The Insidious Two-Step University Administrations Use to Squelch Faculty SpeechRoundup
tags: higher education, free speech, academic freedom, academic labor
Joshua Clover is a professor of English at the University of California at Davis.
By now you will have heard that the long-reigning Queen of England died. And you may have heard that, at about that time, a professor tweeted: “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.” It was hardly the only spark of dissent in the long night of mourning, but it was the one that caught fire.
Uju Anya is an associate professor of second-language acquisition at Carnegie Mellon University. Born in Nigeria, she has intimate family knowledge of the state’s brutal suppression of the Biafran independence movement — a campaign of arguably genocidal violence, enabled and stoked by British funding and weaponry under Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Anya’s tweet aroused the ire of Jeff Bezos, among the planet’s wealthiest humans and likely the largest corporate donor to Carnegie Mellon. He provided Anya the honor of a quote-tweet: “This is someone supposedly working to make the world better? I don’t think so. Wow.” The fury that followed, all bulging neck veins and white violence, was a Twitter mobbing par excellence — its bigoted hatreds entirely ordinary, its breadth and ferocity extraordinary. Anya did not back down. Twitter deleted her tweet.
Bezos’ deference to the queen belongs to the brute solidarity of merchant capital. There is a line running from the East India Company to Amazon that binds together Elizabeth II and Jeffrey I (though at least the East India Company had the forthrightness to found its own college). But this does not itself explain the demoralizing mystery to hand, which is the scale and virulence of the hostility to the original tweet. The response cannot be explained by the sanctity of death; after all, the denunciation of newly deceased celebs for being problematic, actually, is a Twitter ritual. And it cannot be love of the queen: The great majority of people assailing Anya obviously did not give a shit about the departed except as a pretext for their vituperation toward a Black woman professor.
Yet in tweet after tweet tagging her employer they called for her head, or at least her job. It was not long before the university’s crisis team — which was surely one attorney, one flack, and two administrators sweating through a quickly convened call — was compelled to circulate an official response.
It did not say, in whole or in part, Prof. Anya is a valued member of our community, though this must surely be the case, as the university appointed her associate professor last year.
It did not say, Many people will have many different ideas about the personal thoughts of Prof. Anya and that is all to the good as we are in the business of engaging many different ideas; we are not, however, in the business of disciplining opinions uttered outside the classroom, which would have been both sensible and decent.
Instead, it said, “We do not condone the offensive and objectionable messages posted by Uju Anya today on her personal social media account. Free expression is core to the mission of higher education, however, the views she shared absolutely do not represent the values of the institution, nor the standards of discourse we seek to foster.” For those of you scoring at home, that is 10 words tepidly invoking free speech and 43 words of censure.
Many people sympathetic to Anya, or to academic freedom, or to the proposition that the degenerated colonialism for which the queen willingly and actively provided leadership is indefensible, protested that the university’s response was inordinately hostile and vanishingly rare. MSNBC declared that universities “almost never” issue such statements, explaining that “the very premise of a university is to serve as a bastion of independent thinking and provide a forum for intellectual free-for-alls.”
Readers of The Chronicle, more attentive to academe’s trendlines, will know that this is not strictly true; that, indeed, such statements are becoming a regular feature of the academy. I also have been the subject of such a rebuke, for comments that were similarly extramural and similarly hyperbolic — a staple rhetoric of social media so familiar that the pretense that such statements constitute a sort of actionable testimony is the purest bad faith. In my case the university’s first response failed to mention free speech or academic freedom entirely, entailing multiple clarifications from the chancellor. The list of academics who have been subjected to similar scrutiny for similarly protected speech grows longer by the semester.
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