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In the last few days sociology professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, one of the nation’s leading advocates for free higher education, has come under sustained and increasingly preposterous attack for some of her social media posts.
The attacks have focused on two sets of tweets. In one, posted several weeks ago, Goldrick-Rab twice characterized Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who recently slashed budgets and eviscerated faculty governance and tenure the University of Wisconsin system where Goldrick-Rab works, as a fascist. Those tweets were dumb, Goldrick-Rab has apologized for them, and they aren’t likely to be of much lasting interest beyond the fainting-couch brigades of the online right-wing.
It’s the other set of tweets that brought Goldrick-Rab more broad condemnation, condemnation that reflects far more poorly on her antagonists than on her.
The second set of tweets actually predated the ones discussed above — Goldrick-Rab posted them a month and a half ago (though nobody paid them any particular attention until the outrage machine got fired up last week). Here’s what they consisted of:
Back on May 31, a graduating high school senior posted this group photo of himself and some friends celebrating their impending enrollment at the University of Wisconsin:
— Nathan Stanley (@nstanley8) May 31, 2015
About a week later, Goldrick-Rab stumbled upon the tweet, and replied with this:
Some of the students responded to her tweet, she responded to some of their responses — tweeting that she thought they should know about the recent events at UW because she assumed they would want “a degree of value” and she didn’t “want students 2 waste their $.”
And that was it. The whole thing amounted to about a dozen tweets over the course of a little over an hour late one Sunday night, with pretty much nobody watching.
When the College Fix reported on the exchange a couple of days ago, though, it referred to the tweets as “shocking new allegations” of what the UW College Republicans called “harassment” that “cross[ed] all boundaries of professionalism and respect.”
That’s overheated enough, but it’s become standard rhetoric in disputes like these. What followed isn’t.
On Thursday, the University Committee of the University of Wisconsin-Madison — the Executive Committee of the university’s Faculty Senate — released a statement declaring that while they “support free speech and diversity of opinion, as has been our tradition,”
Such freedom requires responsible behavior and in this respect we are deeply dismayed with the actions Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab has taken toward students and faculty on Twitter in recent weeks to discourage them from coming here. While claiming to stand for academic freedom, she has in fact damaged that principle and our institution with inaccurate statements and misrepresentations.
This is preposterous. Academic freedom doesn’t “require responsible behavior.” You don’t “damage” it by exercising it in ways others dislike. Academic freedom is precisely the freedom to act in ways that others find irresponsible or obnoxious — that’s what academic freedom is for. That’s what it is.
Goldrick-Rab is an active and an innovative user of social media. Twitter, specifically, is a medium she’s engaged with and curious about, regularly exploring its boundaries and potential by doing stuff like searching for tweets using the word FAFSA and then retweeting what strangers have to say about it. Her use of Twitter is part of her scholarship and part of her activism, and her freedom to use it is essential to her academic freedom. Again, that’s what academic freedom is — the freedom to innovate and explore without fear of reprisal.
At a moment when tenure has just been dramatically weakened at the University of Wisconsin, for an official faculty body to cast a professor’s public speech in her field of study as beyond the pale isn’t just intellectually shoddy, it’s dangerous.
Now, there’s a discussion to be had about whether Goldrick-Rab’s tweets represent a useful model of how to use Twitter for activist ends. My own sense is that entering into strangers’ timelines to buttonhole them about your own causes is rarely all that productive in any context, and if Goldrick-Rab had dragged the encouter out or highlighted it for her ten thousand followers I might have some qualms. But she didn’t — she just tweeted at few people who were talking about her university, talked with them a bit, then left them alone.
And the idea that those students were somehow cowed or intimidated by her tweets is contradicted eloquently by their own responses:
— Michael Mleczko (@mike_mleczko34) June 7, 2015
They had the situation entirely in hand. It should have ended there.
Zandria Robinson, an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Memphis, has left her job in the wake of media attention to her tweets on whiteness and the Confederate flag.
