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Professor Robert Schuyler (bottom right) received an open letter calling for his termination following his use of a Nazi gesture and phrase in a Zoom conference. (Photo from Liz Quinlan)

Penn professor Robert Schuyler used a Nazi salute and phrase at an archaeological conference earlier this month in an attempt to reference free speech suppression in Nazi Germany, sparking widespread backlash. Now, his colleagues — including the speaker he interrupted at the conference — plan to send an open letter to the University demanding his termination.

University of York Ph.D. candidate Liz Quinlan and two of her colleagues, Harvard University Ph.D. student Melina Seabrook and Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History Ph.D. student Ayushi Nayak, wrote an open letter on Jan. 12 outlining three demands to the University: placing Schuyler — an associate professor of anthropology and associate curator-in-charge at the Penn Museum — on immediate administrative leave, conducting a review of Penn's grievance procedures so it can better address discriminatory behavior, and terminating Schuyler's employment.

The open letter includes a petition for those who support its demands, which Nayak said has gained more than 300 signatures as of Friday evening. The authors plan to leave the petition open indefinitely, but will send it to Penn's Anthropology faculty, School of Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Fluharty, and Co-Interim Directors of the Penn Museum Melissa Smith, Amanda Mitchell-Boyask, and Steve Tinney this week.

"Coupled with the blatant misogyny of interrupting and talking down to a female colleague during her invited talk, doing something as heinous as a Nazi salute on a public and recorded video call shows Schuyler’s lack of care. More importantly, his behaviour reveals his brazen assumption and later an admission, that he believed he would not face consequences for his actions," the letter states. 

At the conference, the event moderator gave Schuyler permission to briefly interrupt Quinlan as she answered a question about increasing accessibility to future Society for Historical Archaeology virtual conferences. After making a plea for members to attend the SHA's upcoming Philadelphia conference, Schuyler asked how the pandemic impacted membership renewals for 2021. Deeming his question off topic, Quinlan attempted to redirect the conversation to virtual conference accessibility.

After asserting that he has "free speech" and should be allowed to discuss the matter during the conference, Schuyler raised his arm in a Nazi salute and said "Sieg heil to you," a victory phrase once used by the Nazi Party and now used by white supremacists.

Schuyler previously told The Daily Pennsylvanian that he believed his speech was being suppressed and was attempting to reference the limits on free speech in Nazi Germany. He added that he later regretted his actions and does not endorse Nazism. 

In response, Penn's Anthropology Department canceled the class Schuyler was set to teach in the spring semester, ANTH 220: "Historical Archaeology Laboratory." The department, as well as Fluharty, the Penn Museum, and Penn Hillel released statements condemning Schuyler's actions, but were silent about whether he would be fired. A student petition demanding that Penn fire Schuyler has garnered more than 1,800 signatures as of Wednesday evening. 

"Please show us, by holding Dr. Robert Schuyler fully accountable for his heinous acts, that you condemn this behavior and are committed in your fight against all forms of prejudice, and move our field forward to create a better environment for everyone," the open letter states.

University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy declined to comment on the letter or whether the University was considering its demands. 

Nayak shared the letter on Twitter on Jan. 12, demanding "real accountability in academia."

"We wrote this letter because this sort of stuff happens all the time in academia and there isn't ever any form of accountability," Nayak told the DP. "We wanted to put our voices out there, loudly and firmly against something like this."

Nayak said that while she was happy with the Anthropology department's response, she felt the University response was lacking, attributing this to bureaucratic processes and tenure. 

"Normally when this sort of thing happens, universities will cite tenure as their reason for not being able to take any action, and what we were trying to highlight is that tenure shouldn't be used to shield any form of bigotry," Nayak said, adding that universities should not put more weight on a professor's intellectual ability than they do on fostering a positive academic environment. 

In an essay she published on Medium, Quinlan wrote that she is continuing to monitor Penn's response, which she believes remains inadequate.

"I do believe that Dr. Schuyler’s actions warrant removal from his positions at the University," Quinlan wrote in the essay. "His first reaction to being redirected by a junior colleague after he has interrupted her was to shout, and the second reaction was to accuse her of being a Nazi." 

Quinlan wrote that in addition to using the Nazi phrase and salute, "Schuyler could be seen visibly shaking his head, sneering, and laughing derisively" while she was speaking about the original topic of increasing accessibility for virtual conferences. She added that he also attempted to interrupt again after another of her prepared statements, but was quickly muted. 

"I wasn’t upset about him disagreeing with me at all. I was upset about an audience member interrupting an invited speaker (me) to add unsolicited comments and ask off-topic questions," Quinlan wrote. "As a woman I was upset that an older male colleague had interrupted my speaking time to bring up his own opinions." 

Quinlan declined a request for comment from the DP. 

"This isn't about universities taking punitive measures whenever someone trips up, which I know is what some people have said about our letter," Nayak said. "There isn't any defense for what he did."

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