Scholars Under Attack

Eric Anthony Grollman offers suggestions on how to offer support.

July 9, 2015
 

Thank A Public Scholar

Academics, can we talk seriously about social media for a moment?  Like much of the rest of the world, we use various social media platforms.  Some of us use it strictly for personal reasons, some exclusively to share our scholarly work and perspective, and others for a mixture of these reasons.  I have witnessed enough attacks on scholars by conservatives, bigots, trolls, and even other academics to conclude that no one is shielded from backlash.  While our academic freedom is generally protected (though, that statement is debatable), we can no longer expect our colleagues, departments, universities, disciplines, and professional organizations to stand up for us when we come under attack.

The Times (And Attacks) Have Changed

The rules of engagement have changed.  We now live in a time when a 20-year-old college sophomore, who writes for a student newspaper to expose “liberal bias and abuses at Texas colleges” (see bio at end), can spark a national conservative assault on a tenure-track professor at a different university over a few tweets critiquing racism.  (They believe, however, that they are somehow protecting innocent, uneducated laypeople from the evils of brainy, radical professors in the liberal ivory tower.)

Make her a thing

Indeed, this conservative student reporter did make Dr. Zandria F. Robinson “a thing” — both in the sense of a trend of attacking her, her appearance, her politics, her identity, and her research, and by making her an object of a larger, calculated conservative attack on critical and public scholars.  With a mere tweet to the president of University of Memphis, this student reporter influenced an internal investigation on Dr. Robinson. Though unsuccessful with the first assault, the site along with another conservative college student site launched a second attack that caught the attention of national conservative media.

Hasson2

In essence, conservatives found success in launching a national assault on the scholarship and character of Dr. Saida Grundy, and were using the formula a second time on Dr. Robinson.  They got their first taste of blood in not only dragging Dr. Grundy’s name and reputation through the mud, but also in influencing her university’s president to issue a statement essentially calling her a racist for critiquing racism.  U Memphis never formally sanctioned or criticized Dr. Robinson, but their vague tweet disclosing her departure from the university is suspect — perhaps a passive way of quieting the conservatives who demanded her termination.  (Fortunately, Dr. Robison had the last word.)

Memphis Tweet

I was pleasantly surprised to see Dr. Robinson’s new academic home, Rhodes College, issued a statement to the press that not only sung her praises but affirmed her expertise and scholarship.

Dr. Robinson was hired for a faculty position in the Rhodes Anthropology & Sociology Department that calls for expertise in particular areas, specifically gender studies and social movements. Her expertise in these areas, her extensive understanding of the complex problems of race in American society, her deep roots in the Memphis area, and many years of successful teaching experience, made her an attractive candidate for the position…Dr. Robinson has an extensive and impressive body of scholarship that provides clarity and context to the sound bite world of social media. This situation ultimately shines a light on Rhodes as a place where intellectual engagement and the exchange of ideas are among our highest priorities.

For once, this wasn’t a passive commitment to tolerate a controversial scholar’s academic freedom; this was a proactive statement to say, “she knows what she’s talking about, so please take several seats.”

But, I worry Rhodes may be an outlier here.  And, I am not entirely optimistic Rhodes would defend every scholar who comes under attack.  Though I have been informally supported at my own institution, I’m not confident that I would be defended if donors threatened to withhold their financial support if I weren’t fired.  Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, an expert on academic institutions, penned an excellent essay that substantiates my doubt:

What I really wanted to point out is how yet again we have an example of how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement.  In this age of affective economies of attention, weak ties can turn a mild grievance into something that feels like political action. In this moment we should call for institutions to state explicitly what they owe those who venture into public waters… Basically, the scale of current media is so beyond anything academia can grasp that those with agendas get a leg up on pulling the levers of universities’ inherent conservativism.