Robinson’s Twitter account is now locked, but according to an article in today’s Washington Times she recently tweeted that the Confederate flag is “the ultimate symbol of white heteropatriarchal capitalism,” and that “Whiteness is most certainly and inevitably terror.” She also retweeted a Tweet declaring that”the USA flag stands for the same thing as the confederate flag.”
About an hour ago, the University of Memphis tweeted the following:
Zandria Robinson is no longer employed by the University of Memphis.
— UofMemphis (@uofmemphis) June 30, 2015
Early this month Robinson was criticized by the conservative website Campus Reform for her comments on Facebook directed at those who believe “that students of color will simply get into graduate programs because they are racial or ethnic minorities,” as well as for tweets about whiteness and racism.
I have reached out to the university for clarification of their tweet. I will update when and if I receive a response.
Update | Worth noting that Robinson’s research field is the sociology of race, specifically blackness as it intersects with popular culture. She was employed as an assistant professor at the U of Memphis, where she received her MA, for three years.
Second Update | The original version of this post said that Professor Robinson was “apparently fired” — given the tone and timing of the university’s announcement, that seemed the most likely explanation for their tweet. Now, however, multiple people on Twitter, including a guy who seems to be her husband, are indicating that Robinson left voluntarily and has taken another job.
I put a request for comment into the university president when I first posted, and I will continue to follow up.
Third Update | If, as it increasingly appears, Zandria Robinson quit the U of Memphis for a more congenial job, then today’s tweet from her former employer — and their subsequent silence — was incredibly churlish and vindictive. The tweet was constructed to leave the impression that she was fired, and that she was fired for her social media posts. The effect of that is to hype up her attackers, poison the well at her new job, and ratchet up other scholars’ fears.
And this not merely from her employer of three years, but from her alma mater as well. Way to treat an alum, guys.
July 2 Update | The University of Memphis responded to my request for comment yesterday, confirming what Robinson had already stated through friends — that “Dr. Robinson no longer works at the University of Memphis and has accepted a position at another University.” It provided no reply to my query as to whether she had left voluntarily.
July 3 Update | Rhodes College in Memphis, a small private liberal arts college serving a primarily white student body, has announced that Robinson has taken a position at their institution. Their statement on the hiring described Robinson as “a leading scholar and author in the areas of race, class, gender, culture, and the South” whose public statements “are sometimes provocative, controversial, and debatable.” It lauded her “expertise in…gender studies and social movements,” as well as “her extensive understanding of the complex problems of race in American society, her deep roots in the Memphis area, and many years of successful teaching experience.”
The statement goes on to note that Robinson taught at Rhodes in 2008-09, when she “was well received by students,” and that “throughout her academic career, she has consistently demonstrated a commitment to mentor all students.
It concludes as follows:
“Dr. Robinson has an extensive and impressive body of scholarship that provides clarity and context to the sound bite world of social media. This situation ultimately shines a light on Rhodes as a place where intellectual engagement and the exchange of ideas are among our highest priorities.”
A few years ago, some academics did a study of racial attitudes in small children. They wanted to find out whether generic assurances that everyone’s the same on the inside — the standard white liberal catechism of racial good feeling — actually make a difference in whether kids turn into bigots.
Telling your kid that everyone’s the same, that nobody’s better than anyone else, that everybody’s friends with everybody, accomplishes nothing. You can say that kind of stuff all day and all night — and believe me, white liberal parents do — but if that’s all you do, when a researcher sits your kid down and asks your kid whether black people are as nice or as smart or as pretty or as good as white people, they’re going to get answers that are going to make you cringe.
Because there’s bigotry floating around in the air in our society. Not anywhere near as much as there used to be, but a lot. And your kid is going to pick that up. And if that’s all your kid picks up, it’s going to stick.
