Drexel University issued a statement on Christmas Day condemning a tweet sent by one of its professors on Christmas Eve that said, "All I want for Christmas is white genocide."
The tweet went quickly viral on Saturday, Dec. 24, with conservative websites and many individuals condemning the tweet by George Ciccariello-Maher, associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel.
But others on social media have said that Ciccariello-Maher -- who offers radical critiques of American society and global politics -- was making a political point and was not in fact calling for mass killings of anyone. Ciccariello-Maher has also written of white genocide as a fiction, as something that white nationalists imagine and promote as a real threat in the United States, when it is not in fact a threat.
More than 3,500 people -- including many scholars -- have signed a petition  backing Ciccariello-Maher and calling on Drexel to defend him. "Preserve academic freedom (and wit and intelligence and anti-racism) in this nasty new era of living in the United States of internet trolls," the petition says. "Support George. Let Drexel know -- in the midst of the deafening, organized troll storm -- that racist trolls deserve no platform in dictating academic discourse, let alone the off-duty tweets of academics. They are being very noisy; we can't be silent."
Since the controversy broke, Ciccariello-Maher has made his Twitter feed private, so the tweets are no longer visible, although screen captures are circulating widely.
Drexel's statement , in full, is the following: "Drexel became aware today of Associate Professor George Ciccariello-Maher's inflammatory tweet, which was posted on his personal Twitter account on Dec. 24, 2016. While the university recognizes the right of its faculty to freely express their thoughts and opinions in public debate, Professor Ciccariello-Maher's comments are utterly reprehensible, deeply disturbing and do not in any way reflect the values of the university. The university is taking this situation very seriously. We contacted Ciccariello-Maher today to arrange a meeting to discuss this matter in detail."
Via email, Ciccariello-Maher answered questions about his tweet, which he said was meant to mock the idea of white genocide,
"On Christmas Eve, I sent a satirical tweet about an imaginary concept, 'white genocide.' For those who haven't bothered to do their research, 'white genocide' is an idea invented by white supremacists and used to denounce everything from interracial relationships to multicultural policies (and, most recently, against a tweet by State Farm Insurance ). It is a figment of the racist imagination, it should be mocked, and I'm glad to have mocked it," Ciccariello-Maher wrote. "What I am not glad about is that this satirical tweet became fodder for online white supremacists to systematically harass me and my employer, Drexel University. Beginning with Breitbart.com  … and running through the depths of Reddit discussion boards, a coordinated smear campaign was orchestrated to send mass tweets and emails to myself, my employer and my colleagues. I have received hundreds of death threats."
As for Drexel's statement, he said, "While Drexel has been nothing but supportive in the past, this statement is worrying. While upholding my right to free expression, the statement refers to my (satirical) tweets as 'utterly reprehensible.' What is most unfortunate is that this statement amounts to caving to the truly reprehensible movements and organizations that I was critiquing. On the university level, moreover, this statement -- despite a tepid defense of free speech -- sends a chilling message and sets a frightening precedent. It exposes untenured and temporary faculty not only to internal disciplinary scrutiny, but equally importantly, it encourages harassment as an effective means to impact university policies."
He added, "White supremacy is on the rise, and we must fight it by any means. In that fight, universities will need to choose whether they are on the side of free expression and academic debate, or on the side of the racist mob."
The controversy over Ciccariello-Maher's tweet follows several others  in which academics have made comments on social media that were understandable to those in their academic and social circles but that became highly controversial when shared widely.