This article contains potentially offensive terms that are essential to reporting on this situation.
The culture war is raging in Cookeville, Tenn., where one of the biggest current controversies is what to call the local middle school’s sports teams: either the Algood Middle School Redskins, or an alternative that doesn’t offend many Native Americans and allies.
Tennessee Technological University is now implicated in that fight, with one professor -- who is also the campus adviser for Turning Point U.S.A. -- saying two colleagues threatened him over his pro-Redskins stance. Those professors now face possible disciplinary action from the university, which last week said that they’d violated a policy requiring employees to “conduct themselves fairly, honestly, in good faith and in accordance with the highest ethical and professional standards.” The policy also requires faculty members to create “an environment that promotes academic freedom, diversity, fair treatment and respect for all faculty, staff, students and the general public.”
The professors say they didn’t threaten their colleague but rather criticized him in a way that should be protected. They also feel they have targets on their backs for being politically liberal in a county where 70 percent of votes went to Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
A Mascot, a Motion, a Flier, an Investigation
Here’s what happened: in February, in response to demands from local activists, the Putnam County School Board considered forming a committee to rename the longtime Algood Redskins. When the time came for a vote, one board member moved to proceed with considering a committee. No one seconded.
The new mascot discussion was effectively over. That pleased Andrew J. Donadio, an assistant professor of nursing at Tennessee Tech who is also a local county commissioner. Donadio, who was in the audience at the school board meeting, clapped loudly.
Seated in front of Donadio -- unbeknownst to him, he says -- was Julia Gruber, an associate professor of German who supported abandoning the Redskins mascot on the grounds that it’s hurtful to Native Americans. Gruber found Donadio’s show of emotion inappropriate, she says, especially because there were Native Americans present, including a friend of hers and his children.
Gruber went home annoyed and texted about the incident with Andrew Smith, a friend and instructor of English at Tennessee Tech.
Smith had long been critical of Turning Point U.S.A., the conservative student group behind Professor Watchlist, a website dedicated to “unmasking radical professors” and “exposing bias on campus.” And he was especially bothered that Donadio had recently agreed to advise a new chapter of Turning Point U.S.A. at Tennessee Tech. Upon hearing how Donadio had responded to the mascot decision, he channeled his frustration into making a flier to be posted around campus about Donadio.
The professor profiles on Professor Watchlist -- which often lead to those professors getting bombarded with hate email -- tend to be splashy. So Smith says he modeled his flier after some of those profiles.
“This racist college professor thought it would be a great idea to help start a Tennessee Tech chapter for this national hate group, where racist students can unite to harass, threaten, intimidate and terrorize persons of color, feminists, liberals, and the like, especially their teachers,” the final flier said. “Their organization created a national ‘Professor Watchlist’ to harass and intimidate progressive educators, including many women, African-American and Muslim professors.”
The flier included a photo of Donadio from his Facebook page, in which he’s holding a gleaming sword and seated on a throne of knives that would probably look ominous to anyone not acquainted with the television show Game of Thrones (Donadio is a big fan of the series). Below the photo, additional large text reads, “Professor Donadio and Turning Point USA: You are on our list. Your hate and hypocrisy are not welcome at Tennessee Tech. No unity with racists. Hate speech is not free speech.”
Late the next day, a Friday, Gruber took some of fliers to the mostly empty nursing building. She says she put some down on tables in several locations and then headed to the gym. While she was on the treadmill, she said she started rethinking her decision -- not because she thought the flier was wrong but because she worried it might get her in undeserved trouble. Gruber says she's outspoken and that that’s attracted negative attention over the years. In one case, Gruber says, reporting that her students were complaining of headaches in her classroom due to a new cleaning product led to an eight-month investigation -- not into the product’s safety but into whether or not she’d violated student privacy laws by asking students certain health questions before coming forward. The student privacy violation allegation was eventually dropped, but Gruber says the investigation was uncomfortable and she was asked whether she'd ever talked negatively about the university.
Gruber says she returned to the nursing building to retrieve the fliers after her workout, but they’d already been seen by a staff member.
Smith also posted a flier elsewhere on campus.
Donadio says a staff member who saw Gruber called him to alert him, and that he immediately became concerned about the safety of the students in the Turning Point U.S.A. chapter. He also worried about his ability to teach his nursing students and treat patients alongside them after being labeled a racist. After consulting a supervisor for advice, he says, he reported the flier -- which he described as threatening -- to university police. Tennessee Tech soon began its investigation, which involved pulling campus security footage of Gruber and Smith posting the fliers.
The university accused the professors of violating a number of different policies before finding that they’d violated one regarding professional conduct.
The final investigative report is now with the provost, who will decide what kind of punishment the professors face, if any.
Differing Perspectives on What’s Really at Stake
Tennessee Tech declined comment on the case, citing employee privacy protections, other than to say it’s “currently following its personnel policy and procedures. No disciplinary action has been taken at this time.”
