More Support for Trinity Professor Put on Leave

June 28, 2017

Faculty members continue to defend Johnny Eric Williams after his suspension from Trinity College in Connecticut over racially charged remarks he made on social media. The American Association of University Professors on Tuesday sent a letter to Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Trinity’s president, urging Williams’s “immediate reinstatement to his normal faculty duties” and that any further personnel action be consistent with widely accepted procedural standards.

The AAUP regards suspension from one’s normal duties as a serious sanction that should only be imposed after a hearing before a faculty body. No such hearing was held in Williams’s case. “We must stress that the AAUP has long held that academic freedom includes ‘the freedom to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic or other interest, without institutional discipline or restraint, save in response to fundamental violations of professional ethics or statements that suggest disciplinary incompetence,’” its letter says, citing association policy. “We are concerned that the actions taken by the administration may have violated [Williams’s] academic freedom.”

The message also sheds light on how Trinity communicated the personnel action to Williams, who has since reached out to AAUP for help: Timothy Cresswell, dean of the faculty, allegedly left a voice mail message over the weekend saying Williams was on a leave of absence, effective immediately. Cresswell also previously asked Williams to take a voluntary leave until January, which he declined, according to the AAUP.

The Executive Committee of the Trinity campus chapter of the AAUP released a similar statement in support of Williams, saying, “We are still troubled that, after a tenured black professor received death threats in response to speaking out against white supremacy on a personal social media page, the administration’s default response was to lend credence to a politically motivated attack specifically designed to stifle critical engagement with issues of race. The other choice would have been to strongly support [Williams] in the face of such attacks.”

The decision to put Williams on leave “should not be made out of institutional expediency but rather by those directly under threat: that is, by [Williams] and his family,” the committee said. “Moreover, we are not convinced that this decision is in the best interest of the campus community. Insofar as the administration is genuinely concerned about protecting the community, we urge them to join us in our fight to protect scholars who engage with issues of race, and to dismantle the institutional structures that make such difficult and uncomfortable conversations necessary.”

Expressing concern for the “precedent” a forced leave sets for free inquiry and academic freedom on campus, the chapter letter notes that Williams “made his comments on a personal social media page, which he has every right to do under the First Amendment. As such, we do not see how this administration manages to reach the conclusion that this is germane to his ability to effectively do his job (which should be the only grounds for forced leaves, suspensions, terminations and the like). But, like [Williams], many of us engage in productive scholarship that grapples with these important and politically sensitive issues, in the classroom, the broader academic community, and in our personal and social spheres of influence. We do it, in part, because we have been -- up to now -- reasonably sure that our administration would protect us under the auspices of academic freedom if necessary. It is difficult to see how we can maintain that confidence in light of recent events.”

A spokesperson for Trinity declined comment Tuesday, saying that she couldn’t provide additional information about a personnel action.

Trinity announced Monday that Williams was put on paid leave over comments he made on Facebook, which some have argued advocate violence against white people. Williams has since apologized and said the remarks were taken out of context in reports on right-wing websites. Williams received physical threats over his comments, and Trinity shut down for a day last week to investigate them. Williams told Inside Higher Ed earlier this week that he was “heartbroken” over the college’s action against him.

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