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A Response To My University President’s Essay On Free Speech

Dear University of Richmond President Ronald A. Crutcher,

The following serves as an open letter to you in response to your July 10 opinion piece on The Hetchinger Report entitled, “Defending the ‘right to be here’ on campus.” My hands shake from the building anxiety as I write this public statement of dissent while I should be continuing my pattern of 12-hour days to prepare my tenure dossier.

In your essay, you argue:

Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned, and have an explicit responsibility, to model substantive disagreement and dialogue that foster change — to give students information they can take into the classroom, living room, workplace and voting booth.

The true test of your publicly espoused beliefs about protecting free speech will be whether I am denied tenure in the next few months because of this blog post. Or, when I recently sparked a heated discussion on UR’s faculty listserv about institutionalized racism in higher education (including UR) after innocently sharing our colleague Dr. Bedelia Richard’s blog post on Conditionally Accepted (IHE). Or, in 2016, when I publicly criticized the university for failing to serve UR alumni CC Carreras and Whitney Ralston, who were raped by fellow students, and then blamed by university administration for the sexual violence perpetrated against them. Or even my 2014 blog post criticizing UR trustee Paul Queally for sexist and homophobic remarks that became public news and the university’s failure to distance themselves from such bigotry; since then, Queally has now been elected Rector of the Board of Trustees, and two additional buildings have been named after him. I acknowledge that some will read this blog post — coming after the president and the head of the trustees — might as well be a death-wish.

But, as Black lesbian feminist scholar-activist Audre Lorde aptly penned, “your silence will not protect you.” I see your continued campaign for your vision of free speech to be a threat to my free speech, my safety, and my career. So, writing this essay (and all of the others before it) is a risk — but so, too, is keeping my mouth shut as a good little pre-tenure professor is expected to.

Power And Oppression Are Missing From Your Analysis

Dr. Crutcher, the way that you write and talk about “free speech” treats “both sides” (to quote our nation’s president) as peers, equal in power and status. To you, it seems the Right and the Left, conservatives and liberals have equally valid points and perspectives — and each should be heard. But, all too often, what one “side” (the one on the right) has to say is not simply in opposition to what the other “side” has to say; frequently, conservatives and bigots espouse beliefs that undermine the humanity and safety of marginalized groups. By protecting the “free speech” of people like Charles Murray, you have invited a person whose perspective literally argues that Black people are biologically inferior to whites. This is not productive dialogue, or even disagreement; this is racial violence. Son of Baldwin has a very fitting view here: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

You miss the important question of who even has the right and ability to speak in the first place. Your note about the practice of disinviting controversial or even offensive speakers fails to acknowledge that marginalized populations are woefully underrepresented among those who have access to a big enough platform to be invited by a college to speak.  Certain ways of speaking and types of scholarship are systematically privileged over others.  Even in the rare moments that our own university has invited marginalized speakers — like Alicia Garza of #BlackLivesMatter, actress and activist Laverne Cox,  and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas — these individuals have achieved an almost impossible level of visibility for others like them.

You fail to acknowledge the way in which you and UR have privileged the free speech of some over others. In the 2017-2018 speaker series on “Free Speech, Immigration, and Identity,” 4 white cisgender men and 1 Latino cisgender man were featured. This signals to the university that we only value what cis men (especially white cis men) have to say. Apparently what trans women and men, cis women, non-binary and agender folx, and people of color have to say is worthless. If the views of marginalized groups are equally valued, that is not currently reflected in the university’s practices.  I’ll go one step further to say that our views should be valued even more to challenge the systemic ways in which our scholarship, creative works, speeches, and communities are devalued, dismissed, or destroyed.

Speech Isn’t Free For People Like Me

In the wake of intensified right-wing assaults on public scholars (particularly women of color), I am shocked that you — as a Black man who wields great power — are currently campaigning to make more space for conservative view points.

As a university president, I expect that you are well-versed in the literature on attacks on scholars by conservatives. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) created an entire site devoted just to the issue of targeted harassment against scholars. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have featured multiple essays on the “outrage machine” — a network of conservative journalists who intentionally and systematically spark assaults against public scholars. Scholars (especially those from one or more marginalized communities) who do work on racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, climate change, gun control, abortion, etc. are vulnerable to this manufactured outrage, which then leads to harassment, hate-mail, calls for their termination, bomb-threats, rape-threats, and death-threats. Former Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) President Abby Ferber recently published an essay on the issue: “‘Are You Willing to Die for This Work?’ Public Targeted Online Harassment in Higher Education.”

Her question isn’t an exaggeration. It is literally a question scholars must ask themselves before engaging with the public.  The harassment I have endured for a year now recently intensified to the level of threats of violence. I’ve been trolled and mocked by white supremacists and fellow sociologists alike. Our colleague, Dr. Bedelia Richards, received hostility after penning her blog post on institutionalized racism.  (She’s fortunate that the “outrage machine” didn’t come for her; it seems the major conservative outlets like Fox News and Washington Times didn’t catch wind of what the conservative student journalists had to say.) Assuming we continue our public writing, this will not be the last time that our “free” speech comes at a cost.

