After his tweets linking the mass shooting in Las Vegas to “white male patriarchy” made him the target of alt-right outrage, George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor at our neighbor Drexel University, was forced to cancel his classes. Now he’s the most recent addition to a growing list of left-leaning professors who have been placed on administrative leave after their speech incited conservative fury. According to Ciccariello-Maher himself, this trend is evidence that right-wing media outlets (think Breitbart, The Daily Caller and even Fox News) are the real threat to academic freedom — the right to engage in diverse intellectual ideas — not the often-maligned campus left.
Names like Tommy Curry and Johnny Eric Williams — professors who were placed on leave after their personal comments spurred a conservative backlash — add credence to Ciccariello-Maher’s position. But of course, a right-wing academic might similarly construct their own list of anecdotes to forward the opposite narrative and claim that it’s intolerant leftists who are the most opposed to intellectual liberties. It’s easy to see how the debate would devolve from there.
Arguing over which political perspective is most opposed to academic freedom does little to address the underlying issue: Why are universities so readily succumbing to the public condemnation of their professors? Often, administrators cite safety concerns when online rage is followed by violent threats but those concerns don’t tell the full story. What truly gives power to public outcry is the fear that this negative press will damage the university's brand. Clearly, the commercialization of American universities means that monetary concerns are starting to outweigh intellectual ones.
According to Drexel’s official statement, the decision to place Ciccariello-Maher on administrative leave was made to protect the safety of him and his students, but when put to the test, that reasoning seems flimsy. While it’s true that Ciccariello-Maher has received violent threats, I have trouble believing that they warrant putting him on leave for an extended period of time.
There are other ways that the university could reasonably ensure his safety — such as changing his class location or increasing security — without also inhibiting his ability to teach. And if Drexel’s only concern was security, then why is it that Dakota Peterson, one of Ciccariello-Maher’s students, says that the university never reached out to check on the student’s safety?
Abridging the academic freedoms of a professor should be a university’s last resort, but Drexel seemed all too willing to make that decision. To understand why, one need look no further than Ciccariello-Maher’s past run-ins with university administrators.
After a Ciccariello-Maher tweet referencing the treatment of a military veteran drew the ire of the conservative media, Drexel University Provost Brian Blake sent a letter to the controversial professor. In it, Blake states that the Faculty Senate will be engaging in a code of conduct investigation against him for this and other provocative tweets.
According to the academic freedom policy of the American Association of University Professors, “a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position.” The grievances stated in the letter have little to do with Ciccariello-Maher’s fitness to teach. In fact, they seem to neglect this point entirely.
Instead, Blake spent much of the letter detailing the impact that Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets have had on Drexel as an institution. “Numerous prospective students whom the university has admitted have written to the university stating that they will not attend the university because of your conduct,” Blake wrote. “And at least two potential significant donors to the university have withheld previously promised donations.”
It’s absolutely absurd, if not outright dangerous, to insinuate that Ciccariello-Maher should be punished because wealthy donors disagree with his political perspective. Academic freedom must be ensured for all professors; it’s not something that can be neglected when it becomes too expensive to uphold.
Of course, Drexel isn’t the only institution that places a high value on monetary concerns.
Given that an instructor at Penn was just removed from classes following a provocative tweet, it's become even more important to understand how anger from outside of academia can threaten the freedoms of those within it. Though this situation is slightly different — this tweet implicates conduct in the classroom, not just political opinions — the same dangers are still applicable.
Penn and other universities place a great deal of value on maintaining their brands; let’s make sure that doesn’t come at the cost of their principles.
CAMERON DICHTER is a College senior from Philadelphia, studying English. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Real Talk” usually appears every other Monday.
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