The Thin Zoom Line

The story behind an adjunct's suspension at Cypress College leads to threats to the adjunct, colleagues and the campus itself. A debate about cancel culture that went viral ultimately raises questions about who's getting canceled.

 
May 10, 2021
 
YouTube
Faryha Salim, left, and Braden Ellis, right

Faculty members at Cypress College and across California’s North Orange Community College District are urging administrators to publicly support a Muslim professor targeted for how she interacted with a student.

The student, who is white, said police officers are heroes and the professor appeared to disagree. Their debate made national headlines after it was uploaded to the internet, apparently without the professor's consent.

“United Faculty stands in solidarity with all our faculty in protecting their academic freedom and the right to a safe work environment, free of hostility and threats to their physical safety and emotional well-being,” the district’s full-time faculty union said in a statement last week. “We request a strong and clear public statement in support of all faculty, and their right to a safe workspace and their ability to exercise their academic freedom.”

Most of all, the union said, “we request that the district clearly outline the meaningful steps they plan on taking to protect our members and support them.”

The Latino Faculty and Staff Association of the North Orange County Community College District said in a similar statement that it stands “in solidarity with all those in support of all our faculty and in protecting their academic freedom and right to feel they are in a safe work environment, free of hostility and threats to their emotional well-being and physical safety.”

Faryha Salim, the adjunct instructor of communication at the center of the controversy, said in her own statement that “the district has failed to protect me and allowed racialized and gendered attacks against me.”

Citing security threats linked to the incident in question, Cypress College suspended in-person classes last week. Other faculty members have reported being mistakenly identified as Salim through or on social media and subsequently being harassed or threatened, or both.

The college said Friday that “we have done the right thing for the right reasons. In this case, the right thing has been honoring the request of the faculty member in the video to protect her identity for her own safety. The decision to remove her from the classroom was done to protect her safety, maintain her confidentiality, and mitigate attacks from those who sought to threaten her as well as the students in her class.”

The district's part-time faculty union did not respond to a request for comment.

Debate Over Police

Salim gained notoriety late last month after a short clip of one her Zoom class sessions made its way to the internet. In the clip, Salim interrogates a student, Braden Ellis, who has just given an oral presentation on “cancel culture.”

Cancel culture is a form of ostracism that is often politically motivated, and which is sometimes less derisively referred to as accountability. Ellis argued that it’s bad for American culture. As part of his argument, he said that police officers, who have been at the center of the recent racial reckoning, are “heroes.”

“All of them?” Salim says in the video clip of her class.

“I'd say a good majority. You have bad people in every business,” Ellis responds.

Salim says, “Yet, a lot of police officers have committed an atrocious crime and have gotten away with it and have never been convicted of any of it.”

Ellis says, “This is what I believe. I do support our police. We have bad people, and the people that do bad things should be brought to justice. I agree with that.”

The exchange continues, with Salim saying she has family members who are police officers, and asking if police officers belong on TV shows for children, alongside other kind of heroes. She also argues that modern policing has its roots in groups who tracked down runaway enslaved persons in South.

Ellis asks who else there is to call in an emergency, such as when an armed intruder enters one’s home. Salim interrupts, saying she would not call the police in that scenario. “I don’t trust them,” she says.

The clip attracted click after click. Ellis was quickly invited on Fox News to talk about what he described as the “liberal agenda in college.” He said he believed that Salim was trying get a “gotcha moment out of me.” Nevertheless, he said, conservative students should respond to such interactions with “gentleness and respect.”

Cypress College did not name Salim in an initial statement about the incident, saying that a faculty member who had previously indicated she would not be returning to the college was on leave for the rest of the semester. Salim's statement does not address the circumstances of her leave.

“Cypress College takes great pride in fostering a learning environment for students where ideas and opinions are exchanged as a vital piece of the educational journey,” the statement said. “Our community fully embraces this culture; students often defend one another’s rights to express themselves freely, even when opinions differ. Any efforts to suppress free and respectful expression on our campus will not be tolerated.”

Threats, and a ‘Failure to Be Anti-Racist’

The college said it was reviewing the full recording of the exchange in question “and will address it fully in the coming days.”

