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Dartmouth College professors are asking President Philip J. Hanlon to retract a statement critical of a lecturer there who’s emerged as a leading expert on the “antifa,” or what President Trump recently referred to as the “alt-left.” Antifa, short for “antifascists,” are dedicated to fighting fascism and racism, and while their tactics are mostly nonviolent, they see using force against those who would do others physical harm as justifiable. 

Dartmouth, meanwhile, says it’s sticking to its original statement condemning politically motivated violence in any form. 

“Since the violent neo-Nazi attack on Charlottesville, we have watched with gratitude as our junior colleague Mark Bray, on the strength of his historical scholarship, has become the national expert on a subject that is suddenly, terribly urgent: the 20th century history of fascism and anti-fascism in Europe and, more recently, the U.S.,” reads the faculty letter to Hanlon. “This, of course, is the kind of public recognition of Dartmouth scholarship that is celebrated in most situations. Instead, in this case, Bray has been disavowed by Dartmouth[.]” 

The letter accuses Dartmouth of endorsing a politicized “mischaracterization” of Bray’s public remarks, as well as the “implied attack on his scholarly standing by making clear he had no institutional support.” It urges the college to consider the “lasting damage” its position has wrought on its reputation and on Bray’s personal security, and to apologize to him.  

Some 120 faculty signatories also say they want a review of peer institutions’ norms and procedures on responding to public criticism of and attacks on controversial scholars.

The disavowal to which the faculty letter refers, first published by the right-wing website Campus Reform, appears on Hanlon’s web page. It says that recent statements made by Bray “supporting violent protest do not represent the views of Dartmouth. As an institution, we condemn anything but civil discourse in the exchange of opinions and ideas.” 

Dartmouth, it continues, “embraces free speech and open inquiry in all matters, and all on our campus enjoy the freedom to speak, write, listen and debate in pursuit of better learning and understanding; however, the endorsement of violence in any form is contrary” to the college’s values.

Bray, who has a forthcoming book on antifascism, recently wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post about the history of antifa and has since granted numerous interview requests on the subject (including one with Inside Higher Ed). But the Campus Reform article focuses on Bray’s Aug. 20 appearance on NBC's Meet the Press during which he debated Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

While Cohen said that direct confrontation usually only leads to more violence, and that it’s “a spectacularly bad idea to give one group of people the right to silence another group of people,” Bray said “there’s a big difference between confronting fascism and confronting other forms of violence.” 

During the the 1930s and '40’s, Bray said, “there was no public opinion to being leveraged by non-violent resistance. If you get fascists to be powerful enough in government, they’re simply not gonna listen to the kind of public opinion that non-violence can generate. That’s the argument for resistance to Nazis.… [I]t’s a privileged position to be able to say that you never have to defend yourself from these kinds of monsters.” (The full transcript of Bray’s Meet the Press comments is available here.)

Bray, a lecturer in history, said Monday that he was disappointed Dartmouth hadn’t reached out to him before publishing its statement, since it’s unclear to him how much Hanlon and others know about his research and the degree to which his comments reflect his scholarship, not personal opinion. 

For the record, Bray said his work is sympathetic to antifa, but that he approaches the movement as a scholar and writer, not a participant. His scholarly opinion on antifascists’ use of violence, in particular, is that it’s “a legitimate response, historically founded in the inability of liberal solutions to halt the advance of Naziism” in 20th-century Europe.

Like other scholars who have spoken out recently on matters of race and politics, he has received death threats and been the subject of targeted online harassment -- some of it anti-Semitic (Bray is Jewish). The faculty letter implies that Dartmouth’s statement has enabled some of that harassment. Asked if he agreed, Bray said that he didn’t know what was motivating his harassers, but that he’d observed an “escalation” in the attacks against him since Hanlon weighed in. Of course, Campus Reform articles in general have been key triggers for harassment in cases elsewhere.

Bray said he worried about his job security but that he was confident in the support of his colleagues. Beyond Hanlon’s comment, Dartmouth has taken no punitive actions against Bray or revoked any of his faculty privileges, such as use of its radio studio for interviews. 

A spokesperson declined comment beyond Hanlon’s initial statement. (Editor’s note: Bray is a cousin of Scott Jaschik, co-editor of Inside Higher Ed.)

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