BY JOHN K. WILSON
On Friday, Rutgers University demoted professor Michael Chikindas, banned him from teaching any required classes, and announced they would seek to suspend him for a semester, all because of his anti-Semitic comments on his personal social media.
Based on his posts, I think Chikindas is an anti-Semite, and an idiot. Nevertheless, he should not be punished for his extramural comments. The explanation is pretty simple: Rutgers’ rules explicitly prohibit this, and those rules exist for a good reason. If we allow personal opinions to be the basis of penalties, almost any controversial professor could be punished.
The Rutgers policy on Academic Freedom explicitly prohibits punishing anyone for extramural utterances. Rutgers’ protections for extramural utterances are even stronger than the AAUP’s policies. According to Rutgers, “Outside the fields of instruction, artistic expression, research, professional and clinical practice, and professional publication, faculty members, as private citizens, enjoy the same freedoms of speech and expression as any private citizen and shall be free from institutional discipline in the exercise of these rights. The conduct of the faculty member shall be in accordance with standards dictated by law.”
Unlike the AAUP (which allows for extramural utterances to be punished in rare cases where it “clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position”), Rutgers allows for no exceptions, unless perhaps if a professor has violated the law (which Chikindas obviously didn’t).
At a Rutgers town hall last month, President Robert Barchi declared, “You may not like what the guy says, but you have to like the fact that he can say it.” Apparently Barchi doesn’t really like the fact that he can say it, since he now plans to punish Chikindas for it.
According to an account of the event,
Barchi said that his administration confirmed “with the state’s attorney and with our legal scholars” that Chikindas’ postings are constitutionally protected, “so there’s nothing there that is actionable.”
He added that the university is investigating whether Chikindas’ postings “create an environment in his work that would compromise his ability to teach or do research.”
This is a troubling analysis. Barchi admitted that Chikindas postings were protected speech. Even if Chikindas’ postings did create an “environment” that would affect his teaching or research (due to protests or people refusing to work with him or fund his research), that cannot be grounds for punishment. Chikindas can only be punished for his own misconduct, not for the reaction to it by others.
Barchi also announced about Chikindas, “up until this point, his teaching record is actually very strong.” This indicates that Rutgers found nothing wrong with Chikindas’ work as a professor, and is punishing him purely for expressing his opinions.
According to the Rutgers letter, Chikindas “was found to have posted extensive bigoted, discriminatory, and anti-Semitic material on social media.”
This is a strange judgment. The bigoted and anti-Semitic parts are accurate, I think. But what exactly is “discriminatory” about a social media post? Discrimination is an act against someone violating their rights. Social media opinions are not in themselves discriminatory. They could sometimes indicate beliefs that might cause a professor to engage in discrimination. But it appears that Rutgers investigated and found no acts of discrimination in Chikindas’ professional work (or otherwise they would have certainly promoted that fact).
The letter declared, “This material perpetuated toxic stereotypes and was deeply upsetting to Jewish students, faculty, and staff across our community.”
Perpetuating “toxic stereotypes” is not a violation of any campus rules, nor is upsetting people. For example, suppose a professor declared that gay men have a propensity to molest children, or that many victims who claim to be raped are making it up, or that Muslims are a terrorist threat, or that religious believers are childish idiots, or that people from the South are in-bred hicks, or that blacks are less intelligent than whites on average. These are various toxic stereotypes that are deeply upsetting. But that cannot justify punishing a professor for expressing them.
There are four punishments against Chikindas announced in the letter, all of which are highly dubious.
1) “removed from teaching required courses.” This is very unusual. If he is qualified to teach classes, then that should include required courses. The fact that some students feel uncomfortable about a professor’s views is not a good reason to ban them from teaching required courses. If the professor is the best qualified person to teach those courses, then it is a violation of the rights of other students (and a violation of the professor’s academic freedom) to ban that professor from teaching such classes. In the 1991 case of Levin v. Harleston, a federal judge ruled that City Colleges of New York had violated the rights of Michael Levin (who had said blacks have inferior intelligence) by creating “shadow classes” that “were established with the intent and consequence of stigmatizing Professor Levin solely because of his expression of ideas.” Creating parallel classes so that students do not have to take a class from an offensive professor was deemed unconstitutional. The far more serious step of actually banning the professor from teaching required classes is even more clearly unconstitutional.
2) “He has been removed from his leadership position as director of the Center for Digestive Health at the Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health. No Rutgers employee will be required to work in an administrative unit that he heads.”
Although universities have broader discretion over administrative units, that still does not allow them to punish professors by removing them from jobs for the expression of their political beliefs, particularly when these are research-based positions, and there appears to be no workplace misconduct to justify the decision.
3) “He will be required to participate in a cultural sensitivity training program, and will be subject to ongoing monitoring if and when he returns to the classroom.”
Mandatory sensitivity training targeted at an individual as a punishment for the expression of personal views is highly dubious. Monitoring of a teacher in the classroom is also a threat to academic freedom, particularly when Rutgers has presented no evidence of misconduct in the classroom.
4) “Finally, Professor Chikindas has been notified that the university is seeking further disciplinary action through procedures required by Appendix H of the collective bargaining agreement with our faculty union.”
Appendix H refers to a one-semester suspension without pay. This indicates that the already severe punishments being imposed on Chikindas are only the beginning. It also raises the question of whether any due process has been followed in the current punishments.
Rutgers needs to explain how a policy stating that extramural utterances “shall be free from institutional discipline” can justify all of this institutional discipline, apparently without adequate due process, for what is purely private speech.