Catholic University on Friday announced that it was suspending Will Rainford as dean of the National Catholic School of Social Service, the university's social work school, amid anger by many students and professors over tweets he made criticizing one of the accusers of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rainford tweeted -- using his official dean's handle -- about Julie Swetnick. She is the third woman to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. She has said that she saw him at high school parties where she said he participated in verbal abuse of girls and encouraged them to drink to a point where they would not be able to prevent boys from sexually assaulting them. Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.
Of Swetnick, Rainford tweeted, "Swetnick is 55 y/o. Kavanaugh is 52 y/o. Since when do senior girls hang with freshman boys? If it happened when Kavanaugh was a senior, Swetnick was an adult drinking with & by her admission having sex with underage boys, In another universe, he would be victim and she the perp!"
The tweet instantly circulated throughout the campus and beyond, and stunned students and faculty members, who questioned why a dean would be using his official platform to try to undercut one player in a major national debate. Many noted that, regardless of what one might believe about Kavanaugh, it is antithetical to the ethics of social work to mock someone for bringing an accusation of sexual misconduct.
Rainford quickly removed the tweet and shut down his social media accounts. He also issued an apology. "I offer no excuse," he wrote. "It was impulsive and thoughtless and I apologize."
He went on to say that he was "keenly aware from decades of combined law enforcement and social work experience and education that victims who suffer assault and abuse need to be heard, respected, and provided treatment and justice."
To many students, however, the apology wasn't enough.
Alex Wood, a graduate student who is among those organizing a rally today to protest Rainford, said that many students feel that their views are ignored and that the tweet reflects larger problems.
"While everyone is entitled to their personal opinions, I think someone who wrote those things (as dean, tweeting as dean) should not be the dean of a social work school because it shows an egregious lack of concern for survivors/victims of sexual assault (or, vulnerable individuals), as well as a severe lack of judgment and understanding of their role as a dean," Wood said via email.
In a statement Friday, President John Garvey announced that he was suspending Rainford as dean for the rest of the semester.
"The Catholic University of America has no position on the Kavanagh [sic] matter. But let there be no doubt that our university, and particularly our National Catholic School of Social Service, has a special concern for every victim and survivor of sexual assault," Garvey wrote. "Rainford’s tweets of the past week are unacceptable. We should expect any opinion he expresses about sexual assault to be thoughtful, constructive, and reflective of the values of Catholic University, particularly in communications from the account handle @NCSSSDean. While it was appropriate for him to apologize and to delete his Twitter and Facebook accounts, this does not excuse the serious lack of judgment and insensitivity of his comments."
Garvey wrote that he hopes that Rainford will continue to lead the social work school, but that he would be suspended from that role this semester.
Rainford, through a university spokesman, declined to comment on the suspension.
Academic Freedom Issues
John K. Wilson, who writes widely on academic freedom and is editor of the "Academe" blog of the American Association of University Professors, said via email that Rainford's tweets and punishment raise a number of issues. He said that Rainford's tweets deserved to be condemned, but questioned the idea that he should be punished.
"Normally, the president has authority over staff and can make performance-based decisions such as removing a dean; there is no tenure for administrators," Wilson said. "However, academic freedom is not merely the property of faculty; it’s a core value of a college, and also applies to students and staff. Universities should not be punishing anyone for their political views, even if the reaction to them might be harmful to the university."
Wilson added that "Rainford’s comments were sexist, inaccurate, offensive and just plain stupid, and that they deserve condemnation. But when administrators are removed for their controversial comments, all staffers will censor themselves -- including those who wish to condemn sexual abusers such as Brett Kavanaugh or Donald Trump, or those who speak out against the failures of the Catholic Church to stop sexual abuse. Extramural comments that reveal professional incompetence can be punished. But one misguided opinion about a politicized case does not indicate professional incompetence."
Professional Standards vs. Free Expression
Courts have generally limited the ability of public colleges and universities (which Catholic is not) to punish students or faculty members for saying things on social media that are offensive. But courts have made an exception in cases where posts showed a violation of the professional ethics of various fields, as taught and promoted by various colleges and universities.
In 2013, a federal appeals court ruled that the University of Louisville had the right to dismiss a nursing student who blogged about a patient's experience giving birth. And in 2012, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the right of the University of Minnesota to punish a mortuary science student for posts on Facebook that made fun of a cadaver.