Drexel University Professor George Ciccariello-Maher is an unabashed lightning rod for controversy. Last Christmas, he wrote how he longed for “white genocide”. Then recently he wrote how he wanted to “vomit” when an airline passenger gave up his first class seat to a soldier. It is chilling and obnoxious rhetoric, but he made these comments on his private social media sites. The investigation by Drexel appears to be the direct result of donors threatening to withdraw support for the university. As such, it is a highly troubling intrusion into the right of free speech of faculty.
As we previously discussed, in December, on his Twitter account, Drexel University Professor George Ciccariello-Maher said “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” He clearly wanted to get a rise out of people and he succeeded. He told his critic to work on their “sense of humor.”
When a man gave up his first class seat to the soldier, Ciccariello-Maher said that, as he tried not to vomit, he wanted to “yell about Mosul.”
That is not all. He previously posted “#BringBackFields, then do him like #OldYeller.” The reference to being shot was taken as directed at Ben Fields, the South Carolina deputy school resource officer who violently arrested a female high school student.” He has also posted the words “Off the Pigs.”
As we have previously discussed (including the story involving an Oregon professor), there remains an uncertain line in what language is protected for teachers in their private lives. The incident also raises what some faculty have complained is a double or at least uncertain standard. We have previously discussed controversies at the University of California and Boston University, where there have been criticism of a double standard, even in the face of criminal conduct. There were also such incident at the University of London involving Bahar Mustafa as well as one involving a University of Pennsylvania professor.
In this case, Ciccariello-Maher has caused an uproar among donors and prospective students. Now the school has launched an investigation. Why? He clearly has written highly insulting and controversial things. He has the right to do so. Yet, in an April 3 email from the university’s provost, M. Brian Blake, Ciccariello-Maher was notified of the investigation into his “extremely damaging conduct.” The school empaneled “a special committee of inquiry to investigate your conduct and provide findings and recommendations.”
Notably, the provost wrote that “at least two potential significant donors to the university have withheld previously promised donations.” That is precisely the type of motivation that academic freedom rules are designed to protect against. Blake merely describes how his personal speech has angered many instead of a few, which is hardly the measure of the principle of academic freedom. To the contrary, it is designed to protect regardless of whether the impact of the writings are great or small. Blake however wrote:
“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, and at least two potential significant donors to the university have withheld previously promised donations. . . . The nearly unmanageable volume of venomous calls that the university has received — during this critical time in the academic year when prospective students are deciding where they want to attend college — compelled the university to consider turning off its phones in the days following your tweet, and we have real concerns that admitted students were unable to get through with questions.”
Blake insists that he previously warned Ciccariello-Maher that his social media posting could result in discipline. The school is citing its policy on academic freedom as permitting investigation and possible discipline. It states:
“The college or university teacher is a citizen, a member of a learned profession, and an officer of an educational institution. When s/he speaks or writes as a citizen, s/he should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but his/her special position in the community imposes special obligations. As a people of learning and an educational officer, s/he should remember that the public may judge his/her profession and his/her institution by his/her utterances. Hence, s/he should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinion of others, and should make every effort to indicate that s/he is not an institutional spokesperson.”
The discussion of “restraint” hardly reads like the reservation of authority to punish academics for what the school itself called personal views that “should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” Moreover, Blake’s move followed demands from politicians to fire Ciccariello-Maher adding to the concerns over retaliation for unpopular views.
“The controlling principle is that 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. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar.”
Thousands of university professors (including this one) engage in blogs and social media to express political, social, and academic viewpoints. Inevitably, there will be those who view many statements to be offensive or insulting. However, these academics retain not simply their rights of free speech but have historically been protected by the principles of academic freedom. If schools like Drexel destroy that tradition, any professor could be dismissed after some wealthy donor complains to a university president. University administrators are notorious for putting the bottomline ahead of principle in such controversies. The answer to Ciccariello-Maher is readily apparent: response with your own postings and arguments. That is the beauty of free speech. Bad speech can be countered by good speech.
Ciccariello-Maher has four degrees and teaches in the Department of Global Studies and Modern Languages:
- BA, Government and Economics, St. Lawrence University, 2001
- BA, Honors/MA Social and Political Sciences, Cambridge University, 2003
- MA, Political Science, University of California at Berkeley, 2004
- PhD, Political Science, University of California at Berkeley, 2010
He describes his academic focus as centering “on what could be called the ‘decolonial turn’ in political thought, the moment of epistemic and political interrogation that emerges in response to colonialism and global social inequality.” His first book, We Created Chávez, resented what he calls the “people’s history” of contemporary Venezuela “demonstrating that Hugo Chávez was not the cause, but rather the result, of a broader and more fundamental transformative process.” His current work in progress tries to “plumb the history of political thought for a radicalized understanding of the relationship between conflict and group identity (in the work of Georges Sorel), further charting the decolonization of this very conception and its projection onto a global framework (in the work of Frantz Fanon and Enrique Dussel).”
It is a mistake to judge this controversy based on the merits of the views of Ciccariello-Maher. Rather, it is difficult to see the limiting principle for Drexel, particularly when the university admits that it is responding to donors and prospective students. The problem with Ciccariello-Maher appears to be that the university has found his exercise of free speech to be prohibitively expensive. If he is fired or disciplined, how much protection will his colleagues enjoy in the future. How much money has to be at stake or how many donors have to call? The investigation itself creates a chilling message for Drexel faculty that their remarks outside of the school will be reviewed and potentially investigated if it threatens financial support or prospective students.
What do you think?