The Mess at Oberlin

POSTED BY HENRY REICHMAN

The following piece by Steve Lubet, Williams Memorial Professor of Law at Northwestern University, was posted originally on The Faculty Lounge.  It is reposted with his permission.

The Mess at Oberlin

Oberlin College just announced that Professor Joy Karega will be suspended with pay for the coming semester, pending the result of a “faculty governance” review of her “professional fitness” that was initiated at the instance of the board of trustees.  Karega, it will be remembered, became notorious last February when it was discovered that she had posted several undeniably anti-Semitic comments on her Facebook page.  Among other things, she claimed that ISIS was a “CIA and Mossad operation,” and that Israel had been responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines flight 17, as well as the Charlie Hebdo murders.  And lest there be any doubt that her conspiracy theories were motivated by long-standing anti-Jewish memes, she included a leering image of Jacob Rothschild, with accompanying text (capital letters original) that could have been lifted straight from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or Stormfront:

MY NAME IS JACOB ROTHSCHILD

MY FAMILY IS WORTH 500 TRILLION DOLLARS

WE OWN NEARLY EVERY CENTRAL BANK IN THE WORLD

WE FINANCED BOTH SIDES OF EVERY WAR SINCE NAPOLEON

WE OWN YOUR NEWS, THE MEDIA, YOUR OIL, AND YOUR GOVERNMENT

Oberlin’s president Marvin Krislov initially responded by invoking Karega’s academic freedom, while later adding that as “a practicing Jew” he was deeply hurt by Karega’s statements.  It was several weeks later that the trustees instructed Krislov to begin a process that could “challenge the assertion that there is any justification for these repugnant postings and report back to the college.”

Since then, a majority of Oberlin’s faculty signed a statement condemning Karega’s anti-Jewish posts, and saying that her statements had sullied “the values of equality and mutual support that are embedded in our institutional DNA.”

Karega also has her defenders on the Oberlin faculty, some of whom stated that she was being scapegoated “for what we have been led to believe is a more general concern about anti-Semitism at Oberlin.”

In many ways, I found the defense of Karega to be more troubling than her posts.  Not that I would dismiss her hostile anti-Semitism, but it is of the looney variety that most college students would not take too seriously.  On the other hand, several of her otherwise thoughtful colleagues – evidently her friends – have utterly failed to understand the poisonous nature of anti-Jewish bigotry.  Here is an example from the Facebook page of one Oberlin professor, who thinks that his students should give serious consideration to Karega’s anti-Jewish slanders, apparently because they might be “proved revolutionary.”

As a teacher, I always caution my students from too quickly dismissing any perspective as “unthinkable” or “unspeakable” – no matter how harmful, because we do not have the ability to determine the convictions of others that we will encounter in this life. . . .  Some ideas are big, some are small. Some ideas are progressive, others are regressive. . . .  Some ideas I thought were revolutionary, I later found ridiculous.  And some I thought ridiculous, later proved revolutionary.

Karega’s lawyer accused Oberlin’s administration of “pandering to the dictates of a handful of vocal and wealthy religious zealots,” perhaps on the theory that only zealots of a certain sort would object to allegations that Jews control banks, governments, and the media.  (And of course, they are all “wealthy.”)

Yet for all of that, I think that suspending Karega is wrong, or at least ill-advised, for these reasons:

First, Oberlin should allow the faculty governance process to reach a conclusion before taking action.  Interim suspension is a drastic measure, usually undertaken only when the professor presents an imminent danger to the community.  Karega’s Facebook posts are several years old, and it seems that she taught without incident since they were posted.  Thus, it is hard to conclude that she presents any immediate threat by teaching next semester.

Second, I am wary of disciplining any professor for extra-academic writing or social media posts, no matter how obnoxious, so long as they are not reflected in her teaching or interactions with students.  I work at a university where Arthur Butz – one of the nation’s premier Holocaust deniers – has been teaching electrical engineering for decades.  As far as anyone can tell, he respects the line between his deeply offensive prejudices, which he does not express on campus, and his teaching assignments. Perhaps Karega could do the same (although perhaps not).

In Karega’s case, however, this is a closer question.  Although an anti-Semite can teach electrical engineering without incident, Karega is a professor of “social justice writing.”  Thus, her bigoted and stereotyped views relate directly to her academic field.  Just as a geocentrist could not teach astronomy, it is questionable whether an anti-Jewish bigot and conspiracy theorist can capably teach about social justice.

Ultimately, however, my conclusion is that academic discipline should be reserved for academic misconduct.  Suspending or firing Karega will be read by some as persecution, thus making it even harder to convince her friends and supporters that anti-Semitism is indeed “unspeakable” and not “revolutionary.”

5 thoughts on “The Mess at Oberlin

  1. I agree. I am Jewish, hence, personally aggrieved, quite substantially, by these postings. But while there arguably is sufficient connection between her extramural postings and her discipline to call her professional expertise into question, that is a matter solely for her colleagues to judge, according to proper university process; and there is no possible reason to engage in emergency measures such as suspension before a finding from that university process.

    On the other hand: Were I made aware of a candidate for my department having such postings, even though there is zero contact with my department’s discipline (mathematics), I would consider this grounds to vote and speak against the candidate. I’m not clear on how to reconcile these two reactions; I don’t want to think it’s solely the difference between advocating someone else maintain such a person around while not wanting that kind of presence in my own backyard. I think, rather, it’s the difference between welcoming someone into the department, as the most desired among all competitors, versus kicking someone out after having previously accepted the person. I believe that to be a just distinction; but it is perhaps a fine one.

  2. Just a point of clarification: At what point does the faculty effectively abandon their responsibility to do a faculty-led review of conduct? Is there an (informal) AAUP policy that would state at what point the faculty had ceded responsibility to the administration? Six months to a layman would seem like a lot of time, but with the timing of the incident midway through the spring semester and the lack of shared governance meetings on many campuses in the summer, this might even be called rushing the faculty.

  3. Pingback: 8/12/16 Media Coverage – Our University Project

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