Trinity AAUP Statement on the Decision to Place Professor Johnny Williams on Leave

The following statement on the suspension of Professor Johnny Williams was issued by the Executive Committee of the Trinity College AAUP chapter.  This morning Inside Higher Ed reports that “Williams said he was told by a dean that he was taking leave whether he wanted to or not, and that Trinity made its decision in ‘the best interest of the college, not for my family and me.’ It’s ‘not in the interest of safeguarding academic freedom and free speech,’ he added. ‘It is my hope the administration corrects its course’.’”

In response to the College administration’s decision to place professor Johnny Williams on leave, we as the Executive Committee of Trinity College’s AAUP chapter think it important to express publicly the following concerns. We appreciate that the attack on Johnny happened very rapidly, and that the administration had to respond quickly, under threat, and with limited information. We also appreciate that the administration is accountable to a number of different constituencies, including trustees, donors, alumni, students, parents, and the general public.

However, 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 Professor Williams in the face of such attacks.

We are also troubled by the fact that the email sent out by President Berger-Sweeney on Wednesday, June 21 was worded in ways that seemed to confirm the validity of the Campus Reform allegations. The relative public silence since, including from the Dean of Faculty, has been disquieting.

In stark contrast to the administration’s response, Professor Williams has thus far received overwhelming support from the academic community. A petition in support of Professor Williams gathered over 2300 signatures in four days. An open letter of support from the Trinity community received over 650 signatures in two days. These numbers continue to grow. The American Sociological Association issued a statement on June 22nd affirming that “the ability to inject controversial ideas into this forum is paramount to a better understanding of our society and essential to ensuring a robust exchange of ideas on college campuses” and that “threatening the life of those whose rhetoric we oppose undermines the robust and democratic exchange of ideas.” We agree, and we are frankly appalled that our own administration has so far been unwilling to make a similarly clear statement endorsing the principles that are so necessary for conducting our work and lives safely and without threat of reprisal.

We believe that the decision to put Professor Williams on leave should not be made out of institutional expediency but rather by those directly under threat: that is, by Professor Williams and his family. 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.

We are particularly concerned about the implications that this decision has for issues of academic freedom and scholarly inquiry on campus, and the precedent that it sets. We have significant doubts about whether this decision is consistent with the College’s rightful and laudable attempts to build a diverse and critically engaged academic community. In conversations we have had among the faculty a common theme is: “If the administration is not going to stand up for Johnny Williams despite his international stature as a first-rate scholar on issues of race and society, who are they going to stand up for?” In these situations, we expect nothing less than a full-throated endorsement of academic freedom. We expect that the administration’s first impulse should be to protect and affirm the College’s faculty, rather than encourage the inaccurate and damaging interpretation of Professor Williams’ comments and to allow these attacks on academic freedom and personal safety to go unchallenged.

We are concerned now not only about the situation involving Professor Williams and his family, but also about the College’s ability to create a safe and protected environment for all of us — students, faculty, and staff alike — who engage with issues that are socially and politically controversial, including but not limited to issues of race. Professor 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 Professor 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.

We are concerned about the College’s tacit capitulation to a nationwide trend of attacking other scholars, such as George Ciccariello-Maher, Steven Salaita, Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, Lisa Durden, Dana Cloud, Sarah E. Bond, Tommy Curry, and earlier Saida Grundy who also work on critically important and politically sensitive issues. Scholars of color and those opposing racism and sexism have increasingly been targeted. As African American Studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote, after she was forced to end a national speaking tour following a similar campaign of conservative vitriol, “The threat of violence, whether it is implied or acted on, is intended to intimidate and to silence.” Accordingly, we cannot continue to respond to the hate directed towards Johnny Williams or any similar incidents as if they were singular and disconnected. When George Ciccariello-Maher was condemned by Drexel University after his tweets were taken out of context, The Daily Stormer, an anti-Semitic website, proudly declared, “This is what winning looks like.” We fear that by placing Professor Williams on leave the Trinity administration becomes complicit in encouraging further attacks of this sort.

Other institutions have done a far job better in protecting the academic freedom of their scholars than the current administration of Trinity College. For example, Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud responded to similar intimidation tactics against Prof. Dana Cloud writing, “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.”

The Trinity College administration would be wise to consider how a failure to boldly defend academic freedom might affect the College’s ability to attract and retain scholars who work on controversial issues, our reputation as a liberal arts college that encourages independent thought, and in attracting students who are interested in learning about these issues.

It is also deeply troubled that the administration’s response appears to be inconsistent with our own faculty manual, which is grounded in AAUP principles. Appendix B of that manual states that faculty members are citizens as well as professionals, and that “when he/she speaks or writes as a citizen, he/she should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” Yet it appears that our administration has clearly violated this policy: they have subjected Professor Williams to institutional discipline for speaking and writing as a citizen. Worse still, this clear violation significantly undermines our trust in the administration’s capacity to act in accordance with the policies and procedures detailed in the manual.

We demand that this administration reverse course and immediately issue: a public apology to Johnny Williams; a denouncement of the attacks against him; and offer an unequivocal endorsement of academic freedom. We also demand that the administration begin working with faculty governance committees and the AAUP to put policies in place that protect faculty from such attacks in the future.

–Executive Committee, Trinity College’s Chapter of the AAUP

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6 thoughts on “Trinity AAUP Statement on the Decision to Place Professor Johnny Williams on Leave

  1. This is our humble submission for peaceful and realistic solution to respect and love all of respected AAUP-USA and his/her professors/members .
    We wish the properties of respected professor Sirs/Mams at present and future success in their teaching profession and in social life.We also wish the development of respected AAUP-USA.
    With kind regards.
    Muhammad Arif Rana.
    Manikgonj-Bangladesh.
    Saturday. July 01,2017.
    07:35 pm.

  2. So disappointing! I can’t believe the administration took this route!! I stand with Proffesor Williams and his right to comment/critique on any issue!

  3. This is an alarming situation to suppress the freedom of speech by a professor of color. The person should be protected instead of placing him on leave.

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