‘What Cannot Be Tolerated’

Syracuse University offers full-throated defense for a professor targeted for her views about Sept. 11, prompting other academics to wonder why more institutions don’t defend even divisive scholars in this way.

 
September 14, 2021
 
Jenn Jackson
Jenn Jackson

Syracuse University on Monday rejected demands that it fire a scholar who made controversial comments about the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The university also condemned ongoing personal attacks against the scholar, Jenn Jackson, an assistant professor of political science.

“Recently, one of our professors shared thoughts on 9/11 on social media,” Kent Syverud, chancellor, and David Van Slyke, dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said in a joint statement. “These comments have been the subject of much scrutiny and vehement disagreement by critics. That is their right, just as our professor has the right to free speech, however uncomfortable it may make anyone feel.”

The statement continues, “What cannot be tolerated are the harassment and violent threats that we have seen in response that have been directed at this professor. Our Department of Public Safety is in contact with the professor and has engaged the support of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.”

In addition to threats, some have asked the university to condemn Jackson’s comments and others have demanded her dismissal, Syverud and Van Slyke wrote, without naming Jackson directly. “Neither of those actions will happen. As the home of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, free speech for all people across the political spectrum, within the limits of the law and the university’s anti-harassment policy, is one of our key values.”

On Friday, Jackson, who is Black, wrote on Twitter that she was “still really disturbed by how many white pundits and correspondents talk about [Sept. 11],” specifically the idea that it was the “first time that Americans ever felt fear.”

While white Americans “might not have truly felt fear before 9/11 because they never felt what it meant to be accessible, vulnerable, and on the receiving end of military violence at home,” Jackson said, “plenty of us Americans know what it’s like to experience fear and we knew before 9/11.”

In separate tweet, Jackson described the Sept. 11 attacks as targeting the “heteropatriarchal capitalist systems America relies upon to wrangle other countries into passivity. It was an attack on the systems many white Americans fight to protect.”

Fox News and several other outlets soon published stories about Jackson’s tweets.

‘Solidarity Is an Action Verb’

Jackson, who could not immediately be reached for comment, said on Twitter Monday, “Solidarity is an action verb. I’m hella proud of my colleagues and university for understanding that.”

Jackson wasn’t the only person to praise Syracuse’s statement, which was unusually unequivocal and prompt for a response to public anger about a scholar’s comments; more typically, colleges and universities distance themselves from professors’ contentious comments or say nothing at all.

Seth Jolly, an associate professor of political science at Syracuse, was among numerous scholars from that campus to express support for Jackson and the university’s response. “Solidarity with my colleague,” Jolly wrote on Twitter. “I’m proud of my university for standing up for their rights to free speech and academic freedom.” Shana Gadarian, another professor of political science at Syracuse tweeted, “Free speech and academic freedom are the hallmarks of university life. Threat of violence have no place in debate. Counter ideas with other ideas. Thank you to our chancellor, provost, and dean for making a public stance for our colleague and these principles.”

Support for Jackson and Syracuse flowed from other colleges and universities, too. In one example, Kenneth Mayer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said, “Universities should stand up for and defend free speech and academic freedom, and do it publicly. I disagree with Professor Jackson’s views, but -- and I can’t state this strongly enough -- that is irrelevant to my position that she must have the freedom to state those views without intimidation or reprisal. Syracuse got it right.”

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This is not the first time that Syracuse has defended a professor targeted for making controversial statements on social media. In 2017, Dana Cloud, a professor of communication and rhetorical studies, faced online harassment and threats of violence after she publicly opposed an “anti-Sharia law” rally in downtown Syracuse, N.Y., on the grounds that it was using the false threat of life under Sharia law in the U.S. to drum up general anti-Muslim sentiment. Cloud, who participated in a counterdemonstration, on Twitter called on others to join her when the original crowd began to disperse, tweeting, “We almost have the fascists in on the run. Syracuse people come down to the federal building to finish them off.”

