How Should Administrators Respond to the targeted harassment of their faculty members? Targeted harassment of faculty is often manufactured within a highly-partisan right-wing media ecosystem. Unfortunately, administrators often take the attacks on face value, responding in ways that side with the attackers and chastise faculty.
As administrators, being unequivocal in your support of faculty, and saying so publicly (not just privately), is vitally important to ensuring that these stories do not spin out of control and to retain the confidence of your faculty. Our research finds that only 45.3 percent of faculty that appear in Campus Reform stories receive support from their administration, while 12.4 percent received some sort of sanctions. Many faculty reported that the support they did receive was in private and informal, leaving considerable doubt about whether this support would hold should the situation escalate.
Below we have compiled some basic guidelines for how administrators might successfully respond to right-wing attacks on faculty members. We provide examples of good and bad responses, including easily-replicable language that might be useful in forming your own responses.
- Create campus-specific resources for responding to political attacks on faculty. These procedures should include clear guidelines for faculty, chairs, and administrators. They should lay out the existing policies and campus resources. The University of Massachusetts Amherst’s “Harassment Response and Prevention Plan” is a great model.
- Such a plan should clearly defend academic freedom and free speech, and be in line with AAUP guidelines (including clarity about social media usage).
- Have a meeting with relevant administrators and staff to plan, even role play, responses to targeted harassment.
- If certain faculty are regularly attacked, meet with them to discuss their research. Read their work. This not only demonstrates that you value their intellectual contributions but also places you in a stronger position to publicly defend them.
- Familiarize yourself with the organized nature of right-wing attacks on faculty. These are not isolated incidents but the result of a political infrastructure. Misunderstanding these attacks as spontaneous expressions of outrage can result in giving them more credibility than they actually deserve.
Basics guidelines for supporting your faculty
- Start with the assumption that what these outlets write are actually distortions, designed to gin up outrage about “liberal bias” and “radical college professors.” Remember: most stories by Campus Reform and College Fix are written by students paid $50-100 per story, and who have signed a contract saying they agree to identify “liberal bias.” These “news stories” are, therefore, political hit pieces, and should be treated as such. Follow the money. Make it clear who funds these attacks on faculty, and why.
- Administrators should unconditionally and publicly defend their faculty’s free speech and academic freedom. Drawing upon American Association of University Professors (AAUP) guidelines and statement offers a helpful framework. According to AAUP guidelines, in addition to speech within the classroom and in research, faculty should not–except under very specific conditions–be sanctioned for their “extramural utterances” (i.e. social media posts, statements at public gatherings, etc).
- Administrators should not debate or comment on what a faculty member did (or did not) say. Doing so only legitimizes the often de-contextualized, slanted, and deliberately unflattering narrative spun by Campus Reform, College Fix, and other outlets.
- Administrators should work with faculty to craft a response that everyone can agree upon.
- In doing so, trust your faculty! If they said something, there’s probably a thoughtful argument behind it. Academics often use ideas and concepts that come from their scholarship. Administrators should make sure they understand what the professors were really saying (and not rely on what partisan right-wing outlets says they are saying). If you don’t understand the scholarly context within which a statement was made, consult academic experts who do.
- Do not invent ad hoc responses to sanction faculty. For example, do not unilaterally fire a professor or put them on leave when actual procedures and policies are already on the books. Assuming existing procedures follow AAUP guidelines, any decision to sanction a professor should be done by a faculty-led committee through a process that is transparent, protects due process, and includes the opportunity for an appeal.
- With the consent of the faculty member, consider making public the fact they are receiving (often violent) hate mail as a result of these stories.
Practical suggestions for when an attack occurs
- Ask your faculty member to write a narrative of the event, including supporting documents, screenshots, etc.
- If it would be helpful to have a narrative about how this story has spread online, and the main actors promoting it, contact Isaac Kamola who has experience doing this work.
- Provide the faculty member with information about academic freedom, including AAUP guidelines and the relevant institutional materials.
- Make sure the faculty member has a support network, and offer to put them in touch with people on campus who can help. Isaac Kamola can also put them in contact with faculty who have experience such harassment before.
- Offer your faculty member information about where they can receive free legal consultation and the IT professionals who can, if desired, help remove their contact information from the university website.
Consider the long-term consequences
- Remember that Campus Reform, College Fix, and other outlets are interested in waging a culture war against higher education in general. They are not concerned with the specifics of what happens on your campus. In fact, they will be outraged whatever you do. And, likewise, they will soon forget about this story and move on to the next example of faux outrage. So will the online trolls, outraged alumni, and others who, in the moment, might appear to be deeply concerned about this issue.
- Your faculty members, however, will remember how you respond to these attacks for years to come.
- Therefore, a strong, public defense will not only show true academics leadership but also likely earn the support and gratitude from your faculty.
