Will Work for Safety

Cal State Northridge professor says she hasn't returned to the classroom after an online threat because the university hasn't made her feel safe.

March 16, 2018
 
Campus Reform
Karin Stanford's final exam question on President Trump

A professor of Africana studies and one-time associate dean at California State University Northridge is reportedly refusing to teach, saying her administration failed to sufficiently address an online threat against her.

Karin Stanford, the professor, became a target for online attacks after she asked students on a final exam last semester whether President Trump’s campaign rhetoric was frequently “anti-Mexican,” “anti-Muslim,” “anti-woman” or “all of the above.”

Another question on the exam, for a class called American Political Institutions: A Black Perspective, described presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s concession speech as “breaking down barriers and bringing people together."

Stanford’s disparate lines of inquiry apparently irked at least one student, whom the website Campus Reform anonymously quoted as saying, “Like, don’t try and make me think a certain way, because everyone’s view is different.”

The student described Stanford’s questions as “random and annoying.” Perhaps because the class was online, the student said, Stanford showed no “political bias for the most part and neither did the chapter readings.”

Campus Reform frequently reports on professors who allegedly show their political biases -- typically liberal ones -- in the classroom, and Stanford began receiving critical messages soon after the story appeared in January. As an ex-girlfriend of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Stanford is presumably used to some degree of public scrutiny. But a comment on the Campus Reform story itself scared her: “This is government abuse. Somebody shoot her in the face.”

Stanford, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, told the Los Angeles Daily News this week that she reported the threatening post to university police and that the campus has not responded in a way that makes her feel safe enough to return. Namely, she said she has not received guidance about how to protect herself and her students.

She said she has been using sick leave to avoid being on campus, since her related worker’s compensation claim was denied.

“Why should I be forced to leave the workplace because of a concern for my safety and my students?” she reportedly said. “Why am I making this choice by myself?”

A campus spokesperson said other faculty members have picked up Stanford’s classes.

It takes just a click or two to connect the classroom to the internet. And within the politically contentious last 18 months in particular, scores of professors have reported being threatened online over comments they’ve made on campus or off.

Institutions have struggled to address these often violent threats for a variety of logistical and legal reasons. Many comments, however grotesque, are considered free speech. And it’s hard to discern from social media, emails and especially anonymous comments left on blogs just who is making a threat and if it's serious. Still, a number of faculty members have publicly urged institutions to develop clear protocols that involve affirming the academic freedom and securing the physical safety of targeted colleagues.

Cal State Northridge said in a statement that it notified Stanford of the reports critical of her final exam “to offer support and guidance on appropriate protocol.” The department of Africana studies and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences “actively monitored the situation and have continued to monitor and communicate” with Stanford, the statement said.

Based on the information Stanford provided, campus police investigated the case and consulted with the city attorney’s office, Cal State Northridge said. Ultimately, “while these comments are disturbing, they were found to not rise to the level of a criminal threat and were considered free speech.”

The university “provides a variety of resources for employees who feel threatened,” it said, including law enforcement escorts to and from offices and classes, counseling, and other “emotional support.”

“We take Stanford’s concerns very seriously and are committed to maintaining a safe and respectful environment,” Cal State Northridge said. “We are very much aware of the issues that arise in the current contentious political environment and are actively working to find solutions that balance the principles of academic freedom and free speech, while ensuring the safety of our students, faculty and staff.”

Michael Uhlenkamp, a spokesperson for the California State University System, said via email that any threat made against a professor or other member of the campus “would be the responsibility of the respective university police department to investigate.” Depending on the circumstances, he said, the campus police might call on outside agencies or other campus resources. A bomb threat would involve working with local police, for example, he said, while a student threatening someone else would involve student affairs staff and the student judicial process.

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