Campus Reform, a website that describes itself as a “conservative watchdog” for U.S. higher education, later published an article about Cloud’s tweet, alleging that “finish them off” was a “veiled call for violence” against the protesters. Syracuse said in an initial statement that it “condemns, unequivocally, any threats directed” at Cloud, and said her words were not meant to incite violence. In a separate statement, Syverud said he’d received messages insisting that he “denounce, censor or dismiss” Cloud for her speech, and that his answer was “No. We are and will remain a university. Free speech is and will remain one of our key values. I can’t imagine academic freedom or the genuine search for truth thriving here without free speech.”

He continued, “Our faculty must be able to say and write things -- including things that provoke some or make others uncomfortable -- up to the very limits of the law. The statement at issue is, I believe, within those limits. I intend to act accordingly.”

Melissa Michelson, dean of arts and sciences and a professor of political science at Menlo College, said she’s been in academe long enough to have received nasty letters “on pieces of paper” from people who disagreed with her public comments. Now she gets them via email. And over the decades and institutions, she said, she’s had bosses and colleagues offer quiet shows of support when her thoughts have proved controversial. But strong public statements, such as what Syracuse offered Jackson, mean much more to scholars, she said.

“That sort of public support not only reassures them that their job is not in jeopardy, but that the university supports them, that the university understands that this is part of academic freedom,” Michelson said. “What Syracuse did is take this to a whole other level, really signaling to the public that you can’t do this, you cannot silence our faculty. They have a right to be heard and it doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree -- you can’t silence people.”

In today’s “very polarized political environment,” Michelson added, “that’s a brave thing for an administration to do and so I think that’s why so many folks are applauding it.”

Michelson said there are also implications for equity, diversity and inclusion in how institutions to respond, as historically excluded scholars may be most at risk of facing backlash for their views.

Jackson, who identifies as queer and genderflux, “teaches about race and she teaches about gender and she’s talking about fairly controversial topics,” Michelson said. “And those things tend to get people pretty riled up -- it’s not just teaching about the institutions of the federal government or case law.”

It’s a “reality that people who are members of historically excluded groups -- whether that is people who are LGBTQ teaching LGBTQ issues, or people who are Black teaching Black politics -- are teaching these controversial topics more often,” Michelson continued. As a result, “it’s people who are people of color and or LGBTQ who are more likely to face this kind of backlash and need the support. So it’s also a very racialized, gendered issue in terms of who is the university protecting.”

In some cases, colleges’ or universities’ responses to similar controversies have caused scholars in the middle to leave their institutions. Tommy Curry, a Black philosopher who faced death threats for his comments about race and the Second Amendment, for instance, left Texas A&M University for the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2019. Texas A&M initially called his comments "disturbing."

Hakeem Jefferson, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, recently caught the attention of Professor Watchlist, whose aim is similar to Campus Reform’s, for his public comments about politics and race, including the link between whiteness and the Jan. 6 insurrection. He’s since received threats and hate mail, some of which he shared with Inside Higher Ed. One such email refers to Jefferson, who is Black, with the N-word no fewer than nine times. Others are full of racist, anti-Black tropes but call Jefferson a racist. One suggests he should be fired. Another describes violence. Some are sexually explicit.

Jefferson said he’s gotten supportive emails from his dean and chair. He’s called on Stanford to publicly denounce these statements, but thus far, he said, to his knowledge, it has not. Regarding Jackson and Syracuse, Jefferson tweeted, "This is how universities, including @Stanford, should respond when faculty receive vitriolic and threatening messages in response to their public comments. Syracuse should be proud of this leadership. And, it goes without saying, I stand in solidarity" with Jackson.

Dee Mostofi, a Stanford spokesperson, said that university leaders have on multiple occasions affirmed the institution's commitment to academic freedom, particularly "when free expression is used to suppress and silence debate, intellectual curiosity and individual opinions. We have made clear that there is no place at Stanford for expressions of hatred, retaliation, or online harassment."

 

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