Simply put, academia is behind the times.  And, there’s far too much academic cowardice, rather than academic bravery, to entrust our protection to our universities.  Controversy — the very thing that academic freedom is designed to protect us against (professionally) — is feared rather than embraced.  What’s worse is that these attacks coincide with, or have even been made possible by, the decline of labor rights and protections for academics.  Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield argued this in an insightful essay,  “Canaries in the Coal Mine? Saida Grundy, Zandria F. Robinson, and Why Calls for their Firing are a Problem for Everyone”:

As more institutions adopt a market-based model where students are consumers, teaching is pushed off onto poorly paid adjunct professors, and administrative bloat runs rampant, the conditions that tenure track faculty have enjoyed—and that have allowed us to do our best work—are becoming increasingly weaker. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has moved to weaken tenure at state colleges and universities (with predictably bad results as noted faculty leave the flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison campus for less hostile climates). In this type of environment, it’s not really a wonder that faculty are at risk not for their scholarship, or their teaching, but because they made public statements that generated outcry and controversy.

And:

Like other employees in an increasingly neoliberal environment, academics are facing growing job insecurity and precariousness that stands to weaken and minimize the ways our jobs should allow us to contribute to understanding a changing society. If, as I suspect, Grundy and Robinson are just early indicators of what’s to come for all of us, then we should all be very concerned.

In this context, besides the real professional risks, we are also largely on our own to weather trolls, harassment, rape threats, death threats, and hate mail.  And, that goes for those who are relatively uncensored and those who think they maintain their public presence the “right” way.  Indeed, you don’t even have to engage the public outside of your classroom to find yourself under attack.

But, let’s be clear: the pattern of attacks on scholars appears to suggest that people of color, women, and other scholars of marginalized backgrounds are most vulnerable to these attacks.  Women of color who publicly write about racism and white privilege seem to be overrepresented among the targets of these witch hunts for critical and public scholars.  Academia continues to change around us.  We can no longer bury our heads in the sand, telling ourselves our only goal is to “publish or perish.”  There may not be a decent job left within which we can publish on the topics of our own interests and passions.

Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack

I have come across a fair amount of advice for targets of online (and off-line) harassment, and even offered my own.  See Dr. Rebecca Schuman’s reflections on dealing with trolls, “Me & My Trolls: A Love Story” and “The Thickness of My Skin.” And, Joshunda Sanders’s, “Up to here with trolls? Tips for navigating online drama.” Also, see the science about online trolls [video], and a cute musical response to trolls [video].

But, I have not seen any advice for others to support scholars who come under attack.  So, with what little experience I have, I’m proposing my own approach.  In my proposed strategy, I draw from bystander intervention work, primarily used to prevent sexual violence and support victims of such violence.  In the recent past, I created a report for a local rape crisis center/domestic violence shelter on existing bystander intervention curricula [PDF].  I wrote about bystander intervention for sexual violence when I blogged for the Kinsey Institute.  And, I have written about using bystander intervention to fight racism and support victims of racism — a blog post that has been used as a major theme for an anti-racist group in Tennessee.  I hesitate to claim expertise here, but I have referenced or heavily used the bystander intervention model enough to feel comfortable using it here.

Briefly, the bystander intervention model calls for others who are present for some problem or emergency situation to intervene in some way.  The language of “bystanders” comes from the concept of the bystander effect, wherein witnesses to some crisis are less and less likely to intervene with more and more witnesses present.  If you are the only bystander present, you are quite likely to help if possible; if you are one of one hundred people, the odds are extremely slim that you’ll do anything besides mind your business.  Bystander intervention explicitly counters this tendency, instead demanding that bystanders intervene in whatever way possible.  And, for social problems like sexual violence and racism, this approach conceptualizes of the problem as a community’s responsibility.  To eliminate sexual violence, we are all responsible for fighting rape culture: challenging sexist jokes and comments; challenging victim-blaming; teaching and practicing sexual consent; intervening when we see sexual violence occurring; demanding justice for victims of sexual violence; and, so forth.

