Standing Up for Professors

Washington and Lee offers full-throated defense of professors targeted for political and racist reasons.

September 29, 2020

Washington and Lee University in Virginia continues to face criticism from some corners over discussions about changing its name, along with certain campus traditions, to those that don’t honor Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

In the midst of these rebukes, the university recently offered unequivocal support for two professors targeted for their work and views.

In the first case, Breitbart posted a story about a course to be offered this semester called How to Overthrow the State? It’s a titillating tile, but the course itself one of many first-year writing seminar options and doesn’t exactly operate as Anarchy 101.

Students write at least three revised essays and develop skills in active reading, argumentation, presenting evidence and critical analysis.

“This course places each student at the head of a popular revolutionary movement aiming to overthrow a sitting government and forge a better society,” reads the course description. “How will you attain power? How will you communicate with the masses? How do you plan on improving the lives of the people? How will you deal with the past?”

The actual material with which they’re engaging concerns Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Mohandas Gandhi and other revolutionaries from the across the Global South -- as well as the Founding Fathers. Students read the Declaration of Independence.

Other first-year writing seminars offered have themes designed to pique the interest of students who need to learn how to think and express themselves at the college level, including monsters, memoir and identity, animals, mysteries and puzzles, Queen Elizabeth I, life’s “big questions,” nature, and Black athletes and activism.

The story was picked up by outlets including The Federalist and Fox News. Soon the instructor, Matt Gildner, a visiting assistant professor of history, started to receive hateful voice mails and emails containing threats from some who described themselves as “patriots.” So did another professor, who had nothing to do with the course: Brandon Hasbrouck, assistant professor of law.

Breitbart didn’t mention Gildner, who is white, by name. It did mention Hasbrouck, who is Black, and his July op-ed for The Washington Post arguing that Washington and Lee should also consider dropping "Washington" from its name, as both George Washington and Lee perpetrated “racial terror.”

“Yes, Washington was the country’s first president after leading the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. But Washington enslaved more than 300 Black people,” Hasbrouck wrote. “He ordered one whipped for walking on his lawn.”

Hasbrouck publicly shared some of the harassment he received upon initial publication of the piece, including an email that used a racial slur to refer to Black people saying they were “better off as slaves.”

“To be Black and to have an opinion,” Hasbrouck tweeted at the time.

With the publication of Breitbart piece, Hasbrouck started to again receive these kinds of messages. And Washington and Lee spoke out.

President Will Dudley first addressed the harassment in an all-campus memo saying that some professors had received threats, which the university referred to law enforcement.

“We live in strange times, when a first-year composition course can become national news,” he wrote. “In addition to defending the safety of our community members and expressing my unequivocal support for the free exchange of ideas in our classrooms and in the public arena, I want to reflect on the education we offer at Washington and Lee and the way that this particular course, which became the target of misguided criticism, actually exemplifies the best of what we do.”

Dudley went on to say that the “first step in successful teaching, no matter the subject, is getting students’ attention and capturing their imagination.” And “What better way to teach the power of writing -- the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword -- than to ask students to read and evaluate historical texts that aspired to move their original audiences to revolution? The Declaration of Independence, for example, is one of the first works on the syllabus.”

For clarification, Dudley said that Gildner’s course doesn’t “advocate revolution or train students for it. It studies how revolutionaries have written in order to help students become more powerful and persuasive writers. That is directly in the service of our mission, and I’m proud we offer this course at Washington and Lee.”

Dudley also urged “civility,” saying it is “incumbent upon us to treat each other with respect and not perpetrate or tolerate personal attacks.”

Interim provost Elizabeth Goad Oliver and three deans followed up with their own statement, saying, “Charged discussions of racial justice, institutional history and even course design compel us to condemn the harassment of faculty members who exercise their academic freedom. We do so. Unequivocally.”

When a faculty member is “threatened with violence for the content of their teaching or scholarship, or the expression of their ideas, the very heart of our institutional character and mission as educators is threatened,” the provost and deans also said.

Brant Hellwig, dean of law, signed that second statement. But he also wrote his own “Statement in Support of a Colleague,” addressing Hasbrouck in particular.

Hasbrouck “had nothing to do with this course, and the connection between a class entitled ‘How to Overthrow the State’ and a Black faculty member carries disturbing racial overtones in the current social climate. This connection is wholly unjustified, and it has led to unwarranted harassment of Prof. Hasbrouck which our community condemns.”

Hellwig continued, “Regardless of what one thinks of Prof. Hasbrouck's published views, our law school and our university are richer for fostering the expression of diverse and varied opinion -- even opinions that may be particularly challenging.”

Yet Hasbrouck received letters and messages that “go beyond any line of decency and which at times are expressly racist. Our commitment to freedom of expression requires that we denounce feedback intended to harass, intimidate, or silence, which I unequivocally do, and express our support for Prof. Hasbrouck as a vital member of our law school and university community,” Hellwig said. “I am confident that my colleagues on the faculty share in the spirit of this message.”

A week later, the law school faculty approved a resolution supporting Hellwig’s statement and “colleagues and students who have recently been the subject of harassing, hateful and racist commentary in response to their work, their opinions and the ideals for which they stand.” The resolution condemned “all conduct and comments that are intended to intimidate and silence.”

Colleges and universities often face controversies surrounding professors’ speech. In response, they often tend to come down on the side of academic freedom. But they don’t consistently offer unequivocal support for the actual professors involved, and may instead seek to distance themselves.

Gildner, who shared various obscene messages telling him to watch his back, said some of the harassment he experienced came from supporters of the Generals Redoubt, an alumni and friends organization that pushes for what it describes as Washington and Lee’s “recorded, oral and traditional institutional life” and “political and ideological diversity.”

Hasbrouck said his work on race and police reform also makes him a target.

"I have been called the n-word multiple times; I have been told Black men are criminals and terrible fathers and that we all should be thankful that police discipline Black people (we need it, after all, because we never had a father in our lives); I have been told to leave this institution more times than you can imagine," he said via email. "I have been told that Robert E. Lee is my intellectual father and I must respect him and show gratitude; I have been told that I should be put in chains and enslaved; I have had people tell me my life does not matter (or my children)."

Following the university’s statements, Rex Wooldridge, secretary of the Generals Redoubt, said that “No one who has done his or her homework on this course or the curriculum as a whole is accusing Washington and Lee of training students to commit treason,” according to The Roanoke Times.

Gildner said this week that he wished the university would take a much stronger stance against the Redoubt, on whom “the irony of calling out a class on ‘How to Overthrow the State’ while defending both Washington and Lee -- who both sought to overthrow states, one unsuccessfully -- seemed completely lost.”

“This has gone on for too long,” he said, expressing pessimism about the future of academic freedom and U.S. higher education in general. "It's tragic. Ideology is the antithesis of education."

Even so, Gildner said he was glad to the have the support of administrators, especially his department chair, Molly Michelmore. “Her support was everything, and the solidarity from my colleagues, alumni, students and even parents was remarkable.”

Hasbrouck said that he was grateful for Hellwig's response, and that his dean "has always been my biggest supporter and has had my back." Dudley's message didn't address the racial dimension of Hasbrouck being implicated in a debate about a course with which he has no affiliation, however -- and came later than Hasbrouck would have liked.

"I have been attacked all summer," Hasbrouck said, describing being a Black professor of law in this moment as "exhausting, consuming, emotionally draining and hard."

"When all of our democratic institutions tell us that our lives do not matter, we are tired," he added. "When our work institutions do not call racism and hate out directly, we are tired. When white supremacy goes unchecked, we are tired."


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