If your professor at a public university regularly tweets out articles like “Are Women Destroying Academia? Probably” you would probably be confused as to why he taught students. If, after class, you read tweets by the same professor saying that black students are “generally inferior academically to white students” and that members of the LBGTQ community only want marriage rights “to get spousal fringe benefits from the government,” you might find fault with your professor’s boss for not firing the prejudiced chauvinist.
We should expect students, faculty and staff members with a modicum of dignity to call for that professor’s ouster. No student should be subjected to a professor who moonlights as a bigot. However, what may not be tolerated in other workplaces sometimes gets a free pass in colleges and universities, which adhere robustly to the value of free speech.
Free speech is tied to academic freedom — the autonomy to teach and research ideas without the consequence of retaliation. The quality of a professor’s ideas is enhanced when scholarship isn’t tethered to profits, political motives and/or the propaganda of hate groups. Colleges defend professors’ rights to pursue controversial topics of discussion such as climate change, police brutality, charter schools and pornography. University professors conduct clinical trials and other experiments in which the integrity of that work demands free speech.
Yet as noble as that sounds, higher education’s loyalty to free speech can also protect chauvinists like Indiana University Bloomington professor Eric Rasmusen, who posted the bigoted tweets about women and others using his private social media accounts. Rasmusen understandably has come under fire for a history of racist, sexist and homophobic social media posts.
Protecting core principles matters — but so does leadership. As the presence of hate groups spreads on campus, reflecting the growing diversity of beliefs in society, it’s important that university leaders properly balance free speech and academic freedom with facts, inclusion and social cohesion. A person who believes in the illogical notion that women, black and gay people are inferior to white men has as much a place in an institution of learning as a person who believes pigs can fly – but the bigot is far more dangerous. How university administrators (and leaders in general) address past and present discrimination influences the kind of world we will live in in the future.
Rasmusen’s boss, Lauren Robel, provost at Indiana University Bloomington, sets a fine example of the leadership we need. As absurd as it may seem, firing Rasmusen would compromise the pillars of higher education: free speech and academic freedom. However, Robel has done everything within her power to confront the discrimination that erodes basic values of truth, democracy and community. Robel is allowing students enrolled in Rasmusen’s class to transfer into another section. Students can also get out of taking a required course from Rasmusen. In addition, Robel will require Rasmusen to grade assignments without knowing the identities of the students in the class, an attempt to buffer against the biases he laid bare on Twitter.
Compare Robel’s actions to those of another university leader in the same state, and you’ll see why leadership is so important. In response to a student’s question on how to improve the campus for minority students, Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, a former governor of Indiana, touted an initiative to bring more inner-city students to campus. Daniels also said, “I will be recruiting one of the rarest creatures in America: a leading, I mean a really leading African American scholar.”
Students immediately took offense.
“Creatures?” said D’Yan Berry, president of the Black Student Union. “Come on.” Referring to African American scholars as rare creatures sounds right out of Rasmusen’s Twitter feed.
Responding to the backlash, Daniels explained he was referring to extraordinarily rare talent and told the Journal and Courier, part of the USA Today network, “I never felt so misunderstood before.”
To be clear, there are extraordinarily talented black scholars in many fields; predominately white higher education leaders simply don’t hire and invest in black professors’ development in the same way as their white peers, resulting in their underrepresentation. Protected professors don’t see the value in proactively championing diversity and inclusion. The beauty of Robel’s actions is that she showed how good leaders can work within systems to correct glaring problems. It’s an approach Daniels should emulate.
According to the Journal and Courier’s analysis of Purdue’s published diversity numbers, 8.3 percent (161 of 1,931) of tenured or tenure-track professors in 2018 were recorded as underrepresented minorities. In 2013, when Daniels started his tenure at Purdue, that stat was 6.3 percent (117 of 1,849).
Those numbers are moving in the right direction, but they still warrant scrutiny from concerned students, faculty and staff. Black, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and American Indian faculty make up 4 percent, 3 percent, 11 percent, and less than 1 percent of full-time professors in degree-granting postsecondary institutions.
We desperately need academic leadership that can stand up for what’s right and stand up to white supremacists and white supremacy. Just last week, CNN reported five incidents of hate that occurred across the country. At the University of Georgia, someone drew swastikas on a whiteboard on the door of a Jewish woman’s dorm room. Another swastika was carved into a door of an Iowa State dormitory, and racist stickers and posters appeared around campus. Racist graffiti was found at the University of Syracuse during a two-week run of incidents of hate-driven harassment. At the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, a thread of a racist post from a private SnapChat account became public, setting off a firestorm of concern on campus. And a noose was hung in the common area of a dormitory. Let’s hope that university leaders on these campuses address their issues as Robel did, because a lack of leadership is how we got here.
Academics don’t have to tweet out bigotry to make their beliefs known. Colleges’ curricula and admissions policies do the talking on their behalf. For most of the twentieth century, Asians, Blacks, Latinos/Latinas and Native Americans were excluded or restricted from the academic offerings and leadership positions in most colleges and universities. People of color who were allowed on campus were insignificant in number or primarily relegated to service, housekeeping or grounds positions. If you want to learn more about racist customs of fraternities and sororities, including the tradition of wearing blackface, just thumb through a campus’ yearbook.
When campuses begin to value black and brown lives, you’ll see the presence of authors of color throughout course syllabi as well as more than a token handful of people of color in the student body and faculty. You’ll see administrators’ commitments to affirmative action codified in policy and funding allocations dedicated to creating a positive racial climate. Over time, actions like these will seed the kind of campus where bigotry is cut off at the root — and publicly condemned when it isn’t.
Academic freedom and bigotry can’t coexist on campus. Robel has demonstrated one way to tackle bigots who falsely claim the mantle of free speech. Now we need a new generation of college and university leaders to stand up for the values that create an inclusive learning environment for all.
This story free speech on campus was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.