I want to apply bystander intervention, then, to supporting scholars who are targeted by bigots, trolls, conservatives, and hostile colleagues.  First, we must conceptualize such attacks as a larger problem, one which affects all of us in some way, and which we are all responsible for addressing. A culmination of factors — the absence of academic freedom policies that reflect the existence and scholars’ use of social media, the decline of labor rights and protections in academia, ongoing conservative attacks on higher education (even tenure) — have produced an increasingly easy route to target and then take down public and critical scholars.  And, these forces exist within the larger intersections of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression, thus making marginalized scholars the most vulnerable to attack and the subsequent inaction of academic institutions and organizations.

As a social problem (at least among academics), it is thus our responsibility as a broad academic community to counter these attacks and support the victims of these attacks.  This community responsibility exists at multiple levels, ranging from small acts to large policy changes.

Source: Dahlberg, L.L., & Krug, E.G. (2002). Violence – a global public health problem. In: E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A.B. Zwi, & R. Lozano (Eds.), World Report on Violence and Health (pp. 3-21). Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

Source: Dahlberg, Linda, and Etienne Krug. 2002. ” Violence – A Global Public Health Problem.”  Pp. 3-21 in World Report on Violence and Health, edited by E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A.B. Zwi, and R. Lozano. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

A Bystander Intervention Approach To Support Attacked Scholars

We could adapt the above social-ecological model to fit academia, which should include the following levels: individual; department; university; discipline; and, the profession.  Below, I offer specific ways to support scholars who are attacked, drawing from my own experiences and suggestions offered by colleagues on Twitter and Facebook (including those who have been subjected to attacks themselves).  Please, offer additional suggestions in the comments section.

