Trinity College suspends professor over Facebook posts

By Josh Varlin
30 June 2017

Trinity College President Joanna Berger-Sweeney announced Monday that Professor Johnny Eric Williams has been placed on leave following Facebook posts he made regarding race relations in the United States. Williams is an associate professor of sociology at the private liberal arts college in Hartford, Connecticut.

On June 16, Williams shared on Facebook an article from Medium titled “Let Them Fucking Die,” which argues that minorities should let bigots die. The Medium piece begins by quoting an article pointing out that House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, who was shot earlier this month in an attack on a Republican congressional baseball team practice, has ties with white supremacists and opposes LGBTQ rights, but was saved by a black Capitol Police officer who is a lesbian.

Williams later posted on June 18: “I’m fed the fuck up with self-identified ‘white’s’ daily violence directed at immigrants, Muslim, and sexual and racially oppressed people [sic]. The time is now to confront these inhuman assholes and end this now.” He also posted that it was time to “put [an] end to the vectors of [self-identified whites’] destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.”

He concluded the latter post with the hashtag “#LetThemFuckingDie,” an apparent reference to the Medium piece he had shared earlier.

Right-wing news sites such as the Washington Times and the Blaze smeared Williams, painting him as someone who was “calling white people ‘inhuman a-holes’ who need to ‘die’” (Washington Times).

This filthy campaign sparked a wave of threats against Williams and Trinity College, leading to a shutdown of the campus on June 21. Williams and his family left the state of Connecticut in the face of the death threats.

The World Socialist Web Site opposes Williams’ racialist conceptions and their unnecessarily provocative expression in his public Facebook posts. However, there is no indication in his posts that he was calling for violence against whites or even agreeing with the Medium post’s contention that minorities should show “indifference to [bigots’] well-being.”

Williams has apologized for his posts and denied that he was inciting violence. He said in an email to the college that his “only aim was to bring awareness to white supremacy and to inspire others to address these kinds of injustices.”

In response to this manufactured furor, Trinity College President Berger-Sweeney issued statements on Williams’ posts that combined cowardice and complacency. Her June 21 statement began by noting that Williams’ posts “resulted in a loud and public rebuke and landed Trinity College in a national spotlight, both in the media and across various social media platforms.”

Apparently lining up behind the right-wing media campaign against a faculty member at her college, Berger-Sweeney continued, “To be clear, both personally and on behalf of the College that I represent, I do not condone hate speech or calls to incite violence.”

Berger-Sweeney devoted most of her June 21 statement to publicly rebuking Williams for sharing the Medium article and claiming that Williams’ statements and use of the hashtag were “reprehensible.” It was only toward the end that she made a pro forma statement in support of academic freedom. In the penultimate paragraph of the seven-paragraph statement, she noted the violent threats against Williams and Trinity College, lamely criticizing them as not being “an acceptable response.”

The June 21 statement was followed by a brief statement on June 26 announcing that Williams “has been placed on leave, effectively immediately [sic].” The statement also said, “The review by the Dean of the Faculty of the events concerning Professor Williams will continue,” adding in a perfunctory manner a boilerplate commitment to “engage in conversations” about academic freedom and the use of social media.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has opposed the campaign against Williams and characterized both the threats against the professor and his suspension as attacks on academic freedom. In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Henry Reichman, the chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, bluntly called Berger-Sweeney’s June 26 statement “one of the most mealymouthed statements I’ve ever read.”

He continued: “What on earth does ‘we must be able to engage in conversations about these difficult and complex issues’ mean? Conversations about race, like the one in which [Williams] was participating on social media (and not in his capacity as a Trinity faculty member)? Or the conversations about academic freedom and freedom of speech to which Berger-Sweeney refers? These freedoms are not simply topics to ‘discuss’ and ‘converse’ about; they are first and foremost principles to defend.”

The attacks on Williams follow a string of violent threats against professors for controversial public statements, including Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, who has faced death threats after criticizing President Donald Trump during a commencement address at Hampshire College.

There are also parallels to the reactionary campaign against Evergreen State College Professor Bret Weinstein, who faced protests and threats after he opposed a college event calling for white students and faculty to voluntarily absent themselves from campus for a day. Evergreen State College President George Bridges weakly opposed demands that Weinstein be fired, but expressed his general support for the anti-Weinstein protests.

In many cases, college administrators are more concerned about safeguarding their institution’s reputation and donation stream than defending faculty members’ academic freedom. Even in the case of an organized right-wing media attack on professors, as in the case of Professor Williams, college presidents often prioritize avoiding controversy over the defense of democratic rights that is essential for universities to be sites of free inquiry and debate.

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