the university is knowingly empowering a white supremacist. While intellectual discourse and disagreement are a foundation of university culture, it’s vital that vulnerable undergraduates, many of whom are international students, Jewish students, and students of color, feel safe and cared for in their first year of college. We are asking you to consider what it might feel like to be a freshman at a new school in the racial minority, knowing that your instructor, who is responsible for educating, mentoring, & grading you, sees you as inherently inferior to white students.
Silence is tacit approval. At a moment in history when racist ideology is an ever-growing threat to people of color in our country, you are in the unique and privileged position of having the power to take REAL action to protect students of color. Protecting these students is not only your privilege, but your responsibility. We want to see increased transparency about actions the university is taking to protect Jewish students and students of color, and we want to the university offer a clear, unequivocal rejection of Mark Neuhoff’s views. We also want to see you do the right thing and reject white supremacy on Virginia Tech’s campus by taking action to remove Mark Neuhoff from his teaching position.
To show your support, please sign on to our petition here. If you are an alumnus of a graduate program in the English Department at VT, please comment below to have your name added.
Signed, alumni of Virginia Tech’s graduate school of English: