#ISupportSaida – Here We Go Again

Here we go again. An incoming professor of color, Saida Gundy, made comments that were, at most, provocative. She said that white, college age males, were a problem population (that’s the provocative one). She also said that white men are responsible for slavery and its legacy in this country (that’s indisputably true).

I’m not linking to the right-wing sites organizing a systematic harassment of her on Twitter and at Boston University, where she works. It follows predictable patterns. BU said – “The University does not condone racism or bigotry in any form and we are deeply saddened when anyone makes such offensive statements.”

I’m glad they are protecting her job. I’m angry that they have conceded she is racist or bigoted. The pressure will continue for awhile and it’s important for academics to say publicly, if they can, that they support academic freedom. I also think it’s important for historians to say that the acknowledgment of white responsibility for slavery is neither racist nor (in my case) white guilt, but simply true. The intersections of white supremacy and patriarchy are, indeed, a problem. To say so isn’t racist. Furthermore, the pursuit of this professor falls into the persistent pattern of conservatives formally and informally targeting professors of color, especially women.

I do think that for all its unfortunate outcome for both the individual and institution, the Salaita affair has prepared the academic social web to respond to these incidents in ways that we might not have been a year ago. It’s certainly given me practice at my rhetoric and forced me to refine my principals. In fact, I went on record defending the right of a conservative professor to due process in this essay.

When it comes to free speech and academic freedom, here’s my mantra:  If we do not stand on principle for people with whom we disagree, we have no principles.

And so it is irrelevant whether or not I stand with Saida and whether or not I agree with what she says. I stand with her on principle. I also stand with her against this relentless harassment. I stand with her because the acknowledgment of the ongoing power of white supremacy is not racist. I stand with her because the targeting of vulnerable professors of color must stop.

Here’s a coda from Inside Higher Ed with good points from Academe Blog and FIRE.

Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said he suspected Grundy’s case will end here but that “experience has taught me to fear” otherwise.

The tweets that have been made public “certainly constitute protected speech under the First Amendment,” Shibley said. But one of Boston’s computing policies, which prohibits the dissemination of “offensive, annoying or harassing material,” he added, “arguably allows the university to punish her, should she decide to tweet similar things over the university network and should someone find her opinion ‘annoying.’”
That computer-speech policy, Shibley said, “should be revised to be consistent with BU’s promise of ‘an atmosphere of unfettered free inquiry and exposition’ for its professors.” Of course, since Boston is a private institution, it doesn’t have to follow First Amendment standards, necessarily, just contractual ones — even if FIRE and others think it should.

But what about the concerns that Grundy’s position may make her biased against white male students, and therefore affect her teaching? John Wilson, co-editor of the American Association of University Professors’ “Academe” blog and an independent scholar of academic freedom, called such an argument — which he said was used against Salaita by Illinois — “utterly wrong.”

“If you say that alleged bigotry expressed in personal remarks disqualifies a professor from teaching, then virtually all professors would need to be fired,” he said. “Faculty who oppose gay marriage would be biased against [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] students. Faculty who criticize Islamic terrorism would be biased against Muslim students. Faculty who are fundamentalist Christians and believe that atheists, Jews, etc. will be condemned to eternal hell might be feared by Jewish or non-Christian students. Faculty who criticize Israel or Palestine might be biased.”

The only way to know, Wilson added, “whether Grundy’s classes are taught with an illegitimate bias that violates the rights of her students is by looking at her teaching, not her tweets. But you can’t assume that controversial professors are bad teachers. Quite the opposite is usually true.”

At the same time, he said, Boston should be free to criticize Grundy’s tweets, as long as it makes clear she won’t be penalized in any way for them.

We want faculty with views, opinions, and arguments. We want to defend faculty who make such arguments. Whether we agree with them or not.

And so #ISupportSaida.

2 Replies to “#ISupportSaida – Here We Go Again”

  1. Andrew says:

    What are the most effective ways to express disagreement with provocative statements without being patriarchal and/or appearing to try to silence people of color? I'm not challenging your premise that we should stand for academic freedom even if others are saying things we disagree with. I mean that question in a very general way, disconnected from this particular example (this post being the first I had heard of the controversy).

    My guess as to ways to AVOID responding to opinions we disagree with include: calling for people to lose their job, ad hominem attacks, etc. But, if you are responding to someone you disagree with, is it sufficient enough to say "I respect this person's opinion, but here are all the reasons I disagree…"?

    1. David Perry says:

      Sure. But see the pieces I've written on privilege and tone policing. Ask yourself – what happens if I don't respond when I have the privilege and power? And if you, make sure you start by really listening, then speak, and end by really listening again.

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