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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Academic Freedom Again

As you have probably seen, George Ciccariello-Maher, a political scientist at Drexel University has come under fire for tweeting "all I want for Christmas is white genocide," following his tweet and his condemnation at Breitbart.  There have been calls for his firing and he has received death threats.  Depressingly, Drexel University issued a statement calling Ciccariello-Maher's statement "inflammatory" and declaring them "utterly reprehensible" and "deeply disturbing" and insisting that they "do not in any way reflect the values of the University."

I don't want to enter into a discussion or defense of Ciccariello-Maher's academic freedom here. Both Hank Reichman and Corey Robin have done so over the weekend and a petition has been set up to express support for Professor Ciccariello-Maher.  Instead I want to focus a little more closely on Drexel's response.

Professor Ciccariello-Maher has insisted that his tweet was a satirical response to the idea of "white genocide," a notion developed by some white nationalists that treats developments such as interracial marriage, multiculturalism or birth control as part of a conspiracy to commit "white genocide."  To be honest, I didn't know what the discourse was--and it took me all of about 5 minutes on the internet to discover its roots.  (For a more extended discussion see this article at Slate.)  I mention this not to get into the content of professor Ciccariello-Maher's tweet but to demonstrate how easy it was to figure out what it was about.  As far as I can tell that leaves three interpretations of Drexel's response:
  1. Drexel responded without bothering to find out what the tweet was about.  It therefore declared a professor's statement "reprehensible" without understanding what the statement meant.
  2. Drexel does think that the statement is reprehensible.  Which I guess means that it implicitly opposes interracial marriage, multiculturalism, and birth control.
  3. Drexel looked into what the statement actually meant but was still so cowed by the possibility of criticism that it condemned Professor Ciccariello-Maher's statement and insisted that he come in for further discussion. 
My suspicion is that we are looking at number 1.  But that is extremely disturbing in its own right.  It suggests that in the present climate the Drexel University administration is more concerned with the possibility of external criticism than they are committed to defending the freedom of expression of their faculty or even to take the time to understand the situation before they act.   In effect, Drexel is telling its community that they need to curb their own freedom of speech rather than say something that might be misunderstood.

It is this new context that makes the Ciccariello-Maher case both like and unlike cases we have seen in recent years.  His is not the first tweet that has produced criticism of faculty and in some cases punitive responses from administrations.  But his is the first case since the election and in the context of an increasingly empowered white nationalist movement.  There may be good reasons why individuals will choose not to provoke situations that will not help them in the long run.  But if colleges and universities fail to protect the academic freedom of their faculty they will purchase a brief moment of peace at the cost of the long-term destruction of their institution's autonomy and integrity.


California Policy Issues said...

Another lesson: https://twitter.com/CalPolicy/status/814132301000937472

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