So if you’re a white parent who wants your kid to not turn into a casually creepy bigot at the age of six, you need to talk about race. You need to tell your kid about racism. You need to be the first to explain racism to your kid, before that bigotry floating around in the air has a chance to land on them.
You need to say that some horrible people think that black people aren’t as nice, as smart, as pretty, as good as white people. You need to say that those people are horrible, and that they’re wrong. You need to say that people like those people — white people like those people — used to be in charge in a lot of places, but that nice, smart, good people (some, but not all, of them pretty) fought against them in the courts and on the streets and changed the rules so that the horrible people wouldn’t always win.
You need to tell them about Dr. King and Rosa Parks and Ella Baker, and you need to tell them about Bill Moore and Viola Liuzzo and Chaney and Schwerner and Goodman. You need to tell them about Frederick Douglass and John Brown and Sojurner Truth and Denmark Vesey.
On our way to Niagara Falls a few summers ago, I took my kids to Harriet Tubman’s house in Auburn NY to learn about the Underground Railroad, and to Frederick Douglass’s grave. Two years later I took them to John Brown’s homestead.
I don’t want my kids to be bigots.
I don’t want my kids to be bigots, and that’s not all. I want my kids to be fighting against the bigots. And I don’t just want them fighting, I want them winning. And so I started arming them for that fight before they were out of preschool. Because that’s what you need to do.
Those of you reading this who are parents, talk to your kids. Those of you who are going to be parents, start thinking now about how you’re going to talk to your kids, when they get here. Those of you who are siblings, talk to your brothers and sisters. Those of you who are children, talk to your parents. Talk to your friends. Talk to your teachers. Talk to your professors.
Talk. Talk. Tell them what you know. Tell them what you believe. Tell them what you’ve learned.
Don’t let them walk around not knowing.
This is a post I’ll be adding a lot of updates to, I suspect.
As of this evening, five members of the Cooper Union board of trustees have resigned. They did not go quietly.
From the letter of resignation of Mark Epstein, the former chair of the board:
As a Trustee, I am hereby resigning from the Board, effective immediately. During my term as Chairman we were able to put the school on a path to sustainability. It was going to be a difficult path with some hurdles to get over. We were on our way, but have now gotten so far off of that path due to the actions (or inactions) of the Board that I no longer want to participate. I know that there are some in the Cooper Community that will take my resignation as a false victory of some sort. I am not resigning due to any pressure from that group, rather that I no longer want to associate with them.
As a donor, I am withdrawing my financial support for the college. Although I respect the rights of those of the faculty, alumni, and students, to act as they see fit, I no longer want to support them.
If the schools fail in the future, it will not be due to the change in the scholarship policy (a major part of the sustainability plan) as some will claim. It will be due to the organized opposition to it.
This is … extraordinary.
“I no longer want to participate.” “Some will take my resignation as a false victory.” “I no longer want to associate with them.” “I am withdrawing my financial support.” “If the schools fail, it will not be due to [the imposition of tuition] as some will claim. It will be due to the organized opposition to it.”
On the internet, we call that a flounce.
The context for this resignation — and those of the other four trustees who left today — is the ongoing struggle over the future of Cooper Union. A series of deeply questionable financial decisions led the trustees to impose tuition at Cooper for the first time not long ago, leading to massive student and alumni protests and an investigation of institutional mismanagement by the state’s Attorney General. This spring the trustees offered to depose widely-despised Cooper Union president Jamshed Bharucha in hopes of resolving the AG’s probe.
The trustees who resigned today were supporters of Bharucha and nemeses of the student and alumni activists.
Daniel Libeskind was another of the trustees who quit today. Here’s a quote from his resignation letter:
I do not support the leadership and direction of this Board. I believe that decisions being taken are not in the best interest of Cooper Union.
So here’s the thing about Daniel Libeskind, a prominent celebrity architect — two months ago he went to the Wall Street Journal to complain at length about the state of the Cooper trustees. Trustee deliberations and actions were supposed to be held mostly in confidence, but Libeskind ignored that mandate while excoriating others for sharing much more minor tidbits.