Individual-Level Strategies
  • Assume that the targeted scholar is already aware of the attack against them.  While well-intentioned, “hey did you see this awful thing about you!” can do more harm than good, potentially re-triggering their negative response to the attack.  I also recommend not tagging the targeted scholar on social media if and when you share links from the attack or stories about the attack.  Unlike social media platforms such as Twitter, we have a choice over who we connect with on Facebook; don’t threaten one’s safe space/chosen community by bringing in the external attacks.
  • Offer to take over keeping up with what is written about the targeted scholar so that they do not have to.  Only inform them of positive responses and anything else that seems important; don’t let them know about the negative responses.
  • Make an informed decision about whether to point out the attack to others.  On the one hand, raising awareness and calling others to arms is useful to prevent a situation in which the attacked scholars is on her own to defend and support herself.  We certainly can stand to be more aware of these attacks, to whom they are happening, and why they occur.  But, on the other hand, you might empower the attackers more by giving their attack more attention and readership.  In some cases, simply not feeding a troll could be effective in containing the situation.
  • If you decide to raise awareness about an attack, be mindful that some colleagues (especially department colleagues and administrators at the targeted scholar’s institution) may be prompted to act in a way that harms the targeted scholar.  You don’t want to be responsible for initiating professional consequences against the targeted scholar in your effort to support them.
  • If you see that a colleague has come under attack, simply ask what they need and extend an offer of support.  At a minimum, this is a reminder to the attacked scholar that they are not alone.  I can say, from personal experience, sitting alone with only nasty and bigoted comments from strangers can feel very isolating; if the attacks are persistent, one might even begin to question whether their attackers’ claims are true.
  • Say something more helpful or useful than “you must be doing something right!”  Weathering an attack is already psychologically taxing enough; asking the targeted scholar to trick their mind into seeing the attacks and threats as a compliment isn’t helpful in the moment.  It’s hard to appreciate the supposed badge of honor that is digging deep into your skin and drawing blood.
  • Don’t say “just ignore it” or “just turn off the computer.”  We live in an age where our online interactions are a real part of our lives.  It’s not as simple as pretending the attack doesn’t exist when you turn the computer off.  And, the professional consequences are real.
  • Counter the attack with supportive notes and messages.  Express your appreciation of the scholars’ efforts and their bravery for being a public voice.  Start a campaign to encourage other friends and colleagues to send the targeted scholar kind notes and thanks.  Or, take a moment to thank them using the #ThankAPublicScholar hashtag on Twitter.
  • If you have been subjected to an attack in the past, reach out to an attacked scholar to let them know you have gone through it and that they are not alone.  Offer advice for the best ways to weather the attack.
  • Defend the attacked scholar.  This can be as small as reporting offensive content from their attackers on social media or as big as writing your own blog post or op-ed to affirm the targeted scholar.  Take screen shots of offensive comments as evidence.  Fight the attackers’ ignorance with research if they get the targeted scholars’ words/scholarship twisted.  If you can stomach it, contribute to the comments section to say you agree with, or at least appreciate, the scholars’ writing.  (Note: These efforts may open you up to being attacked, too.  I’m still blocking trolls who are giving me grief on Twitter for defending Dr. Zandria F. Robinson.  And, there’s foolishness.)
  • If an attacked scholar is harmed professionally — whether as minor as public sanctioning or as severe as termination — hold the institution accountable for protecting academic freedom.  Start a petition.  Employ the advice and services of AAUP and other professional organizations.  Perhaps suggest that the targeted scholar seek legal counsel, and help them raise money if they cannot afford to.
  • Challenge colleagues’ comments that blame attacked scholars for their own attacks.  I have seen and heard scholars rationalize recent attacks, attributing blame to the targets because they used social media in a certain way, spoke/wrote in a certain tone, failed to give broader context and offer citations within the limits of a 140-character tweet, and so on.  “They knew the risks!”  I’ve even seen discussions that offer no sympathy for targets because they weren’t really engaging in public scholarship — just “popping off.”  These sentiments suggest that there is a right way and a wrong way to engage the public. Even scholars who write more extensive op-eds, explicitly backed by research, have come under attack.  As I argued in the previous section, these attacks reflect calculated assaults on higher education, liberalism, people of color, and women; and, we are all increasingly vulnerable as higher education becomes more corporatized and relies heavily on a poorly paid pool of adjunct laborers.  If we conclude that the only safe way to avoid being targeted is to stop engaging the public and delete our social media accounts, we are deluding ourselves into thinking that silence will protect us.  We do too little to make academia accessible, anyhow; we would only be making matters worse if we self-silence.
Department and University Level Strategies
  • If the targeted scholar is receiving death threats, threats of sexual violence, and/or hate mail, contact campus (and perhaps local) police to investigate and offer a police escort.  You or the police should take over checking your colleagues’ mail and answering their phone.  Even if you don’t agree with their actions or comments, there is no excuse for leaving them vulnerable to physical, mental, or sexual violence.
  • When a colleague has come under attack, fight fire with fire — pressure your department and/or university to issue a public statement defending your colleague and affirming their expertise and valueDo not take Boston University’s approach, which suggested they tolerate Dr. Saida Grundy’s academic freedom, and also called her a racist and a bigot — in a statement that “denounces” her “racially charged tweets.”  It would have been better for BU to say nothing at all because it only fueled her attackers’ taste for blood.  DO take Rhodes College’s approach, which clarified Dr. Zandria F. Robinson’s expertise, affirmed that her tweets and blog posts are backed by her expertise, and explicitly stated her value to the institution.
