‘Deplorable’ NYU Prof on Leave

An NYU professor who used an anonymous Twitter account to criticize the university, trigger warnings, safe spaces and the ‘academic left’ is on paid leave days after his identity was revealed. What happened?

November 1, 2016
 
Michael Rectenwald

An untenured professor of liberal studies at New York University who blasted academic liberals, safe spaces and trigger warnings on an anonymous Twitter account is on paid leave. Both the professor and the university have said the leave is voluntary, but the professor says the university “strongly suggested” he take the leave. And the timing of the move -- just days after a university diversity committee published an op-ed criticizing the professor in the student newspaper -- is attracting interest in the case.

Here’s what we know: in September, someone called Deplorable NYU Prof started a Twitter account with the handle @antipcnyuprof. His first post was a link to an essay criticizing trigger warnings, safe spaces and bias reporting as the “new microtechniques of surveillance and control.”

The essay, written by Michael Rectenwald, a clinical assistant professor of liberal studies at NYU, says, in part, that academe “has co-opted and now brandishes identity politics and its techniques of micropower -- including trigger warnings, safe spaces and bias reporting -- as means of the disciplining of the subject. Bias reporting lines are examples of the ways colleges and universities are able to enlist everyone within their ambit as sentinels of surveillance, discipline and punishment.”

Deplorable NYU Prof’s follow-up posts criticize university bias response initiatives, campus directives on appropriate Halloween costumes, Hillary Clinton and NYU itself. Several posts threaten to disclose secrets about the university once @antipcnyuprof hits 500 followers.

Here’s a sampling:

Now, back to Rectenwald. He’d had a Twitter account under his own name for some time and is no stranger to controversial posts criticizing what he calls the academic left. Last year, for example, he tweeted a link to a public Facebook post saying, “Every time a left-liberal hears a bigoted politico they scream Hitler. Give it a break. There's as much chance of a Nazi-like takeover in the U.S. as there is of full communism dawning tomorrow morning.” But his account contains numerous other references to his academic work, his running schedule and other topics.

Still, anyone reading both his and Deplorable NYU Prof’s posts closely could probably have discerned they are written by the same person -- which they are. Several tweets overlap, including one responding to a September blog post about a resident adviser on another campus who allegedly was warned not to incorporate a gorilla into a jungle-theme decoration because the image was “too masculine.” Both Deplorable NYU Prof and Rectenwald tweeted, “The ‘academy’ has officially gone ape shit. This is now mere mental illness posing as politics.”

So Rectenwald wasn’t exactly hiding, but he wasn’t out in the open as Deplorable NYU Prof, either -- until late last month, when he agreed to an “unveiling” interview with NYU’s student newspaper, the Washington Square News. The paper lists Rectenwald by name, includes a photo and quotes him as saying, “My contention is that this particular social-justice-warrior-left is producing the alt-right by virtue of its insanity. … One of the major problems of a trigger warning is this: according to trauma psychology, nobody has any idea what can trigger somebody. It’s completely arbitrary, and I don’t want to be indelicate, but let’s say a woman is raped while the guy happened to have this particular pack of gum on the table. So the woman would see this type of gum, and she’s going to feel triggered by this. Who could possibly anticipate such a thing?”

As for the safe space debate, he said, “I’m more ambiguous about it. I do think some people need safe spaces from different things, such as different beleaguered populations or groups who have been harassed or hounded -- even murdered. People have their right to assemble as they wish. A safe space represents such an assembly. I do question their legality at some kind of state university, for example, because it’s exclusionary, and that’s a public space.”

Identity politics, over all, Rectenwald told the newspaper, “have made an infirmary of the whole damn campus. Let’s face it: every room is like a hospital ward. What are we supposed to do? I can’t deal with it -- it’s insane.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Rectenwald said he wasn’t a member of the political right, but rather a “left communist.” But each time “a speaker is booed off campus or shooed off campus because they might say something that bothers someone,” he said, “that just feeds the notion that the left is totalitarian, and they have a point.”