I pray we are never faced with Dr. Ferber’s question.  But, at the moment, it seems all that Dr. Richards and I have is prayer because the university is ill-equipped to protect us.  You see, as you are demanding free speech for all, you are ignoring that there is a systemic effort to silence us or worse. In order to do more than say you value free speech, you must act to protect free speech.  And, increasingly, that means protecting marginalized scholars and students from the hostility we endure when we dare to speak.  What will you do to ensure that we live long enough to fully enjoy the right to free speech?

What will you do to prevent students from filming our classes without our knowledge or consent, creating fodder for right-wing attacks?  (There is literally a website devoted to shaming and ultimately targeting professors deemed too liberal.)  What will you do to end the university’s reliance on student evaluations for tenure and promotion decisions and merit reviews in light of the mounting evidence that these forms really only measure students’ racist, sexist, transphobic, homo- and biphobic, and fatphobic biases?  From personal experience, I estimate that the accusations that I am promoting a political agenda, or even a “gay agenda,” in my classes are greatest when I am the least reticent to teach material on which I am an expert. This is an example of university policy that actually emboldens bias and hate speech and silences marginalized individuals.  I lose out, and then my marginalized students lose out even more because I still end up centering my classes around what privileged students will object to the least.

As a Black queer non-binary tenure-track professor, I have repeatedly had to choose between my tenureability and my survival.  Your campaign for free speech has no bearing on my life when I may lose my job, or even my life, in daring to speak in an institution and a society that demands my silence, invisibility, and conformity.  Once again, you cannot continue to peddle these color-, gender-, sexuality-, and class-blind calls for free speech.

Privileged Speech Isn’t Under Threat, But Higher Education Is

What I see from your free speech campaign is a Black, presumably politically liberal university president who is playing into the Right’s efforts to demolish higher education in the US.  The very thing you call for — “free speech” — has been turned into a weapon.  Dr. Victor Ray (now editor of Conditionally Accepted after I stepped down) wrote an excellent blog post on the topic., “Weaponizing Free Speech”:

This basic pattern has been playing out across colleges and universities recently, as a cottage industry of white liberal columnists regularly castigate undergraduates for interrupting conservative speakers like Charles Murray or Ann Coulter, casting students as unruly, childish and nearly incapable of reason. Thus, the right ends up enlisting liberal commentators to advance their illiberal agenda.

Yet those free speech warriors are nowhere to be found when faculty of color, or those speaking out against racism, are the targets. Typically, here, critics of my position will resort to a “both sides” argument, saying that the left also stifles free speech. At times, this is true. But, to my knowledge, the left has no coordinated national apparatus that specifically and systematically targets individual professors.

Dr. Ray concludes:

It is time to stop assuming good faith in the free speech debate. The right has weaponized free speech, framing campus debates in a way that resonates with liberals to destroy the very things liberals purport to care about. By capitulating to the demands of those who threaten violence against professors, colleges and universities undermine one of their central functions as refuges for debating controversial ideas.

Beyond higher education, the Right is becoming more and more successful in using the First Amendment to legalize discrimination and fuel efforts to demolish unions.

It seems you are playing right into the hands of the Right.  But why?  Whose right to speech has been denied on UR’s campus?  Well, as I noted above, it seems to be Black public scholars like Dr. Richards and me. It seems to be students like CC who point out the persistence of rape culture at UR.  It’s others who are not wealthy white cishet men without disabilities — whether student or faculty.  I’m sure, given the constraints of being a Black president of a historically white university, it’s you, too.

As the US political climate grows increasingly xenophobic, misogynistic, transphobic, bi- and homophobic, I charge you to prioritize the speech of those of us whose lives are literally at stake for daring to speak our truths.  Please stop making a case for conservatives to be heard on campus; they are not a minority simply because their closed-minded views are debunked by rigorous empirical research.  As you allude in your title, it is not whites, men, cis people, the wealthy, people without disabilities, and heterosexuals who don’t have a “right to be here” on campus.  It is those treated as the Other who are regularly reminded that we are lucky to even be allowed to step foot on campus or, as you alluded in your USA Today opinion piece, that we are simply invited because it’s good for the business. As a condition of the generous gift of no longer being legally barred or slipping through systematic exclusion, we must keep quiet about the microaggressions, discrimination, sexual violence, and harassment we experience at UR.

Your call for free speech threatens to only welcome even more hate-speech and violence without recourse.  Oppression is counter to UR’s liberal arts mission and values; as such, the university must create platforms for marginalized students, staff, and faculty to speak without the threat of dismissal or violence. You have got a lot of work to do if you will make a genuine effort to ensure that everyone has a protected right to free speech.  I hope you will hear my disagreement with an open-mind, and that you will stand up for me (even if you disagree with my views) when the inevitable backlash comes my way.

Update, 7/29/2018 3:15pm EST:

Note that free speech should be distinguished from academic freedom, where the latter refers to the freedom to share one’s empirically-grounded perspective — freedom from professional consequences or attacks from the public. See Dr. Fulhana Sultana’s insightful 2018 essay on this distinction: “The False Equivalence of Academic Freedom and Free Speech,” in ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 17(2): 228-257.  (Download the essay for free here.)

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