Donadio said Monday that he did clap after the mascot decision, both because he’d have to deal with the budget implications of any change -- estimated to be as much as $70,000 -- in his role as a county commissioner, and because he opposed shifting mascots on principle.
“I don't like changing things like that just because you have a small group of people who complain. I'm not a fan of that,” he said. Any committee charged with rethinking the Redskins name would have also drawn out the process, he said, as it’s hard enough for a group of people to “to agree on the flavor of orange juice.”
“I was very happy that elected people were making an elected-people decision.”
But is Donadio, who has also used social media to criticize college basketball players taking a knee over police violence, a racist? He said no, adding that he’d spent 24 years in the U.S. Navy and nearly a decade teaching without a single complaint against him of that nature.
“You know, it’s weird when you -- when someone calls you that name, racist,” he said. “The initial thing is to defend yourself, and I'm not playing that game, because I can't prove a negative. But I'm not gonna treat anybody any differently based on the amount of melanin that they have -- that's just born out of ignorance.”
As for Turning Point U.S.A., which has been accused of promoting white supremacist views, Donadio said he was contacted by the national group to advise a campus chapter due to his involvement with the local Republican Party. His interaction with the chapter is less “scout leader,” he said, than signing off on student requests to reserve a room for a meeting or a campus table for a membership drive. As for Professor Watchlist, Donadio said that students and parents should know what some professors are saying in the classroom.
“If I were in my classroom and I were saying horrible things about, about our president,” he said, “I would think that my students' parents have a right to know that, and publish it, especially if I said it in the classroom. There's nothing wrong with that. That's free speech, as well.”
To Donadio, the central issue in his own case is the First Amendment.
“Freedom of speech protects you from the government” when one's speech is legally protected, he said. “It doesn't protect you from the consequences if your speech is threatening or harassing to a coworker, or students, or other faculty and staff, and that is what was found to be the case by the university’s investigation.”
To Smith, a pastor and self-described “hippie,” the idea that his flier threatened Donadio or anyone else would be laughable if his job weren’t on the line. The flier text, including the notion that Donadio is on his “list,” was an obvious parody of Professor Watchlist, he said.
Smith also referenced a Turning Point U.S.A. invitation to a presidential candidate debate watch party in 2019 (before Donadio was a supervisor) that was shared with faculty, staff and students, which he said he found to be highly offensive. The ad refers to Democrats as “do-nothings” and features unflattering pictures of “Sleepy Joe” Biden, “Crazy Bernie” Sanders and Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren. The Warren image is altered so that she’s wearing a headdress and a quiver of arrows.
Both Smith and Gruber have asked Tennessee Tech to reconsider the finding against them. Smith is worried Tennessee Tech will try to remove his tenure. Gruber's not so sure.
Their attorney, Robert Bigelow, wrote in one missive to the university that both professors “openly welcome a healthy debate regarding Turning Point U.S.A., its campus leaders and its members. They invite Prof. Donadio and all members of Turning Point U.S.A. to denounce racism and institutional racism. They welcome a marketplace of ideas where members of Turning Point U.S.A. try to prove them wrong and perhaps even challenge the professors about their own beliefs.” Yet Gruber and Smith “must not be punished for espousing those protected beliefs in the first place.”
Smith said the issue is bigger than the flier, and that he’s been harassed by local community members since last year for his involvement in Black Lives Matter protests. He said he even lost his job as a pastor at a local church for that activism -- such is the environment for liberals in Cookeville and, more broadly, Tennessee.
Ironically, he said, Tennessee has some of the country’s strongest campus speech protections. They’re just not always applied fairly, he added.
Gruber agreed, saying she wished that Tennessee Tech took free speech as seriously as it apparently takes the Second Amendment: according to multiple local news reports, the university’s vice president for advancement fired a gun in his campus office last month, leaving a hole in the floor. The discharge was deemed accidental, as apparently the vice president, Kevin Braswell, put his gun on a table while working and put his finger too close to the trigger when he tried to holster it later. Braswell’s pants appeared to be “grazed,” as well, according to a police report. Braswell remains employed. The university said it was aware of the incident but declined to share any additional information.
In that context, and in general, Gruber said, it’s hard to stomach Donadio’s contention that calling him a racist puts his patients' lives at risk.
“I don’t think a flier can do that.”
Gruber’s email signature notes that she is writing from the “territories of the Yuchi, Cherokee or Aniyunwiya.” The Yuchi people gave the land the name Tanasi, the signature says, which is the origin of the word "Tennessee."
Admitting that her own parents have “begged her to shut up” regarding her advocacy, Gruber, who is from Austria, said, “I can't do that. I am who I am, and if I see something wrong, or if someone gets hurt, then I can’t.” So when Donadio cheered the failure of the mascot motion in front of her Native American friends, it triggered something in her.
“I just thought it was really chilling,” she said. Yet whatever happens with her own case, Gruber said she’s undeterred.
Change is a “marathon, not a sprint.”