Trinity Suspends Targeted Professor

Trinity College in Connecticut places Johnny Eric Williams on leave over controversial comments about race. Faculty groups say college is undermining academic freedom.

June 27, 2017
 
Johnny Eric Williams

Trinity College in Connecticut put Johnny Eric Williams on leave, it announced Monday evening.

Williams, an associate professor of sociology at Trinity, previously said he’d left the state amid physical threats that followed his use of racially charged language on social media. The college also closed down for a day last week over such threats. Reached via email Monday, Williams said he was “heartbroken” over the college’s decision, which came without a faculty review.

Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Trinity's president, said in a statement that a leave “is in the best interest of both [Williams] and the college,” and that a dean’s review of Williams’s case continues.

Meanwhile, she said, “the principles that underlie this particular set of events go far beyond the actions of any one person. These involve principles that concern how we think about academic freedom and freedom of speech, as well as the responsibilities that come with those fundamental values.”

As “scholars and citizens, and as individuals and as a community of higher learning,” she added, “our roles in and relationship to social media and the public sphere are complicated. We must be able to engage in conversations about these difficult and complex issues, and Trinity College and other places like it are precisely where such conversations should occur.” A college spokesperson said Tuesday the leave is paid.

Williams’s case has attracted the interest of academic freedom and free speech advocates, partly because the sociologist is among a number of other scholars who have been physically threatened or harassed online in recent months for their public comments. Most of those comments concerned race in some way.

Williams last week shared an article from Medium called “Let Them Fucking Die.” The piece argues that “indifference to their well-being is the only thing that terrifies” bigots, and so people of color should “Let. Them. Fucking. Die” if they’re ever in peril. The Medium piece linked to another Fusion piece about Republican Representative Steve Scalise, who was shot earlier this month in Alexandria, Va. It says Scalise has previously opposed extending protections to LGBTQ people and reportedly once spoke at a meeting of white supremacists, while one of the black law enforcement officers who rescued him is a married lesbian.

In sharing the Medium piece, Williams used the “Let them fucking die” comment as a hashtag, and wrote that it is “past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.”

That post and a similar one prompted critical reports on conservative websites suggesting Williams was advocating violence against white people.

“Less than one week after a gunman opened fire on more than a dozen Republican members of Congress on a Virginia baseball field, a Connecticut college professor said that first responders to the shooting should have ‘let them die’ because they are white,” The Blaze reported, for example.

Williams has since apologized for his remarks and said he was not advocating violence against whites, only drawing attention to systemic racism.

Berger-Sweeney previously said she’d told Williams his use of the hashtag was “reprehensible and, at the very least, in poor judgment.” No matter its intent, she said, “it goes against our fundamental values as an institution, and I believe its effect is to close minds rather than open them.”

Several state lawmakers also called for Williams’s termination. Other scholars have rallied around Williams, however, saying that his speech is clearly protected by the First Amendment and academic freedom.

“Williams included the hashtag #LetThemFuckingDie in his comment as a provocative way to get readers to pay attention to his own points on white supremacy,” reads a petition signed by Trinity students, alumni and faculty members. “More effort is being put into criticizing how [Williams] presented his message than condemning the violent threats being sent to him. This is similar to calling out Black Lives Matter protests; we spend more time criticizing the protesters than the oppressive systems they are exposing. The exact system [Williams] has called out in his posts, a system of violence and bigotry toward marginalized people, is violently retaliating against him. We need to stick up for him.”

The American Association of University Professors also has said it is “dismayed” by the threats against Williams.

“We condemn the practice, becoming all too common, of bombarding faculty members and institutions of higher education with threats,” it said in an earlier statement. “When one disagrees with statements made by others, threats of violence are not the appropriate response. Such threatening messages are likely to stifle free expression and cause faculty and others on campus to self-censor so as to avoid being subjected to similar treatment. Targeted online harassment is a threat to academic freedom.”

Henry Reichman, chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said Monday that putting Williams on punitive leave amounted to a “clear violation of the professor's academic freedom.” The association considers involuntary leaves of absence as severe sanctions that should only be imposed absent a faculty review when the professor in question poses an immediate safety threat.

Calling Berger-Sweeney's announcement “one of the most mealymouthed statements I've ever read,” Reichman in an email said he wondered, “What on earth does ‘we must be able to engage in conversations about these difficult and complex issues’ mean? Conversations about race, like the one in which [Williams] was participating on social media (and not in his capacity as a Trinity faculty member)? Or the conversations about academic freedom and freedom of speech to which Berger-Sweeney refers? These freedoms are not simply topics to ‘discuss’ and ‘converse’ about; they are first and foremost principles to defend.”

Sadly, he added, “there is nothing in this statement suggesting that Trinity will come to their defense.”

Reichman also contrasted Berger-Sweeney’s statement with one offered recently by Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud regarding Dana Cloud. The professor of communication and rhetoric was the subject of threats and harassment after she tweeted for counterdemonstrators to join her and “finish off” a dispersing group protesting against Islamic law.

Saying he’d received messages insisting that he “denounce, censor or dismiss” Cloud for her speech, Syverud said, “No. We are and will remain a university. Free speech is and will remain one of our key values. I can't imagine academic freedom or the genuine search for truth thriving here without free speech” up to “the very limits of the law.”

Williams said he was told by a dean that he was taking leave whether he wanted to or not, and that Trinity made its decision in “the best interest of the college, not for my family and me.” It’s “not in the interest of safeguarding academic freedom and free speech,” he added. “It is my hope the administration corrects its course.”

Matthew Hughey, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and a friend of Williams’s, said Williams “was merely the latest target of a campaign by the right-wing white supremacist outrage machine with the goal of silencing academics” working to eliminate oppression.

Berger-Sweeney threw “Williams under the bus by refusing to confront what is happening,” he said.

While some institutions have expressed support for scholars accused of making controversial public statements about race, Essex County College this week also said it won't rehire pop culture pundit Lisa Durden as an adjunct communication professor over her recent appearance on Fox News. In it, Durden defended Black Lives Matter protesters' right to all-black protests on Memorial Day during a heated conversation with host Tucker Carlson.

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