Cooper Union was tuition-free for well over a century. That changed a mere seventeen months ago. Among the trustees who resigned today were some of the staunchest supporters of charging tuition. I’m not saying that these resignations mean that the tuition policy is about to be reversed — honestly, I’m not saying that. But that policy has carried an air of inevitability and inexorability since well before it was formally implemented, and now … well, let’s just say it’s hard to know what’s inevitable now.
“I am withdrawing my financial support from the college.” I mean, it’s one thing to stop donating. It’s quite another to announce that you’re going to stop donating, and to do so in your resignation letter.
The word that keeps coming to my mind is petulant.
As I write this, it’s almost 11:30 pm. Word of the trustees’ resignation hit Twitter at 6:35 pm — nearly five hours ago. But there’s not a single word about the story at any news outlet, or (as far as I can tell) at any of the other blogs that have been covering this story.
Oh, and one more thing. Mark Epstein, who today said that he is “withdrawing [his] financial support from Cooper Union” because he doesn’t support the policies of the majority of the CU trustees, said this in 2011:
“If [alumni] are that pissed off about Cooper Union and don’t want to give back, then I suggest they give back their degrees. You I mean, how do you answer a question like this: why don’t people give back to a school that gave them a free education worth now a hundred-some-odd thousand dollars? To me it’s baffling, it truly is.”
And yes, Epstein is a Cooper Union grad.
It’s baffling. It truly is.
Update | I’ve fleshed out this post with more context and more links, but there’s still nothing in the media about this extraordinary story. I expect the next shoe will drop with a bang, though — I’ll keep you posted here and on Twitter when it does.
Second Update | Brian Boucher at Artnet has a thorough story up on the resignations, adding the detail that the Cooper trustees have a meeting scheduled for today.
Third Update | News coverage of yesterday’s resignations has been trickling in all day, and I’ll have more to say about that soon. But first, here’s the other shoe: Jamshed Bharucha just announced his resignation as president of Cooper, effective as of the end of this month. The resignation letter says he will take up a position as a visiting scholar at Harvard in the fall. A statement from the Cooper Union trustees says that vice president for finance and administration William Mea will serve as interim president until a new president is chosen, and that the search committee for Bharucha’s replacement “will include representation from the faculty, students and alumni.”
Mea served in various administrative roles at three different universities before joining Cooper Union last September.
Fourth Update | The Wall Street Journal has the most thorough story on yesterday’s resignations to appear so far, and the only one to include an interview with one of the outgoing trustees. In that piece, Mark Epstein says that the board’s efforts earlier this year to nudge Bharucha out were “a terrible move,” and that “Jamshed was the right person to lead the school going forward.”
The WSJ story also includes a quote from a representative of the Attorney General, who says that while their investigation of Cooper is “still ongoing,” the AG office is “pleased that recent discussions with members of the board and school community have been both cooperative and productive.”
Fifth Update | The WSJ story has been updated with news of Bharucha’s resignation, and with a quote from Teresa Dahlberg, the Cooper Union chief academic officer, who resigned last month after two years on the job. “The Cooper Union Board of Trustees has been dysfunctional, with various factions supporting contrary goals,” she said. “Until board leadership is able to unite the board, no person serving as president will be able to unite the community.”
The eagerness of those who wound up on the losing side of this struggle to salt the earth behind them as they leave Cooper Union is remarkable and ugly.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer has been the subject of controversy over the last few days for comments she made in interviews and on Twitter about consent — views which are strongly at odds with what she’s written on the subject in the past. I wrote about this stuff a bit yesterday, but since then Dr. Ruth gave an interview with a Washington Post blogger in which she expanded on and underscored her new position:
“Loud and clear: In the Jewish tradition, it says that if that part of the male anatomy is aroused, the brain flies out of the head. It also says a man doesn’t have enough blood for two heads. What does it mean? If a man and a woman — or two men and two women — are naked in bed together, there is no way that, in the middle, he or she can say, “I changed my mind” and leave. I think people have to take the responsibility that if they are in bed together, they are willing to have some kind of sexual experience. She has no business in bed with him, and he has no business in bed with her if they don’t have an understanding that they will have sex.”
