Penn Professor Faces Calls For His Removal After Questioning An Anti-Racism Statement [UPDATED]

download-10We have been discussing efforts to fire professors who voice dissenting views of the basis or demands of recent protests including an effort to oust a leading economist from the University of Chicago as well as a leading linguistics professor at Harvard.  It is part of a wave of intolerance sweeping over our colleges and our newsrooms.  Now, an effort has been launched to fire University of Pennsylvania Professor Carlin Romano and to kick him off a prestigious literary group because Romano questioned the language of a proposed statement on racism in the publishing industry and even spotted an embarrassing typo.
Update: After posting the original blog, Professor Romano sent me a kind note. He then in true form (given his original email on the proposal) noted a long list of typos in my column. (Many on this blog routinely point out such typos, which are something of an embarrassing signature for me. I usually get up around 5 am to write blogs before caffeine fully takes hold). I thought it was hilarious and asked if I could mention his edits. He gracefully agreed and then pointed out two more typos. I still do not think that he should be fired.
Professor Romano is an attorney who teaches at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication. He became the latest target in academia when he questioned the language of a proposed anti-racism statement. Romano has publicly declared support for the movement and has written in the past of the need to diversify the publishing industry.  However, he wrote to object to statements that he felt failed to acknowledge the past efforts by people like him and to paint the entire industry as racist.There was a time when such criticism would have been welcomed on boards and faculties.  This is not “those times.”  NPR described Romano’s comments as “racist” without giving examples to support such a career-ending allegation.  The line that is being most cited in other coverage is Romano stating that the statement failed to acknowledge how white editors fought to be more inclusive and “[m]any of the writers cited in the letter‘s own list would never have been published if not for ecumenical, good-willed white editors and publishers who fought for the publication of black writers.”  He also noted the difficulty in past efforts to diversify because “[w]e professors especially know that accomplished black undergraduates rarely want to go into book publishing because it pays so badly.”  He even objected that the statement misspelled the name of Ahmaud Arbery, the black man shot and killed by armed white residents in Georgia.None of that sat well with those who drafted or supported the proposal.

That led to another petition demanding that Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication “prohibit Carlin Romano from teaching at Penn this fall or ever again.” An even broader effort seeks to remove him from the prestigious National Book Critics Circle, which declared that it is “facilitating a special membership meeting” to vote on the removal of Carlin Romano from its board after dozens of board members called for his removal.

Once again, we come to these disputes from the perspective of a free speech blog.  I am less concerned with the merits than I am with the right of figures like Romano to voice dissenting views. I am not familiar with Professor Romano or his views. Yet, it does not matter if Romano opposed the Black Lives Matter movement or its demands. It is a matter of the right to express divergent views. In this case, Romano did not challenge the need for a statement for greater diversity. He objected to the failure to acknowledge past efforts and the painting of the entire industry as racist.

Any such questioning of such proposals is now treated as de facto racist — followed by the now inevitable petitions.  We discussed recently however that did not allow such petitions by conservative students objecting to a Cambridge professor stating (and then repeating) that “White Lives Don’t Matter.”  That petition (which did not even seek the professor’s termination) was declared “bullying” and removed from the site. However, petitions targeting Romano for objecting to the language of a proposal as unfair is viewed as entirely acceptable by  Ironically, I support both academics in their right to such free speech as well as those posting these petitions. It is the clearly biased position of that is disconcerting from a free speech perspective.

Romano has expressed disbelief in being targeted by such petitions. He is a  former NBCC president and its current vice president of grants and, in the email, prefaced his criticism by noting that he has “probably written more articles and reviews about Philadelphia’s black literature and traditions in my 25 years at the [Philadelphia] Inquirer than anyone living, black or white.” In addition, he told The Daily Pennsylvanian: “I am pro-Black Lives Matter. I am in favor of greater diversity in the book publishing business. I am not racist, not by a long shot.”

That appears entirely immaterial. Board members resigned rather than serve with an academic who objected to the language of a Black Lives Matter proposal.  I have no objection to people criticizing his rhetoric or his position but, rather than seek clarification of his remarks or address his concerns, the demand is for removal.

The response is similar to the effort to remove University of Chicago Professor Harald Uhlig as senior editor of the prestigious Journal of Political Economy and a similar effort to remove Harvard Professor Steven Pinker from the Linguistic Society of America.

It is also similar to the successful effort to push writer Andrew Sullivan out of New York Magazine and Vox.  Sullivan noted:

And maybe it’s worth pointing out that “conservative” in my case means that I have passionately opposed Donald J. Trump and pioneered marriage equality, that I support legalized drugs, criminal-justice reform, more redistribution of wealth, aggressive action against climate change, police reform, a realist foreign policy, and laws to protect transgender people from discrimination. I was one of the first journalists in established media to come out. I was a major and early supporter of Barack Obama. I intend to vote for Biden in November.

It did not matter. Sullivan reported that colleagues said that they felt unsafe working in the same building with him because he questioned aspects of current protests or demands.

My principal concern is not that Romano will be fired at Penn. I am hopeful that the faculty will stand by a colleague regardless of their disagreement with his position. Rather, my principal concern is that this campaign has already succeeded in adding to the already glacial chilling effect on free speech and academic freedom. It is likely that this board will remove Romano if recent examples are any indicator. Few professors want to risk the possibility that they will be next to be called a racist or subjected to a petition. Indeed, in his letter, Romano references an unnamed board member who was too afraid to voice objections to the proposal’s language.

The level of fear and intimidation on faculties today is alarming. It is part of a concerted effort to deter anyone who would express dissenting views particularly of BLM as an organization or demands made in these protests.  I have heard from many professors around the country who say that they simply cannot risk being targeted and labeled a racist.  So they remain silent.  That is the point of these campaigns. When someone like Romano speaks out, they are quickly isolated, targeted, and condemned. The message is clear. There is a new orthodoxy on campuses that cannot be questioned, even by those who have expressed support for Black Lives Matter generally.

This anti-free speech environment is being fostered by the silence of professors and reporters who have adopted a purely pedestrian view as colleagues are abused or fired.  The silence will not ultimately protect those who remain.  It is a campaign that will devour its own in the loss of academic freedoms and free speech.  Free speech dies in silence and the current silence is deafening.


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