There are new calls for the termination of incoming Boston University sociology professor Saida Grundy after disclosure that she has a criminal record from Michigan. Grundy has become the best known academic at BU before even starting her academic career at the institution . . . for all the worst reasons. However, at the risk of being called an apologist, I again believe that this is not grounds for termination and that BU should allow Grundy to assume her teaching post.
The first calls for her termination came after it was disclosed that Grundy used Twitter to denounce white men as the central problem population at universities and described how she tries not to do business with white people. After an outcry from alumni, Boston University president Robert Brown expressed “disappointment” with her statements and Grundy herself apologized for what she called “indelicate” wording. New calls were heard after it came out that Grundy attacked a white woman and rape victim on Facebook who expressed her personal feelings over an article criticizing actress Patricia Arquette for her call at the Oscars for equal pay for women.
On both occasions, I wrote that I would have had great reservations about hiring Grundy on a faculty but that, as a current professor, she should be afforded the protection of free speech in making controversial and even racist comments. These controversies highlight a long-standing debate that we have had over the increasing trend toward firing people for their speech on social media and associations in their private lives. This can range from teachers posting vacation pictures to obnoxious employees engaged in sexist or offensive comments.
In this case, you have an actual crime but it was presumably disclosed (if it was not, that would clearly be grounds for termination). In 2008, Grundy admitted that she used multiple pictures of another woman to create a fake account on an adult website in a jealous rage over the woman dating a former boyfriend of Grundy. She was a graduate student at the University of Michigan at the time. Grundy was charged with felony counts of identity theft and using computers to commit a crime as well as a misdemeanor count of malicious use of a telecommunications service.
She eventually pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor count in exchange for the dismissal of the felonies and given probation until June 2009.
Frankly, I was a bit surprised that the severity of the charges in a case of an obvious jealous rage. This was not done for financial or pecuniary benefit. It was stupid and was legitimately reported to the police. The sounds like the type of count stacking that prosecution engage in to force people to plead, though there was probably little need for coercion in this case. It remains a simple misdemeanor committed years ago. As long as it was disclosed, I would not view that crime as a barrier to employment.
None of this changes my view that BU is legitimately under scrutiny for the original hiring decision of someone who has such obvious anger issues and holds what appear racist and sexist views. If those issues were not raised during the hiring process, the question is whether there was an adequate review of Grundy and her history. I would have a great number of questions for someone who holds such views that relate directly to her scholarship and intellectual approach. However, she was hired and I have greater concerns over the disciplining of academics for expressing unpopular views in their academic writings or public commentary.
As I discussed before, there is a contrast in this approach with the rising number of terminations of non-academic employees for public conduct or social media postings. However, in addition to raising concerns about some of those cases, there is the added element of academic freedom that runs to the core of our profession. Academics are given tenure and protections precisely to allow them to challenge conventional thinking or social mores. That sometimes mean that we protect low-grade lows like those of Professor Grundy and others. However, the alternative is a slippery slope of speech regulation for academics that endangers the entire academic enterprise in my view. This issue of speech limitations have become a rising concern on campuses across the country. I would hope that Professor Grundy would be the first to come to the defense of an academic who uses the same freedom to criticize African-Americans as she has criticized whites as in the case of the Duke professor. Indeed, that is one academic paper that I would be eager to read from Professor Grundy once she starts at Boston University in July.
What do you think?