Jonathan Rees

Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo

The Wrong Kind of Famous

Full vitae twitter wrong famous

Image: Claudio Toledo, Creative Commons

Two years ago, when I was working on a book about technology and higher education, I drew the assignment of drafting the chapter on social media because my co-author didn’t tweet and had never been on Facebook. My experience with Facebook lasted only a few months, but I have tweeted since 2010. Whether you tweet or not, it has been clear for some time now that Twitter is the place where faculty members are most likely to run into trouble using social media.

In my research for our book, Education Is Not an App, I quickly found the same pattern recurring:

  • Professor tweets something controversial.
  • Angry public demands that faculty member be fired.
  • University administrators offer varying degrees of protection for said controversial statement — ranging from begrudging acknowledgment of the scholar’s academic freedom to absolutely no support at all.

When I was looking for news accounts to offer as examples, the same seven or eight kept coming up again and again. That number has undoubtedly increased in recent months. (This past summer, The Chronicle helpfully compiled these stories in a single place.)

Why is this happening?

Professor-Tweets-Something-Controversial stories grab attention on social media and in the mainstream press because they are really attacks on higher education in general. Academe is one of the only powerful sectors of American society that is not under Republican control — unlike, say, the presidency, the House, the Senate, and the governor’s offices. The enemies of academe focus on what faculty members say in our role as citizens in order to justify defunding colleges and universities during the next budget cycle. If those critics happen to get a professor with "controversial" views sacked in the process, then that’s just icing on the cake.

The danger here is that the social-media harassment of select professors will contribute to the silencing of controversial viewpoints in all venues, and society will be much the worse for it. If the lesson you take away from these news reports is "Never tweet," then the enemies of higher education have already won.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, wrote a really terrific essay this past summer on what steps faculty members can take to protect their colleagues who find themselves targeted. Among other things, she urged professors and administrators to "get out ahead of the call out culture," and advised: "If you or a colleague is under attack, help your institution to help you. Tell them concrete ways they can support you."

"What I do know," she added, "is that we must take better care with one another, even if we do not like each other." That is true on far more levels than I think Professor Cottom originally intended, but I choose to interpret her advice this way: If the good ship Academic Freedom sinks, we will all drown.

It only takes a few of these cases to make a tipping point. The 2014 controversy surrounding Steven Salaita was a very early sign of what was to come. While I certainly supported his efforts to take his job at the University at Illinois, I recognize that his comments were — at the very least — actually controversial.

But there are other academics who are targeted based on a complete misunderstanding of their views. This past summer Johnny Eric Williams, an associate professor of sociology at Trinity College, came under attack from right-wing online commentators over something he was reported to have said — but never in fact said. When something you didn’t write on Facebook can force you to flee with your family to another state for safety, then something is seriously wrong in our society and our political culture.

There’s no point spending my time here lecturing internet mobs about the vital importance of academic freedom (they wouldn’t listen anyway). But to the campus administrators and trustees who read this publication: I would hope that you already know something about academic freedom. If you don’t, then my colleagues at the American Association of University Professors would love to sit down and have a chat. Or perhaps you can just follow the simple advice of David Perry, an undergraduate adviser in history at the University of Minnesota, and "learn to write this statement: ‘We do not let right-wing media influence our hiring or firing decisions. That will be our only comment on the matter.’" Yes, he was talking about college PR officers, but presidents, deans, and provosts can say those same words just as easily.

While I recognize that the good ship Academic Freedom probably has to take on a little water as we work out the limits of speech at its extremes, something much more pernicious has been going on with this year’s spate of professors who have somehow tweeted themselves into trouble. Ideas that really aren’t that controversial in academic circles are becoming so as they get chewed up and regurgitated by the enemies of higher education into forms that their originators wouldn’t even recognize. You may think you can avoid being targeted by staying in the mainstream, but what constitutes the mainstream is shrinking every day.

What do administrators get by protecting the academic freedom of their faculty?

Freedom from expensive lawsuits filed against, and by, professors who have suddenly found themselves to be the wrong kind of famous. Just because faculty members work for a university doesn’t mean they somehow give up their rights as citizens. Your institutional branding concerns are not sufficient justification to violate our constitutional rights. If big donors don’t want to give because someone on your faculty has controversial views, then you probably don’t want their money because they don’t really understand why universities exist in the first place.

The open exchange of ideas — whether it happens in the middle of campus or on Twitter and/or Facebook — is not worth sacrificing for a short-term infusion of cash.

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