Suspended for Anti-Semitism

Oberlin once again changes its stance toward Joy Karega, suspending the professor pending an investigation into her remarks on social media.

August 4, 2016
Joy Karega

Joy Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition studies at Oberlin College who made anti-Semitic statements on her personal Facebook page, has been put on paid leave pending an investigation into her conduct. The move marks yet another shift in Oberlin’s public stance toward Karega since February, when it endorsed her right to free speech, however objectionable.

Oberlin announced the suspension on Wednesday, saying that it has been “considering carefully the grave issues surrounding [Karega’s] anti-Semitic postings on social media” for several months.

The statement references the Board of Trustees’ March request, in consultation with President Marvin Krislov, that the administration and faculty “challenge the assertion that there is any justification for these repugnant postings.”

A faculty governance process to review Karega’s “professional fitness” was initiated thereafter and continues, according to the statement.

“Until that process is complete, [Karega] has been placed on paid leave and will not teach at Oberlin,” it says, promising that Oberlin’s administration will “respect” the process as it plays out. “In recognition of the sensitivity of this review process and the privacy of the individuals involved, we will have no other comment until the conclusion of the process.”

The statement vaguely references renewed media interest in the case, and Scott Wargo, college spokesman, said that there had been “some inquiries.” Beyond that, it’s unclear what prompted Oberlin to suspend Karega at this time.

Krislov, the president, said in a separate statement to alumni Wednesday that he was "committed to continuing and completing an equitable review process." 

Karega, who did not respond to a request for comment, seemed to address Krislov's statement in a brief Facebook post saying, "Equitable?"

Chui Karega, her lawyer, wrote in an email that Oberlin's administration has "engaged in a relentless persecution" of Karega since March, and that she was this week placed on administrative leave "with no justification."

Administrators have said that Karega "performed exceptionally as an educator on the faculty at Oberlin. Her record of teaching has been unblemished," Chui Karega said. "Nevertheless, Oberlin’s administration, pandering to the dictates of a handful of vocal and wealthy religious zealots, has set out to push [Karega] out of her faculty position at Oberlin. ...This unfortunate maneuver by Oberlin’s administration is taken in direct contrast to the findings and recommendations of the Oberlin faculty." 

Chui Karega did not immediately respond a follow-up question about the status of the faculty investigation. Wargo, the college spokesperson, declined comment on the matter.   

In 2014-15, after she came to Oberlin, Karega wrote on her Facebook page that ISIS was really U.S. and Israeli intelligence personnel, and that they -- not terrorists -- had planned the attacks on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo. She said Israel had downed Malaysian Airlines flight No. 17 over Ukraine, and she voiced support for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s declaration that Zionists and Israeli Jews were behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

Karega also shared anti-Semitic images, such as a picture of the Jewish banking heir Jacob Rothschild with the words, “We own your news, the media, your oil and your government.”

Though some of Karega’s posts are several years old, they came to light this winter, amid other concerns about escalating anti-Semitic rhetoric on campus. Karega's posts differ somewhat from more common criticisms of Israel on college campuses, though, in that they seem link Israel to events in which there is a broad consensus that it played no role.

Oberlin initially backed Karega’s right to free speech while distancing itself from her comments, saying in a statement that it “respects the rights of its faculty, students, staff and alumni to express their personal views. Acknowledgment of this right does not signal institutional support for, or endorsement of, any specific position.”

Amid criticism that Oberlin was being soft on anti-Semitism, Krislov, the president, doubled down on its position a few days later. He said that as a Jew, he was deeply hurt by statements like those Karega had made, but that as an academic, he believed deeply in free expression.

“Cultivating academic freedom can be difficult and at times painful for any college community,” he wrote. “The principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech are not just principles to which we turn to face these challenges, but also the very practices that ensure we can develop meaningful responses to prejudice.”

A week later, however, the trustees announced that they’d asked the college to look into Karega’s professional fitness. “These postings are anti-Semitic and abhorrent,” Clyde S. McGregor, chair of Oberlin’s Board of Trustees, said. “We deplore anti-Semitism and all other forms of bigotry. They have no place at Oberlin. These grave issues must be considered expeditiously.”

In April, the deans of Oberlin’s College of Arts and Sciences and conservatory announced that “conversations have begun within the governing bodies and are moving as expeditiously as possible. As this is a confidential personnel matter, we cannot provide further specifics.”

While academic freedom and free speech are “nonnegotiable,” the deans added, “there are professional standards, expectations and responsibilities that must be recognized and upheld.”

Also in April, the majority of the faculty at Oberlin published a statement condemning Karega’s statements as anti-Semitic, ahead of any formal action against her. “Bigotry has no place on the Oberlin campus (or anywhere),” it says. “It sullies the values of equality and mutual support that are embedded in our institutional DNA as the first coeducational college and the first to admit students of all races as a matter of policy. … The time has finally come for us to go on record, and especially to reassure our students.”

Some 174 professors signed the statement, but a vocal few said they wouldn’t lend their names because they feared Karega -- a young, black woman, and therefore vulnerable within the academic hierarchy -- was being scapegoated for bigger concerns about anti-Semitism at Oberlin. Others said it was ironic that she was being investigated as student protesters shared their own concerns about antiblack racism on campus.

One of those professors, Johnny Coleman, professor of art and Africana studies, wrote in an email to fellow faculty members that it was “difficult to overlook the dynamics unfolding here in which black students' demands for systemic institutional change are effectively dismissed -- while a call to denounce anti-Semitism and bigotry in all forms has been composed and circulated in a manner that specifically targets an early-career black female colleague. … Moving forward, we need to engage a more nuanced and constructive process.”

Some commenters have argued that Karega’s professional fitness is at issue because what she wrote was not only opinion, but also factually inaccurate. That is, even the biggest critics of Israel’s foreign policy would agree that it did not orchestrate the Sept. 11 attacks. Others have argued that Karega is free to be wrong everywhere but in the classroom and, thus far, there have been no public complaints about her teaching. Others still have argued that it's hard to imagine how her political views haven't bled into her teaching, especially that on social justice writing.

The American Association of University Professors sees suspension as a serious punishment. It says it should be administered prior to a faculty-led review of conduct only when the professor presents an immediate danger to his or her students.

John K. Wilson, coeditor of the AAUP’s “Academe” blog and an academic freedom expert, said he thinks Karega “is a bigot, an idiot and a conspiracy nut.” But he said he thinks the same of a Donald Trump, and that no professor “who supports Trump’s conspiracy theories should be punished -- and neither should Karega.” And as extramural utterances, social media posts enjoy an especially high level of protection with regard to free speech, he said.

Wilson said he also worried about due process in Karega’s case. Oberlin’s most recent statement reiterates that the investigation is happening at the request of the governing board, he said, calling it a “serious breach of academic protocol.” Moreover, given that the faculty governance process is apparently ongoing, it appears Karega has been suspended without any finding of wrongdoing.

“This suspension is especially suspicious, because Oberlin has known about these social media posts for more than six months,” Wilson said. “That should have been plenty of time to investigate her case without any need to suspend Karega without a hearing.”


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