Saying the Wrong Thing

Professor resigns after criticizing protesters, and another faces calls for his termination. What's a better way to respond to national protests and students' concerns about them?

June 4, 2020
 
Change.org
Scott Senjo on Twitter

A professor of criminal justice at Weber State University in Utah says he was forced to resign over his tweets regarding recent national protests against police brutality.

In one post, the professor, Scott Senjo, said that he would have driven a car into a crowd of protesters. In other tweets, he seemed to praise attacks on journalists, including those covering the ongoing story.

Weber administrators condemned Senjo’s tweets but deny that they pressured him to quit.

Separately, the University of California, Los Angeles, is facing demands that it terminate a professor of accounting who seemed to mock students for requesting special accommodations in light of the protests.

There may be no perfect way for faculty members and institutions to respond to what’s happening across the U.S. right now. Some university presidents, for example, have been accused of equivocating on the issue of police violence by simultaneously condemning the killing of unarmed black men and women and the tactics of some protesters, or for not taking a strong enough stance.

In any case, the Weber and UCLA cases -- both of which involve white professors -- suggest there are clearly wrong ways to respond to the nationwide protests and students’ concerns about them.

At Weber

“The university has ordered me to resign my position due to my irresponsible tweeting activity over the last several months,” Senjo said in an emailed statement Wednesday, a day after Weber put him on administrative leave and said it was investigating his social media record.

An online petition for Senjo’s ouster highlights his position within Weber State’s criminal justice program, saying that the program’s students “deserve better.” Students of color at Weber also deserve better, reads the petition. It makes the case that Senjo’s comments conflict with the First Amendment, as well.

Media outlets, including the Deseret News, previously reported that Senjo fanned fires on his personal Twitter account, which has since been deleted.

In response to a video of a New York Police Department cruiser driving into a crowd of protesters, Senjo tweeted, “That’s not how I would have driven the car into the crowd.”

When a Wall Street Journal reporter said he’d been injured by police during a protest, Senjo wrote, “Excellent. If I was the cop, you wouldn’t be able to tweet.” Regarding images of protesters vandalizing the CNN building in Atlanta, Senjo also tweeted, “Nothing about this makes me happy but there’s this tiny sense of rightness in the burning of the CNN headquarters.”

In his statement about his resignation, Senjo said he made his remarks “in the oftentimes vulgar, extreme back-and-forth that can occur on Twitter and they were simply wrong.” Apologizing for his “irresponsible behavior,” he added that his words “were far beyond the realm of acceptable university policy as well as acceptable social norms.”

Weber said in a statement Wednesday that Senjo was not told to resign. It quoted an email Senjo allegedly sent to his department, which reads, “I studied the situation and the public fury is too great. I have to resign immediately. There’s no other option.”

Nevertheless, the institution said, the tweets in question were “hurtful and inconsistent with the values of Weber State University and our work to create an inclusive and welcoming environment.”

Hinting at public pressure to act, the university also said it appreciates “the outpouring of emails and social media posts from our students, alumni and colleagues who shared their concerns. We remain committed to creating a campus environment where all are welcome, heard, valued and supported.”

Asked about the discrepancy between his account of the resignation and the university’s, Senjo said, “This is all that would be best for me to say.” He forwarded a prior public statement saying that he’d have to “suffer the consequences of my recklessness.”

Glenn Reynolds, a well-known blogger and professor of law at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, faced an investigation in 2016 into his tweet suggesting that motorists “run down” protesters who were blocking traffic in response to a fatal police shooting in North Carolina. The university ultimately determined that Reynolds’s speech, while deeply offensive, was covered by the First Amendment.

Reynolds apologized at the time, saying, “My tweet should have said, ‘Keep driving,’ or ‘Don’t stop.’ I was upset, and it was a bad tweet.”

At UCLA

In the UCLA case, Gordon Klein, lecturer in accounting, was responding to an emailed request from students who identified themselves as nonblack allies of their black peers.

