Twitter Blowback: Lost Job and Lost Money

Montclair State strips adjunct of courses amid controversy over tweet wishing someone would shoot Trump. Trinity of Connecticut details students and gifts lost amid furor over professor's hashtag.

August 2, 2017
Kevin Allred, Johnny Eric Williams

Montclair State University has stripped Kevin Allred of two courses it had assigned him to teach as an adjunct this fall. The move followed a controversial tweet by Allred in which he said that he wished someone would shoot President Trump.

The university has denied that it ever employed Allred -- even though he has shared email messages from the university confirming that he would be teaching. Montclair is now being criticized both for removing a faculty member's courses from him, apparently because of his rhetoric and for denying that it was planning to employ Allred.

Allred lost teaching work at Rutgers University in November over another tweet about Trump -- and he has stated repeatedly that his rhetoric is not intended to be taken literally. He also has noted that his language -- while shocking to some -- isn't out of line with some of what Trump has said.

The Allred case is the latest in which faculty members have been criticized -- and in some cases lost jobs -- over controversial statements on social media, primarily dealing with race. Also this week, the president of Trinity College in Connecticut, an institution that suspended a professor over a hashtag and comments on social media, detailed what she said were losses of entering students and of money due to the controversy.

Both Montclair State and Trinity are facing criticism from some quarters for failing to protect faculty free expression.

Allred and the Lost Courses at Montclair State

Prior to his controversial tweets, Allred was best known for creating the Rutgers course Politicizing Beyoncé. The tweet that has been talked about on conservative websites this week has been removed, but here is an archived copy:

Tweet from @KevinAllred, dated July 28, 2017: Trump is a fucking joke. This is all a sham. I wish someone would just shoot him outright. (shrugging emoji)

He has followed that tweet with a number of others, saying that he is not advocating violence but using strong language. "How is my one tweet using a hyperbolic expression worse than what 'the president' himself is doing day after day?" he wrote in one tweet. "Not to mention the millions of Americans he's hell-bent on stripping health insurance from. He wants Americans dead," he wrote in another.

Via email, he said that he was notified by email that his services would no longer be required this fall, even though he had exchanged emails with the university in which he had been told he would be teaching a course in women's and gender studies, and another in gay studies. He had submitted books to order, syllabi and so forth.

Montclair State then issued this statement via email: "Kevin Allred has never been an employee of Montclair State University, is not one at this time, and the university has not made any formal offer of employment to him."

Screen shot of faculty page from Under heading "Faculty -- Montclair State University," text says, "Kevin Allred. Email: Biography. Kevin Allred is excited to be a new adjunct instructor in the gender, sexuality and women's studies" (text ends there)Told that Allred had provided an email trail documenting his employment, and that his removed faculty biography and email address remained on the university's website (at right), the university's spokeswoman said she hoped to provide more information. As of press time, she had not done so.

Ari Cohn, a lawyer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said it was "a little bit ridiculous" for Montclair State to claim that it had never employed Allred, when the email trail shows that it did.

Cohn also said that it was unconstitutional for a public university to take away someone's job for "protected speech" and that Allred's tweet was well within the legal definitions of protected speech. He said it was clearly not literal and was a use of rhetoric to criticize a government leader.

Professors "have been making incendiary remarks for decades," and just because social media make those remarks more visible doesn't mean college leaders have any less of an obligation to defend free expression, Cohen said.

"This is just the latest in a series of very troubling incidents where faculty members, in particular adjunct faculty members" are being criticized for social media comments and "colleges are buckling" and not defending their faculty members, Cohn said. One of the other cases where a professor lost a job was that of an adjunct at Essex County College.

Debating the Costs at Trinity

Trinity of Connecticut has been debating in recent weeks how it handled the case of Johnny Eric Williams, the associate professor of sociology accused of making racist remarks on social media. He was suspended but then cleared of wrongdoing after a formal review. Many faculty members said that he never should have been suspended. Numerous threats were also made against Williams, leading the college to shut down for a day.

On Monday, Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Trinity's president, released an open letter in which she outlined the impact of the controversy on the college. She noted that "attacks against free speech have become all too frequent." Then she went on to talk about practical impacts of the furor.

She wrote, "We know that 16 students in the incoming Class of 2021 have withdrawn and cited this incident as the reason, and our admissions team has engaged in conversations with many others who had concerns. This is, however, well within our usual summer 'melt,' as we call it, as some students make different decisions about where and when they might matriculate. We remain on track to meet our enrollment and revenue targets and are ahead of where we were at this time last year."

Of money, she wrote, "A number of past contributors also chose not to donate to the college this year in response to the controversy. I certainly am disappointed by those decisions, but I respect them and hope that those individuals ultimately will see that there continue to be many good reasons to invest in Trinity. At this point, we estimate that impact to be roughly $200,000, while overall giving exceeded $28.6 million, which was a 28 percent increase over the previous year. Finally, we incurred some cost to manage the crisis, including for additional security on campus for a few weeks."

She went on to talk about the importance of the college's faculty members and students working together to promote "civilized discourse."

Henry Reichman, chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, used a blog post to criticize Berger-Sweeney for focusing so much of her letter on financial costs to the college. He wrote that the Trinity president has not acknowledged that Williams never should have been suspended, and the damage caused by his suspension.

"It is grossly insufficient simply to encourage 'discussion' of academic freedom and freedom of speech -- it is essential for colleges to vigorously defend and promote these principles," Reichman wrote. "Nothing in yesterday’s message suggests that Trinity is committed to doing so."

He titled the blog post "At Trinity It’s Still About the Bottom Line."


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