Two days after it published the Q and A, the newspaper published something of a rebuttal from members of the Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group, made up of students, faculty and staff.

Quoting Rectenwald, the letter to the editor says that he is “low on the ethical totem pole,” but not -- as the professor asserted -- because he is a cisgender white man. The working group wrote that the professor is guilty of straw man arguments, including that trigger warnings are soon to be required to appear on all liberal studies syllabi. “The problem with Rectenwald’s contention is that liberal studies, the program in which Rectenwald teaches, has no proposal for trigger warnings in the works,” the letter says. “Liberal studies faculty governance structures preclude any imposition of policies without strong faculty consent. Furthermore, [the group is] not interested in trigger warnings: we are interested in addressing historic, continuing inequities and in helping ensure that liberal studies is a community in which no one is marginalized by reason of their identity, whether tacitly assumed by others or actively claimed.”

The working group seeks “to create a dynamic community that values full participation,” it wrote. “Such efforts are not the ‘destruction of academic integrity’ Rectenwald suggests, but rather what make possible our program’s approach to global studies -- the examination of sites where cultures, politics, economies, histories, ecologies and values converge and sometimes conflict.”

Referring to Rectenwald’s tweets, the letter says, “We fully support [his] right to speak his mind and we welcome civil discourse on the issues that concern him. But as long as he airs his views with so little appeal to evidence and civility, we must find him guilty of illogic and incivility in a community that predicates its work in great part on rational thought and the civil exchange of ideas.”

The same day the letter was published, Rectenwald says he was asked to attend a meeting with his dean and a staff member from human relations.

Rectenwald said in an email to Inside Higher Ed Monday that the "official story from NYU is that that I have been granted a paid, medical leave of absence and that the leave has absolutely nothing to do with the interview I did with the Washington Square News or the other press coverage … I would not say that it was 'forced' on me as much as 'strongly suggested.'"

Some might see the timing of the leave as "suspicious," he added. "I have nothing to add about those suspicions."

The university has repeatedly denied the leave had anything to do with Twitter. “We are puzzled by Rectenwald's statements,” said John Beckman, university spokesperson. His “leave is voluntary; it was not demanded by the university and is unconnected to his social media postings. He requested the leave, and we look forward to having him back when he is ready.”

Peter Bonilla, vice president of programs at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that the organization is following the case and would find “concerning” any truth to Rectenwald’s claims about being forced to take leave.

“Rectenwald’s criticisms should be protected by NYU’s promises of free speech and by the conventions of academic freedom, which recognize his right to voice criticisms both in his capacity as an NYU faculty member and as a private citizen,” Bonilla said. “Rectenwald’s claim that NYU cited mental health concerns to justify removing him based on expression is also potentially concerning.”

FIRE has seen universities “abuse” such rationales before, he said, “requiring that students or faculty undergo psychological or psychiatric evaluation based on nothing more than protected expression before sanctions against them are removed.”

One such case is that of Francis Schmidt, a professor of art at Bergen Community College who was made to visit a psychiatrist after posting a picture of his daughter on Google Plus wearing a Game of Thrones T-shirt. Administrators -- unfamiliar with the show -- took the shirt’s reference to "fire and blood" as a threat.

At the same time, Rectenwald’s threats to tell all about the university and the post suggesting -- even tongue in cheek -- that students jump off their dorm balconies aren’t just a slogan on a T-shirt.

The American Association of University Professors considers being forced out of the classroom a serious sanction and opposes it except in cases of immediate safety threats. But a spokesperson for the organization on Monday pointed to the fact that Rectenwald’s leave was voluntary. AAUP is not involved in the case.

Rectenwald said that his case "only serves to validate everything I've said about this culture: it is totalitarian, it abides no difference, it singles out and punishes individuals who fail to comply with the official [social justice warrior] ideology." In addition to "failing to combat oppression," he added, "these mechanisms become forms of oppression in their own right. And they do so by severely threatening real diversity -- diversity of thought."

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