  • When people from outside of the university target a professor and demand their termination (or worse), do not readily accept their claims at face value.  Use your critical skills as a scholar to assess the significance, source, and validity of these claims.  I recommend being particularly suspicious of claims that a (minority) professor has somehow harmed a privileged group (e.g., whites, men, heterosexuals, middle-class and wealthy people).  Stand firm in the distinction between public statements backed by research, especially that are critical of the status quo and inequality, and proclamations based solely on personal opinion.  Remember that the public isn’t necessarily ready to hear what scholars have to say — and that’s no reason to panic.  (How often do we encounter our own students’ [and even colleagues’] discomfort when we challenge their worldviews?)
  • Demand that your university and, if relevant, your department, establish guidelines for academic freedom that reflect today’s forms of public scholarship and means of communicating with the public.  Drawn on existing AAUP materials on academic freedom and social media.  To be clear, I am suggesting that academic freedom policies include explicit protections for scholars’ use of social media, among other forms of engaging the public — not setting limits on what is considered “responsible” social media use like University of Kansas’s controversial policy.  The major problem with KU’s policy is a stipulation that social media use that “is contrary to the best interests of the employer” may be grounds for termination.  As universities have come more corporatized, it seems the quickest way to have a professor sanctioned or fired is to threaten the university’s bank account (i.e., donors’ financial contributions).  In this vein, think about who has the most means to donate to a university; people of color (among other marginalized groups) will never have the same level of power to pressure a university to sanction/fire a controversial white professor.  So, the power of the purse in academia will always loom larger for marginalized scholars.
  • Related to the point above, demand that the university institute a formal means of lodging complains of inappropriate or offensive use of social media or other engagements with the public.  (There is no reason why a university president should be taking requests from students, with a known agenda to target presumably liberal professors, to investigate one of their faculty — especially via Twitter.)  Just as any internal offense (such as sexual harassment, academic dishonesty) must be officially reported before any action is taken, external charges, if investigated and acted upon, should first be formally reported with proper evidence.
  • Pressure your university to employ lawyers who will aggressively fight on behalf of scholars’ academic freedom.  (Several academics have speculated that BU’s public statement about sanction of Dr. Grundy was written by cowardly lawyers who looked to protect the university, not her.)
  • Demand that your department and/or university value community service (not just academic service) and public scholarship.  Here, I explicitly mean that these efforts count in hiring, tenure, promotion, and pay raises.  When university administrators praise or even demand public service, hold them accountable for actually counting and rewarding these efforts — and matching these rewards with professional protections against any backlash.
  • Challenge the academic culture that demands that you “keep your head down” and “keep your mouth shut.”  Question the implicit assumption underlying this advice that scholars, particularly at the junior level, will be reckless and irresponsible with regard to department and university politics, and engaging with the public.  In light of the few rewards and great risks entailed in serving the community and engaging the public, these efforts should be rewarded, not punished or kept quiet.
  • If you work in a graduate department, advocate for explicitly discussing academic freedom and public scholarship with graduate students — perhaps make these discussions a regular part of a professional seminar, preparing future faculty programs, or some other form of mandatory professional socialization.  Also, discuss the changing nature of higher education: the decline of tenure-track positions, the increase in student debt, the decline in state funding, and the corporatization of universities.
  • Train your graduate students how to effectively and safely use social media and work with the media.
  • Rather than attempt to “beat the activist” out of your graduate students, recognize that activism or, at least a desire to make a difference, is what drives many people into graduate school and academia (especially those from marginalized backgrounds).  Find ways to harness this passion in your graduate students’ careers.
Discipline And Profession Level Strategies
  • Demand that your professional organizations, especially those to which you pay dues, actively defend scholars who come under attack.  This can entail issuing public statements and press releases in their defense, offering financial support and help finding new employment for those who are unexpectedly fired, and offering access to legal counsel if necessary.   (Sociologists, as far as I know, ASA only intervenes when scholars have been fired by their universities — and, even then, it may not be to defend them.  The rest of us are on our own.)
  • Create resources to support and build community among public scholars.
  • Host conferences on academic freedom, public scholarship, and intellectual activism, with at least some focus on the inherent risks of engaging the public.
  • Host conference workshops on using social media and working with the media.
  • Work to reverse the adjunctification of higher education.
  • Demand that your local and state politicians stop making efforts to undermine academic freedom (including tenure), and start making more efforts to protect it.

UPDATE [7-9-2015, 4:27pm EST]: I have been informed of two additional resources that are relevant to this post.  One is a map of threats to academic freedom and other barriers in academia in the US: “Scholars Under Attack.”  Another is a well-written essay by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, “‘Who Do You Think You Are?’: When Marginality Meets Academic Microcelebrity.”

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