"We must become an institution to each other. Not because that’s how things ought to be, but because that’s where we are...We may not be able to count on our institutions, but we must be able to count on one another." --L.D. Burnett, Chronicle of Higher Eudcation
I started Faculty First Responders to proactively educate and support faculty and administrators about the causes and consequences of right-wing attacks on faculty, while providing advice about how to effectively respond to targeted harassment.
This project hits close to home. On June 20, 2017 Campus Reform published a “news story” falsely accusing my colleague of calling for the death of white people. The story went viral, to Breitbart, Fox, and across the right-wing media ecosystem, resulting in death threats and campus being shut down due to credible threats of violence. Trinity College’s chapter of the Academic Association of University Professors (AAUP) worked with the national office to develop strategies for protecting our colleague’s academic freedom. I wrote about this experience at the Chronicle of Higher Education and later published an article in the Journal for Academic Freedom (JAF) outlining the dark money funding behind the targeted harassment of faculty. A few months later I learned that a graduate student friend of mine had also been the subject of a Campus Reform story. She experienced death threats, harassment, and an administration that failed to defend her academic freedom. This experience brought home just how pervasive, cruel, isolating, and under-reported these attacks are. I began to think that if my JAF article was correct—that websites like Campus Reform seed the right-wing media ecosystem with the material that eventually becomes viral attacks on faculty—then we could more-or-less predict which faculty will become the targets of full-blown right-wing harassment by carefully monitoring these websites.
Since January 2020 me and a group of student research assistants we have been monitoring Campus Reform website more-or-less daily (with some breaks during the summer and busy times in the semester). Since January 2022 we have begun monitoring an even wider collection of websites using a customized search engine. We use this search tool to find new posts that include the terms “professor” and “university” or “college” and record the results using a GoogleForm. During this process we have built a number of databases, including one that includes all of the stories written by Campus Reform in 2020. These databases are available to journalists and researchers upon request.
When one of the websites we monitor accuses a faculty member of some sort of “liberal bias” we write an email to that faculty member providing information about how they might respond. It is our hope that this early warning system enables faculty and administrators to develop more proactive and pro-faculty responses to the targeted harassment that often follows from these stories.
This model of peer-to-peer support and monitoring work is widely replicable to all kinds of sectors that face the threat of disinformation, online trolling, and right-wing culture war backlash (K-12 educators, school boards members, journalists, etc.). I am more than welcome to share our method and resources, and would be happy to talk with organizations who might have the capacity to onboard and upscale this project (God knows I don’t want to keep reading this garbage everyday!).
In solidarity, isaac
Isaac Kamola is an associate professor of political science at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. He is author of Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture War (with Ralph Wilson, forthcoming), Making the World Global: US Universities and the Production of the Global Imaginary (2019) and co-editor of Politics of African Anticolonial Archive (2017) and The Transnational Politics of Higher Education (2016). His scholarly work has appeared in International Studies Quarterly, International Political Sociology, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Millennium, Journal of Academic Freedom, African Identities, Journal of Higher Education in Africa, Third World Quarterly, Cultural Politics and other journals and edited volumes.
Nawal Khurram is an undergraduate student at Trinity college majoring in Political Science and Human Rights. She is a resident advisor, student caller, part of the South Asian Student Association, and Trinity Amnesty Club on campus and, alongside, works as a research assistant for Professor Kamola. She is passionate about women’s rights and runs a small non-profit organization to support underprivileged women in her hometown–Islamabad, Pakistan.
Jason Farrell is an undergraduate student at Trinity College studying Political Science and Sociology. He is involved in his school’s Student Government Association, Honor Council, Campus Climate Incident Response Team, and works as a researcher for Professor Kamola. He plans to attend law school after pursing his undergraduate degree.
Funding: Unlike Campus Reform which does not disclose its donors, this project is made possible by a small grant from the AAUP’s Academic Freedom Foundation (to cover a single course release during the 2021-22 academic year). Otherwise it depends upon student research assistants who receive academic credit for their contributions as well as my own donated time and energy. Campus Reform, in contrast, received nearly $6 million in 2020 from the Leadership Institute, which receives funding from undisclosed donors.