Trinity joins the attack on its own professor

June 30, 2017

Eric Maroney reports from Connecticut on another case of a scholar being targeted by the right wing--and on the spineless response of the college where he teaches.

AFTER ENDURING a barrage of threats and abuse resulting from a right-wing smear campaign, Dr. Johnny Eric Williams was placed on forced leave by the administration at Trinity College where he is a tenured professor.

This is despicable anti-democratic behavior by school officials who capitulated in the face of right-wing pressure rather than defend the principles of free speech and academic freedom that they claim to stand for.

Williams became another in a series of authors and academics targeted for their political views when right-wing websites twisted the meaning of several of his social media posts and accused him of advocating violence against whites.

Williams shared a link to an article which pointed out that Republican Rep. Steve Scalise, who has a long record of anti-LGBT bigotry, was aided, after he suffered a bullet wound in a shooting at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., by a law enforcement who is a married lesbian.

Williams included another writer's hashtag "Let them fucking die" before adding his own anti-racist comment that "the racially oppressed" must "put end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system."

Left: Johnny Williams; right: Trinity College
Left: Johnny Williams; right: Trinity College

It's absurd to pretend this political statement is incitement to violence, but Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney accepted the right wing's misrepresentations at face value, calling Williams' social media posts "reprehensible."

On Monday, Berger-Sweeney released a letter to the Trinity community stating that the administration had "determined that a leave is in the best interest of both Professor Williams and the college" and then claimed that the college was committed to academic freedom and free speech.

Berger-Sweeney wrote that a review of Williams's statements and the events surrounding them would continue, but he has not yet been formally accused of violating any college policies or procedures. Dr. Williams himself rejected the suggestion that he take a leave of absence, and so this "forced leave" amounts to a suspension without due process.

"It wasn't my idea," Williams told the Hartford Courant. "They said it was in the interest of the college, primarily in their interest, not in my interest... I think they had pressure to do something. They want this to die down and go away."

A STATEMENT released by the executive committee of the Trinity College chapter of the American Association of University Professors rightly demands an apology for Dr. Williams and a reversal of the decision to place him on forced leave, while pointing out the hypocrisy displayed by administrators:

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.

The statement goes on to criticize Berger-Sweeney's initial response in an earlier letter as "confirming the validity" of the false allegations made by right-wing websites like Campus Reform, and makes note of the nationwide trend of attacking left-leaning scholars:

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.

THIS IS a case that everyone concerned with social justice must confront.

If Dr. Williams can be harassed, intimidated or bullied out of the job, it will set a precedent for anyone who seeks to speak out against right-wing bigotry.

Equally troubling is the fact that Trinity's action seems to show that any faculty member can be suspended at any point for anything they say, in their personal or professional life, without due process--even before it has been determined that any college policies or procedures were violated, if at all.

It should not go unnoticed that the wave of right-wing attacks on academics coincides with an offensive against faculty and staff attempting to organize against the weakening of tenure protections and other trends associated with hat has been called "the McDonaldization of higher education.

A decades-long assault in the form of austerity budgets and restructuring has resulted in a steady decrease in tenure-track positions at colleges and universities. An American Federation of Teachers study found that between 1997 and 2007, the number of contingent or adjunct faculty positions--with limited job security and often without benefits and protections--increased while tenure-track positions declined by over 25 percent.

The Trinity AAUP chapter is currently in its provisional phases, meaning that it functions as an advocacy group, but faculty don't yet have collective bargaining rights.

Tenure is intended to protect scholars from being bullied, intimidated or outright dismissed from a job due to the nature of their scholastic work or their identities, but even without tenure, the principle of academic freedom should be extended to all writers and scholars.

Not only does Berger-Sweeney's response to the smear campaign against Dr. Williams legitimize the right's attacks on the academy, but it also fits into a trend undermining workers' rights to organize and collectively bargain.

In the case of Dr. Williams, petitions and a legal defense are a start, but this won't be enough to stem the tide of this alarming trend. We need a national response making it clear that we will all stand together when writers and scholars like him and others come under fire.

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