These attitudes received a lot of support on Twitter this week, so it’s worth turning down the snark a bit and saying just what exactly is so wrongheaded and dangerous about them. Here’s a list of nine ways she’s wrong:
One, there’s the business of “the Jewish tradition” — the aphorism that she previously credited to the Talmud about the brain shutting down when the prick stands up. I’ve heard this saying many times (I grew up in New York City, and I like old stuff), and I’ve never heard it as a defense of predatory sexuality. It doesn’t mean that once you get going you can’t stop yourself. It means that people who are turned on often make dumb decisions — foregoing birth control, having sex in unsafe locations, cheating on partners. It’s an observation, not a defense, and to use it as a Get Out Of Jail Free card for bad behavior is a repudiation of everything Dr. Ruth used to stand for in sex education.
Two, Westheimer claims that “there is no way that, in the middle” of sex a man or a woman can “say ‘I changed my mind’ and leave.” Sure there’s a way. You just do it. You stop. If your house was on fire, you’d stop. You can stop. Claiming you can’t stop is rapey balderdash.
But why would you stop? That’s number three and it’s not that complicated. Maybe you ate some bad seafood. Maybe you’ve got a leg cramp. Maybe you got a phone call saying that your dog died. There’s a hundred reasons why a person could decide — without it reflecting negatively at all on the person they’re in bed with — that they’re going to need a raincheck. It happens to most of us eventually, and it’s not a big deal. At all.
Fourth, there’s this: Maybe it does reflect negatively on the person you’re with, and that’s okay too. Maybe you’ve realized that being in bed with this person was a really bad idea. Maybe they let it slip that they’re not really single. Maybe you thought you had a condom and you don’t and the person you’re with responds to that in an obnoxious way. Maybe they say something belittling or insulting. Maybe you’re sobering up and realizing that this whole thing was a mistake. Maybe they’ve got horrible body odor. Whatever the reason, you wanted to before, and now you don’t want to any more — and if you don’t want to, you can stop. In fact, you should stop. There is, as Dr. Ruth herself wrote years ago, “no such thing as a point of no return, a point at which one no longer has the right to decide what will be done to one’s body.” If you want to bail, it’s your right to bail. So bail.
Three and four are lists of reasons, and number fiive is this: You don’t need a reason. Your body, your choice. Period.
“People have to take the responsibility,” she says, “that if they are in bed together, they are willing to have some kind of sexual experience.” This sentence is responsible for numbers six, seven, and eight.
Six is the fact that expressing willingness to have “some kind of sexual experience” isn’t the same as expressing willingness to have any kind of sexual experience. If you want X, and they want X plus Y, and they get petulant or coercive about Y, you know what? They just lost X. They’re being a jerk. Walk away.
Seven is that what right-now-you wants is not a contract that future-you is obligated to uphold. One of the great things about sex is that it’s an opportunity to learn a lot of intimate stuff about someone else really quickly, and sometimes that means that you’re going to learn stuff that’s going to make you want to put your pants back on. Sad for them, maybe sad for you, but if that’s where you’re at, put your damn pants on.
Eight is this: People get in bed with each other without wanting sex all the time. My dad once spent a night being spooned by a friend whose wife had just died. I’ve shared beds platonically at conferences more times than I can count.
And yes, people who are attracted to each other sometimes get in bed together without wanting sex too. “You can stay over if you like, but we’re not going to fool around” is a thing that people say. It’s a thing I’ve said, and it’s a thing I’ve had said to me.
That may not make any sense to Dr. Ruth, but you know what? It doesn’t have to. You know why?
Because nine: It’s none of her goddamn business.