Trinity Places Williams on Leave; Fails to Defend Academic Freedom

BY HANK REICHMAN

The shocking story of Trinity College professor Johnny Williams, target of racist harassment and death threats that led to a one-day shutdown of Trinity College, has taken another ominous turn.  Today Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney issued the following statement:

June 26, 2017

To the Members of the Trinity Community,

As a follow-up to my note from last week, I write to inform you that Professor Johnny Williams has been placed on leave, effectively immediately. We’ve determined that a leave is in the best interest of both Professor Williams and the college. The review by the Dean of the Faculty of the events concerning Professor Williams will continue.

Meanwhile, I want to take care to note that the principles that underlie this particular set of events go far beyond the actions of any one person. These involve principles that concern how we think about academic freedom and freedom of speech, as well as the responsibilities that come with those fundamental values. It’s true, too, that as scholars and citizens, and as individuals and as a community of higher learning, our roles in and relationship to social media and the public sphere are complicated. We must be able to engage in conversations about these difficult and complex issues, and Trinity College and other places like it are precisely where such conversations should occur. I, for one, welcome them.

Sincerely,

Joanne Berger-Sweeney

It is, of course, possible that Professor Williams agreed voluntarily to this leave or may even have requested it in order to protect himself and his family.  He has, after all, been in hiding out of state since the threats against him accelerated earlier this week.  But were that the case, at minimum, one would assume that this would be a leave with full pay and publicly acknowledged as mutually agreed upon.

Moreover, under AAUP standards, a faculty member should be suspended prior to a faculty hearing “only if immediate harm to the faculty member or others is threatened by continuance.”  Further, the AAUP says the administration should consult with a faculty committee “concerning the propriety, the length, and the other conditions of the suspension.”  However, the statement makes no indication that anything like this was done, suggesting that this “leave” is probably involuntary and that it is possible Professor Williams has been suspended without pay or due process.  The statement offers little clarification on what actions the college now plans to take other than to promise a “review” by the dean.  One can only hope that the college’s policies and procedures afford Professor Williams appropriate due process protections and that these will be followed.

Nonetheless, by placing Professor Williams on leave while at the same time failing to publicly defend — even minimally — his rights to freedom of expression and academic freedom, the statement suggests that Trinity’s president is abdicating her moral authority as an academic leader.  The second paragraph of the statement is — as I’m certain most readers of this blog will agree — one of the most astonishing examples of meaningless mealy-mouthed double-talk ever to come from the pen of a college president — and that’s a pretty high bar!   It sadly speaks volumes for itself.  I might also add that Trinity has yet to publicly reject — or even respond to — the highly inappropriate calls by Connecticut state legislative leaders for Williams’ summary dismissal.

Contrast Berger-Sweeney’s flabby message to the strong response this week of Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud to demands that his university fire Professor Dana Cloud for her controversial tweet.  I haven’t been able yet to access the full text of Syverud’s statement, but here is how it has been reported:

Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud had an abrupt response for anyone calling him to fire a vocal, radically liberal professor:

“No,” Syverud wrote in an email to the campus community last week. . . .

Syverud said in his statement that he had recieved messages calling for Cloud to be fired or disciplined from people who interpreted her comments to involve violence.

He said she and the university rejected this interpretation.

“They insist that the University — and that I — denounce, censor, or dismiss the professor for her speech,” Syverud said, refusing to concede.

“I can’t imagine academic freedom or the genuine search for truth thriving here without free speech,” Syverud wrote. “Our faculty must be able to say and write things — including things that provoke some or make other uncomfortable — up to the very limits of the law.”

The two cases are eerily similar.  In Williams’ case he was accused of making racially inflammatory remarks on a Facebook post by employing a hashtag that implied victims of the recent shooting of Republican congressional figures should have been left to die.  Williams, however, made no specific reference to that incident but instead called attention to a fatal police shooting of a black woman in Seattle as exemplary of white supremacy.  Williams later apologized publicly for his use of the hashtag, however.  In Cloud’s case she was among counter-demonstrators at a “March Against Sharia” rally, where she tweeted that the counter-demonstrators were outnumbering the “fascists” and called on reinforcements “to finish them off.”  Both posts could, perhaps, be construed as calls to violence, although neither had anything remotely like that effect.  But in both instances right-wing online media soon pounced on them and, as has become all too common, vile threats and harassment — using language that could ONLY be construed as promoting violence — ensued.

In addition to the fact that Williams apologized for his post while, to my knowledge, Cloud did not, the only real difference between these incidents is that Cloud’s chancellor demonstrated principles and a spine and, well, one can only wonder about Trinity’s president.

A petition in support of Professor Williams is being circulated online; you can sign it here.  In addition, I urge people to write President Berger-Sweeney directly to demand that she explicitly defend Johnny Williams’s academic freedom and that of the Trinity faculty as a whole and that she rescind any and all disciplinary actions against him.  She may be reached at joanne.bergersweeney@trincoll.edu or on Twitter at @JBergerSweeney.

And if you haven’t already done so, please sign the AAUP’s petition against targeted threats and harassment.

4 thoughts on “Trinity Places Williams on Leave; Fails to Defend Academic Freedom

  1. FYI, full statement of the Chancellor at Syracuse:
    Dear Students, Faculty and Staff:

    Recently, a professor at Syracuse University issued a short statement via social media during a demonstration in the city. The statement is susceptible to multiple interpretations. Some have urged that, because their interpretations involve violence (interpretations the professor rejects), our University must discipline the professor.

    I have received messages to this effect, some of which are hard to interpret in any way other than to encourage violence. They insist that the University—and that I—denounce, censor, or dismiss the professor for her speech.

    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. 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.

    Sincerely,

    Chancellor Kent Syverud

  2. Pingback: Trinity AAUP Statement on the Decision to Place Professor Johnny Williams on Leave | ACADEME BLOG

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