Several days later, the college temporarily limited on-campus operations, citing a “threat directed at the campus community.” The college said its information technology department would continue to monitor “attempts to compromise our technology security.”

“Several emails, social media comments and other correspondence have been referred for examination throughout the week,” the college also said.

According to the union statement, several of Salim’s colleagues have been mistaken for her on or through social media and dealt with “very traumatic experiences involving racist and sexist attacks, a tarnishing of their reputation and sharing of their personal information.”

Underscoring these attacks and the suspension of on-campus classes, the union said the college district’s “poor handling” of the Salim case has had a “chilling effect that compromises academic freedom and the safety of our workplace. This is a direct result of the failure of NOCCCD to engage meaningfully and take a strong and clear stance to protect their employees.”

District faculty members of color or those belonging to other minority groups have been disproportionately affected, the union said, as they are “more likely to become targets of white supremacist organizations, news outlets, and individuals.” Ultimately, “the failure to issue a clear and strong statement of support for faculty under the existing circumstances is a failure to be anti-racist. It is a failure to protect our most vulnerable faculty.”

The Latino Faculty and Staff Association said it agreed that “We must be united and support one another if we are truly an anti-racist educational institution.”

Salim’s statement, which was read at a recent faculty meeting on her behalf and then posted to Facebook by a colleague, said “the narrative” thus far is that Ellis “was not allowed to talk.” In reality, she said, his speech “was 6:57 minutes of uninterrupted time. The virtual videos that have been shared show the end of a question-and-answer segment of our class.”

For context, Salim said that Ellis and other students had been “taught the skills to stand their ground, substantiate their claims with facts and citations, and maintain control of the floor against critics” over the course of the term. Even so, Salim said she circled back to Ellis at the end of the class to ask, “Was there anything that you want to share to get off your chest?”

She says he declined.

Who’s Getting Canceled?

“Now, let’s take a moment to frame what you saw for what it was: the tail end of a question-and-answer session taken out of context and distorted,” Salim said. “During his speech, Ellis made a series of seemingly unrelated claims that lacked proper support and evidence, which warranted questioning. Again, a skill we have worked on over the course of the semester. It is also important to point out that the video streaming was lagging and causing delays and some unintentional interruptions.”

Salim said that JoAnna Schilling, Cypress College’s president, “has advised me not to speak up. To wait until this storm passes. To the district, I will say, if we have a right to representation, you should have let me know. If academic freedom only belongs to one group, let me know. If our campus culture is based on performative inclusion, and performative diversity and equity, let me know. I am unapologetically Muslim and queer. Our class members knew this, it came up during our discussions, and now you know, too.”

Quoting Ellis, Salim also said that “Cancel culture is tearing apart our country.” Supporters of Salim have started a GoFundMe account, writing that “The student presented his opinion of police officers without acknowledgement of the context and the array of perspectives that it evokes -- 2021, amidst the largest mobilization in U.S. History against police brutality, specifically for its toll on Black lives. Then he decided to ‘cancel’ the professor for challenging his incomplete narrative.” (The account accuses Ellis of a flashing a white supremacist symbol in a photo. Ellis has denied this, saying that he was imitating a gesture commonly used by Donald Trump.)

Cypress College did not answer specific questions about what policies Salim had violated, if any. It did not share information about how or why the class clip was uploaded to the internet, though faculty members across the college district have publicly raised concerns about the fact that it was apparently uploaded without Salim’s consent.

The college said in an updated statement Friday that it “remains committed to protecting the individual rights of all those in a class video circulating in the media and acknowledges the importance of an objective review process that will help us understand the full context of this situation. We hope to bring closure to this matter in the weeks to come.”

Cypress “has supported and will continue to support the academic freedoms we know are essential in an institution of higher learning,” it also said. “Equally important is our mission to serve our students in a safe learning environment. Our faculty remain committed to a culture that fosters a free exchange of ideas in the classroom while supporting the educational needs of our students. We are proud to provide an inclusive and welcoming educational environment -- especially for those students whose only access to higher education is through the community colleges.”

 

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