Dismissal Following A Twitter Storm

BY FAWZIA AFZAL-KHAN

I had been elected in early May 2017 to the position of director of the Program in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Montclair State University NJ. after the previous director stepped down without completing her three-year term, and after someone else who was elected to succeed her also stepped down, within a week of her election, when her hope that the dean would restore some of the resources that had been cut over several years did not materialize.

I checked in at that point with our dean Rob Friedman via email from NYU in Abu Dhabi where I was doing a stint as a visiting professor, asking if he had anyone else in mind who might be willing to take on the job that he would like to work with, before I threw my name in the ring. I asked because I was reluctant to take on the job again since I had previously served two terms and done my service, and fully supported a change in its leadership. His response (in an email I saved) was “I’m happy to work with whoever the faculty elect.”  No one came forward as the fact is that the director’s job had become an onerous and thankless task, due to a continuous whittling away of resources over the previous eight years, during six of which I’d run the program very successfully, more than doubling its majors and minors despite lack of support. Reluctantly, I ran for (re) election, unopposed, as I was/am committed to seeing such an important social justice program flourish, especially in these difficult times. Despite growing the program from twenty-five majors when I took over in 2008, to fifty-five majors and forty minors when I stepped down in 2015,  I had been fighting continuously throughout my  tenure to retain the pitiful, minimal resources we did have, which included a part-time per diem program assistant, who worked twenty hours per week, as well as funds we had always had to pay for a year-long intensive speaker and events series which was a highlight for the program and a strong recruitment tool.

I had also in my past tenure lobbied yearly for a full-time instructional specialist line or its equivalent to help give some professional continuity to the program especially after we underwent a major curriculum overhaul and began to integrate sexuality studies and a professional development sequence neither of which could really develop without additional help. To date, such basic help has been denied us and the minute I stepped down as director in 2015, the dean’s office took away even our part-time program assistant position. No wonder the program has been flailing ever since and my successor decided to step down without even completing her full term. Unsurprising that the associate professor we persuaded to run for the position also decided to quit even before she started!

I took on the position again only because I know and have personally recruited many of our majors and minors who are now seniors and who are desperately in need of a strong leader/role model at the helm of their program who will fight for them and help them graduate with pride. I also am deeply committed to the social justice ideology of this program, which is essential to challenge the forces of regression that are hellbent on ruining this country at this time. And I had hoped to keep pressuring the administration as director again to give back some of the resources they’d taken away from us and then some.

Accordingly, I started working to put the program into gear over the summer, even though I wasn’t being paid for this work. I attended chairs’ meetings called by the dean, lobbied him for support (succeeded in getting a promise for speaker funding for the year), lobbied the provost (he promised to seriously consider giving us a full time line next year), worked on updating program brochures, updating our website, training the sociology department secretary to help out a little with our clerical needs, answered student queries, attended summer open houses, worked with the alumni office to invite alumni to homecoming weekend, invited a fall speaker from the International Labor Federation in DC, interviewed potential new adjuncts when several regulars suddenly announced their departure in July, etc., etc.

Then one of the adjuncts who had been hired by my predecessor, Kevin Allred, tweeted about how President Trump was an ” f….g joke” and “why doesn’t someone shoot him already” and right wing bloggers took to social media immediately, splashing this news item and expressing their outrage.

Subsequently, I was told by my dean  that I had to step down because university president Susan Cole had “decreed” it be so—even though everyone knew I personally had had nothing to do with hiring him.

My “firing” from the job of director of GSWS occurred right after the administration received threatening emails from the likes of James Merse of the Daily Caller, which he also copied me on. He is an Islamophobe as his writings attest. For example, check this out.

I strongly believe that,  as is occurring all over the country at other universities, I was dismissed from a leadership position to appease these right wing groups/possible donors in order to “contain” the PR damage to the university caused by the hiring and subsequent firing of Allred.

I also think that this incident and its fallout gave the administration a perfect excuse to try and silence me/reduce my public presence/profile on MSU’s GSWS website—as a Muslim progressive woman of color, a challenging voice to Islamophobes and racists of all stripes—and at the same time continue in their aim to weaken and defang a program that poses any sort of challenge to the status quo, that produces thinking students and activist citizens rather than “clients” of a corporation, which is what the neoliberal university has become in our times.

Here is an article published by a journalist about my case.

And here is the article the Chronicle of Higher Education published in August when the story broke.

Here is something I published about it.

That such treatment can be meted out to a senior distinguished tenured faculty member, should disturb us all as it raises serious questions about the precarious situation of untenured junior, and especially adjunct, faculty.

We need to build resistance and solidarity to counter such anti-democratic moves by university administrators.

Guest blogger Fawzia Afzal-Khan is a professor of English and a university distinguished scholar at Montclair State University. 

 


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