The Professor Who Wasn't Fired

Twitter exploded late Tuesday with reports that the U of Memphis had fired a black female sociologist attacked for her comments about white people. The reports were false, but did the university's actions make it look like she'd been fired?

July 1, 2015

The University of Memphis has been mostly silent in the last month as conservative bloggers and publications have criticized Zandria Robinson, until recently an assistant professor of sociology at the university.

But on Tuesday afternoon, the university posted an 11-word comment on Twitter: “Zandria Robinson is no longer employed by the University of Memphis.” The university declined to say anything more, such as whether she had been fired and, if so, why.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Robinson's defenders took to social media to denounce her apparent firing. After a few hours, Robinson shared a post with some friends saying that she had not been fired, but had accepted a job elsewhere a few weeks ago. Faculty members at Memphis confirmed this.

But while Robinson has found a new employer, she has become a new cause in a culture war going on about the online comments of black women in academe, and specifically in sociology. To conservative critics, the issue is statements that they consider outlandish and racist (specifically, anti-white). To many sociologists, of a variety of races and ethnicities, black women who challenge white dominance are having their words and ideas taken out of context, are being flooded with hateful email -- and are at risk of having their careers disrupted.

Robinson's case is being compared to that of Saida Grundy, a new assistant professor of sociology at Boston University who was widely criticized in May for comments on Twitter in which she said, among other things, “Why is white America so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?” She expressed regret over her choice of words, but the university's president criticized her language before she had even moved to Boston. Many sociologists saw nothing wrong with anything Grundy said.

There have been two waves of criticism of Robinson. In early June, the website Campus Reform pulled comments from her social media accounts (all since made private) in which she wrote critically of how white students in college view black students' chances of getting into graduate school. “It is graduate school application season again and it has come to my attention -- again -- that some white students believe that students of color will simply get into graduate programs because they are racial or ethnic minorities,” Robinson wrote. She called this view a “lie.”

She said, “Students of color applying to graduate schools are always already exceptional because of the various structural hurdles they leapt to get out of college, take the GRE and apply, etc.” She added that white students aren't exceptional for applying to graduate school “because they have white privilege.” She said she would not tolerate white students who are “perpetuating these racist lies again. Not even in your head.”

Peter Hasson, the author of the Campus Reform post, went on Twitter and asked M. David Rudd, the university's president, what he was going to do about a professor who in Hasson's view was expressing views that discriminate against white people. Rudd replied via Twitter: “I appreciate you forwarding this to my attention. I have forwarded to our EEO office."

Then there was a new wave of criticism in the last few days over Twitter comments Robinson made related to the dispute over the Confederate flag. Two quotes highlighted by The Daily Caller: “The Confederate flag is more than a symbol of white racial superiority. It is the ultimate symbol of white heteropatriarchal capitalism” and “White folks think that if they are nice to you they are above a critique of whiteness, white supremacy or structural racism.”

And then as these quotes were spreading, along with calls on Twitter for her dismissal, the notice appeared on the University of Memphis Twitter account.

That prompted many online to assume she had been fired and to criticize such an action for someone participating in an intense national debate about race in the wake of the Charleston murders. After a few hours, word spread that she hadn't been fired.

But does the furor say something?

Eric Anthony Grollman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Richmond, runs the blog Conditionally Accepted, which he calls “a space for scholars on the margins of academia.”

Via email, he shared his reactions: “I find University of Memphis's ambiguous tweet troubling. If it was vague by intent, I have to wonder what message was being sent. Was this a hint that the conservative journalists who are now attacking Robinson for the second time had succeeded in having her removed from her position? That they were successful in silencing her in the public and within the academy? That, with the right amount of conservative news coverage, universities cave and no longer protect our free speech? If it was unintentional, I still question why a private personnel matter was discussed on Twitter. This seems sloppy and unprofessional, at best.”

Grollman added: “I am disappointed that we are so accustomed to attacks on public scholars these days -- especially women of color -- that we readily assumed the worst when news broke that she is no longer at Memphis.”

Robinson did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. But she did respond to an email request for comment in early June, when she was first being criticized for her comments on Twitter.

She said then: “This is clearly an attack on academic freedom and moreover part of a larger coordinated attack against young women of color, who are amongst the most vulnerable everywhere, the academy included. Whether it's a Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction or random, innocuous tweets, black women are harassed and strung up to be made examples of in our society. Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, our institutions often allow this; they cannot protect us from attacks in our own departments or universities, so expecting them to defend us unequivocally from outside hate groups is naïve. Inside attacks push black women out of the academy just like those from the outside.... It's time for institutions to be courageous and do the things that our society has repeatedly failed to do: protect black women and the freedom of people of color to be critical of injustice.”


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