Examples of a good response
Example #1: The Syracuse Chancellor responded to the false accusation that a professor was calling for violence with the statement:
"They insist that the University -- and that I -- denounce, censor, or dismiss the professor for her speech. [...] I can't imagine academic freedom or the genuine search for truth thriving here without free speech. [...] Our faculty must be able to say and write things -- including things that provoke some or make others uncomfortable -- up to the very limits of the law"
Example #2: When statements from a convocation speaker were replayed on Campus Reform, Fox News and elsewhere, Hampshire College released a statement saying:
“We are appalled by the vicious and explicitly racist, misogynistic and homophobic threats being directed against Professor Taylor in response to her remarks. And we condemn the actions of those who are inciting violence by willfully taking information out of context and fanning the flames of prejudice and hate.”
Examples of Bad Responses
Example #1: A NYU spokesperson responded to an adjunct profoessor’s participation in a protest, stating:
“NYU opposes the views that have been reported: the University abhors violence, rejects calls for violence, has longstanding ties to Israel — including a campus there — and is opposed to acts of vandalism on the public transit system, which is needed and shared by all New Yorkers. [...] It is, however, the case that among the thousands of part-time faculty we hire each year, some will disagree with NYU’s positions”
This kind of response does not even hide the fact that NYU is simply adopting Campus Reform’s narrative of what happened. In doing so, it reinforces Campus Reform’s claim about the professor’s relationship to violent protest. It insinuates that the professor is antisemitic. It also clearly sends the message that “part-time faculty” at NYU are not considered equal members–and therefore not afforded the same protections as other faculty.
Example #2: The president of Texas A&M responded to a 2017 attack on a prominent philosophy professor, stating:
“As you may know, a podcast interview by one of our professors that took place approximately four and a half years ago resurfaced this week on social media, seen for the first time by many of us. The interview features disturbing comments about race and violence that stand in stark contrast to Aggie core values – most notably those of respect, excellence, leadership and integrity – values that we hold true toward all of humanity”
This statement assumes that the professor was actually advocating violence. In fact, he was describing a long tradition of black communities relying on self-defense in instances when police departments failed to prevent (or actively promoted) violence against Black people. This quote was dug up by a right-wing blogger, misconstrued, and then launched into the right-wing media ecosystem. The president of Texas A&M could have noted that anti-Black violence, systemic racism, and the police’s complicity in it–namely what the professor was actually denouncing–is what should be condemned. Instead, assuming that the professor advocated violence against white people simply adopts the false script narrated by Campus Reform and others.
Example #3: The president of Boston University released a statement after a faculty member was attacked for statements interpreted as being racist against white students.
“Boston University does not condone racism or bigotry in any form and we are committed to maintaining an educational environment that is free from bias, fully inclusive, and open to wide-ranging discussions. We are disappointed and concerned by statements that reduce individuals to stereotypes on the basis of a broad category such as sex, race, or ethnicity. I believe Dr. Grundy’s remarks fit this characterization”
This statement adopts Campus Reform’s incorrect assumption that “white” is a natural racial category, rather than a social construct. As such, the university adopts Campus Reforms false claim: criticizing whiteness is a form of “stereotyping” an individual based on natural traits. Had the administration taken time to understand how sociologists actually understand race and whiteness they could have avoided reducing the professor’s comments to the non-scholarly, partisan usage deployed by Campus Reform.
Some Language for Crafting More Robust Responses
(Feel free to copy and paste for your own use.)
Example 1: “Faculty speech is protected by the First Amendment, by the American Association of University Professors’s (AAUP) principles of academic freedom, and by our university policies–including the Faculty Manual. We trust that our faculty engage in speech–inside the classroom, in their research, and in the public sphere–that is well-reasoned, principled, and deliberate. However, we live in a world in which centuries of injustice have left much to be frustrated and angry about. If our faculty member decided to express him/her/them-selves in a manner deemed harsh by others we assume they did so with good reason.”
Example 2: “Campus Reform is a political operation funding by right-wing billionaires, designed to attack those faculty they politically disagree with. They exist to gin up outrage about the academy, for political purposes. In contrast, Professor X is a scholar with a long track record of thoughtful, engaged scholarship on the very topics that Campus Reform takes partisan objection to. We have no reason to prioritize a political attack levied against our faculty member over his/her/their comments grounded in scholarship. We might agree with Campus Reform that the tone could have been different. However, we trust our faculty when it comes to conveying ideas and arguments that he/she/they deem are in the public interest.”
Example 3: “We have reviewed the comments made by Professor X, and find Campus Reform’s account to be a gross misrepresentation of what actually occurred.”
Example 4: “Professor X is an expert in the study of Y. We therefore have taken her at her word when she explained to us that Campus Reform’s story offers a gross misrepresentation of her work, and the broader academic field in which these arguments are situated.”
Using AAUP statements to help frame and formulate responses to targeted harassment of faculty can be incredibly useful. You can find information about the most relevant AAUP statements here.
Shaw, Susan M. “When I was Trolled, My Institution Got it Right,” Inside Higher Ed, December 8, 2020.
PEN America. “Campus Free Speech Guide.” Which includes section on “How to Support Faculty and Staff Who Experience Online Harassment” and the “Online Harassment Field Manual.”
Scott, Joan Wallach. “Targeted Harassment of Faculty: What Higher Education Administrators Can Do,” Association of American Colleges and Universities, Spring 2018, Vol. 104, No. 2.