According to screenshots of the exchange shared with Inside Higher Ed, the group of students asked Klein for a "no-harm" final exam that could only benefit students’ grades, and for shortened exams and extended deadlines for final assignments and projects.

In light of recent “traumas, we have been placed in a position where we much choose between actively supporting our black classmates or focusing on finishing up our spring quarter,” the students wrote. “We believe that remaining neutral in times of injustice brings power to the oppressor and therefore staying silent is not an option.”

Theirs was “not a joint effort to get finals canceled for non-black students,” the self-identified allies wrote, “but rather an ask that you exercise compassion and leniency with black students in our major.”

Referring to the May 25 murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was restrained by police in Minneapolis, Klein responded, “Thanks for your suggestion in your email below that I give black students special treatment, given the tragedy in Minnesota.”

“Do you know the names of the classmates that are black?” he asked. “How can I identify them since we've been having online classes only?”

Are there any students who “may be of mixed parentage, such as half black-half Asian?” Klein continued. “What do you suggest I do with respect to them? A full concession or just half?”

Asking if any students in the class were from Minneapolis, Klein said “a white student from there might be possibly even more devastated by this, especially because some might think that they're racist even if they are not. My TA is from Minneapolis, so if you don't know, I can probably ask her.”

Requesting guidance -- apparently facetiously -- on the “‘no-harm’ outcome, since our sole course grade is from a final exam only,” Klein next invoked Martin Luther King Jr.

“Remember that MLK famously said that people should not be evaluated based on the ‘color of their skin.’ Do you think that your request would run afoul of MLK's admonition?”

The email conversation has since been circulated online and sparked its own petition for Klein’s termination. The document cites his “extremely insensitive, dismissive, and woefully racist response to his students’ request for empathy and compassion during a time of civil unrest.”

Given his background in ethics and liability, the petition says, “one would expect Professor Klein to hold himself to a higher social standard, especially given his position as a steward within higher education.”

Floyd’s killing “displayed a brutality that was so casual and so cruel, it reflected an utter dehumanization of black life,” the petition also says. It’s understandable, then, that students “are struggling to focus on their educations when there is massive sociopolitical unrest that concerns both them and the future of their plight in this country.”

Klein did not respond to a request for comment.

UCLA is looking into the matter. A spokesperson from the Anderson School of Management said via email, "Respect and equality for all are core principles at UCLA Anderson. It is deeply disturbing to learn of this email, which we are investigating. We apologize to the student who received it and to all those who have been as upset and offended by it as we are ourselves."

A Better Way

Some academics note there are better ways to respond to students’ requests for support right now.

Judson Jeffries, a professor of African American studies at Ohio State University, said students and professors alike have rightfully received accommodations during the COVID-19 outbreak and remote spring instruction. Now the country is experiencing another crisis that requires a similarly compassionate and common-sense response to all students, regardless of background, he said.

“This is not aeronautical engineering, this is not rocket science, for goodness' sakes,” Jeffries said. “I would think that a thinking person would allow for certain accommodations.”

Indeed, he said, “if you’re interested in getting students’ best work, given what’s going on the in world, you’d say, ‘Let’s go and revise our schedule so that you can submit your best work.’”

Jeffries said it’s important not to underestimate the magnitude of current events, comparing them to the racial justice protests of the 1960s and, more recently, the L.A. riots of 1992.

Calling this a “teachable moment,” Jeffries said that if it were it not already summer at Ohio State, and his courses were still in session, he’d throw out his planned syllabus.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for those still in class,” he said, referring to UCLA's quarter system. “Plus, discussing these matters with students helps them process what’s going on in terms of the protests. Protests take many forms, too. You don’t have to be in the streets to protest.”

Turning to Senjo’s tweets, Jeffries said, “Driving a car into a crowd and all that foolishness -- don’t even get me started on that. That level of irresponsibility from a person charged with the responsibility of imparting knowledge on young people? That’s just very disappointing.”

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