UPDATE: Following the publication of this article, the Division of Public Safety clarified that while it has corresponded with Professor Anthea Butler about threats, it has not formally investigated these threats or put her under any type of special protection. The beginning of this article has been changed to clarify this information.
Controversial Religious Studies professor Anthea Butler has frequently said her status as a tenured professor protects her from sanction or censure. She is correct; the University has taken significant steps to protect her right to speak her mind.
“Because of the threats against her, I cannot tell you where she teaches and any further inquiries should be sent to Penn Police (she is protected by them),” Chair of the Religious Studies Department Justin McDaniel wrote to The Daily Pennsylvanian in an emailed statement in response to a request for information.
The Division of Public Safety said that, while they have been informed of threats made against Butler, they have not launched a formal investigation or placed her under any special protection.
Butler was on sabbatical last semester when she posted on Twitter that then-presidential candidate Ben Carson deserved a “coon of the year award” for approving of the flying of the Confederate flag at NASCAR races, as long as fans were okay with its presence on private property. The tweet was met with widespread criticism to which Butler is no stranger.
During a televised panel at the 2013 Harlem Book Festival, Butler stated, on national television, that Penn would protect her against media backlash. “Thank God I got a great institution that takes care of me. I have tenure. I can’t get fired,” she said.
The tweet about Carson has since been deleted.
Butler returned to Penn this spring and is now teaching a graduate seminar titled “Readings in American Evangelicalism,” according to staff members of the Religious Studies Department. According to the University Registrar’s spring 2016 course listings last updated on Feb. 19, the course meets Mondays 5-8 p.m..
But since her return, attempts by a Daily Pennsylvanian reporter to track Butler down and locate her graduate course have proven unsuccessful. According to McDaniel, the confusion is intentional.
On Monday night, McDaniel told the Daily Pennsylvanian in an emailed statement that Butler consistently changes the location of her courses. “It is a standing policy, because of previous death threats and incessant harassment by many people over the last several years that Prof. Butler always changes the location of her classroom for her graduate courses ... and the location of her undergraduate courses are not publicized to anyone but the students registered for the course,” he wrote. “I cannot tell you the building or time.”
Prior to McDaniel’s email, no staff members of the Religious Studies Department had mentioned Butler’s protected status or said they knew that Butler’s course had been moved. The list of students registered for Butler’s graduate class is not publicly available.
Earlier in the semester, some staff members even claimed that Butler was in fact still away from campus. Assistant to the Religious Studies Department Chair Stephanie Evette Palmer originally told The Daily Pennsylvanian in February that Butler’s spring 2016 course listing was a mistake and that Butler was on sabbatical until the fall.
Palmer later clarified on Monday, Feb. 29 that Butler was in fact back on campus, but that she had previously believed otherwise because she herself had not actually seen Butler on campus until later in the semester.
McDaniel confirmed in a previous email on Feb. 8 that Butler was only on sabbatical in the fall. Despite her return to campus, she is only teaching one graduate seminar, which may have led undergraduates to conclude she was away all year, he said.
The assigned classroom listed on the course roster, Claudia Cohen 204, was occupied by a male lecturer discussing ancient Rome when a reporter visited Monday at 7 p.m. during the course’s allotted time slot. The same room was empty when a reporter previously visited the room on Feb. 29 at 5 p.m.
Butler is currently listed as teaching two courses in the fall, including an undergraduate lecture cross-listed between the Africana Studies and Religious Studies Departments, according to Penn InTouch. McDaniel said in the email that Butler was not interested in being interviewed for this article.