It is not uncommon for university professors to share their views on the curriculum of public schools. At least, that may have been the view of Jay Bergman, a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University, when he wrote to the state’s superintendents to criticize the inclusion of “1619 Project curriculum” in schools. Fellow professors have now asked for Bergman to be disciplined and even fired for expressing his views of the project, which is most associated with former New York Times writer and now Howard University Professor Nikole Hannah-Smith.
As have previously discussed the 1619 Project which has been heavily criticized by historians and others for some of its sweeping historical claims over slavery being a motivation for the American Revolution and labeling figures like Abraham Lincoln as racists.
According to The Atlantic , Princeton historian Sean Wilentz criticized that work and some of Hannah-Jones’s other work in a letter signed by scholars James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes. They raised “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing.’” They objected that the work represented “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” The Atlantic noted that “given the stature of the historians involved, the letter is a serious challenge to the credibility of the 1619 Project, which has drawn its share not just of admirers but also critics.” Researchers claimed the New York Times ignored them in raising the errors.
The New York Times was criticized later for a “clarification” that undermined a main premise of her writing. In March 2020, the New York Times wrote “We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists. A note has been appended to the story as well.” None of that appeared to concern the Pulitzer Committee anymore than University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
Many still support the Project, including historians. For her part, Hannah-Smith has acknowledged errors but insisted that they do not change the thrust of the research. It is the type of academic debate that should be welcomed with people of good-faith on both sides.
That is not exactly the response that Bergman encountered after he lashed out at the inclusion of the project for K-12 level students. Bergman declared that the curriculum “presents America’s history as driven, nearly exclusively, by white racism” and insisted that “nearly everything else in the 1619 Project, is entirely false, mostly false, or misleading.” The letter contains over-heated rhetoric (like calling Hannah-Smith an “anti-White bigot”) as well as characterizations of supporters that are insulting and gratuitous. However, this is not about agreement with these arguments or the language but the response to them that is so concerning from a free speech perspective.
The campaign against Bergman began when Putnam Superintendent Daniel Sullivan chose not to simply respond to Bergman but wrote the university president and provost to object to his voicing his criticism. (One site claims that it was Sullivan who went to the media to trigger a public backlash against Bergman).
In the letter below, Sullivan admits that there are errors in the 1619 Project but objects to “…Professor Bergman’s utter disregard for the centuries long struggles of minority communities.” That may be a fair criticism but what is the point of writing to his superiors if Sullivan was not seeking to get the school to pressure or take action against Bergman for voicing his opinion? Sullivan claims that a professor writing to object to curriculum is “a blatant effort to force his ideology” on the school. Were those academics writing in support of the curriculum are not advancing their “ideology”? All academics should ideally take an issue in K-12 curriculum and share their views on the merits of such material. Indeed, most universities ask faculty in annual reviews to detail how they have engaged with the wider community to contribute to different causes and efforts.
The most concerning element in the controversy was the response of Bergman’s colleagues at the university. A letter signed by six members of the history department denounced Bergman’s views. The letter was, in my view, an appropriate response to the merits his arguments, though it did not delve into specifics on his criticism of the 1619 project. The one aspect that struck me as odd was the ending that stated “[Bergman’s] opinions about the schools’ curriculum, if he wanted to express them, should have been delivered as a citizen, not as a professor of history opining in an area in which he lacks expertise.” They then however proceed to sign their names with their titles as professors of history. It is entirely common for professors to use their titles (or for others to note their titles) when speaking publicly on controversies. Professors are also encouraged to contribute to their communities and contribute to national and local debates.
Even more chilling was the response of Professor Kristine Larson in the astronomy and geological sciences departments. According to a site supporting Bergman, Larson wrote the following on May 5th a letter posted to a university listserv (and copied to the university president) :
Once again the good name of our University has been dragged through the mud through the actions of one of our own: https://www.nbcconnecticut.com/investigations/strong-words-on-slavery-concerns-raised-after-email-blast-by-ct-professor/2479664/
Dr. Bergman has been publicly spouting his offensive personal politics for years, always hiding behind the protective curtain of a private citizen’s rights under the First Amendment.
This time he crossed the line, by:
Using his CCSU email to distribute his latest diatribe, and 2) Signing said email as “Professor of History / Central Connecticut State University.”
He is clearly intending for the recipient to believe he is acting in his role as a Professor of History employed by CCSU (he lists his role on the Board of the NAS second to his CCSU affiliation).
While I understand that the CSU and CCSU administrations might have their hands tied in this matter (and I heartily thank them both for their response letters to the Putnam School Superintendent), we faculty do not.
I am therefore formally requesting that the Faculty Senate Steering Committee craft an article of Censure (or its equivalent based on its bylaws) against Professor Bergman. At the very least, I ask that as individuals we vociferously and unequivocally condemn his actions.
He does not speak for us – he should stop misleading others into believing that he does.
While I cannot deny that he remains an employee of this institution, from this moment forward, I personally will stop considering him to be a colleague. He has abused that privilege for far too long.
So Larson wants to censure a professor for voicing his opposing view on this controversial project? There is no a hint of concern for free speech or academic freedom — let alone specific responses to the points that he raises in the letter. She just insists that “He does not speak for us – he should stop misleading others into believing that he does.”
Bergman never said that he was speaking for the university. It is Larson who wants the university to speak officially to condemn his viewpoints. Moreover, it is very common for academics to use their emails for personal use. Indeed, these email was expressing Bergman’s view of an academic work and its historical foundations. Just as the other professors used their titles (and presumably their emails) in responding to Bergman, there is nothing untoward in the use of such an email for faculty to discuss such controversies.
I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments denouncing police, calling for Republicans to suffer, strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements. However, professors and students are routinely investigated, suspended, and sanctioned for countervailing views. There were also controversies at the University of California and Boston University, where there have been criticism of such a double standard, even in the face of criminal conduct.
Once again, this has nothing to do with the merits or the tenor of Bergman’s letter. I am as supportive of this colleagues voicing their objections to his letter as I am Bergman’s right to voice his original opinion. What I oppose are efforts to have the school formally censure or take other actions against an academic for espousing dissenting views. Larson’s letter does not even suggest a hint of concern over free speech. She does not want to respond to Bergman. She only wants to silence or punish him.
The most telling line in her letter was objecting to how Bergman has been “publicly spouting his offensive personal politics for years, always hiding behind the protective curtain of a private citizen’s rights under the First Amendment.” We have seen a growing movement in universities in treating free speech as a danger rather than the defining right of our country. This growing intolerance for free speech has even reached law schools, as discussed in a column this week. Larson captures that anti-free speech movement by denouncing those who are “always hiding behind the protective curtain of a private citizen’s rights under the First Amendment.” Free speech does not allow people to “hide.” It does the exact opposite. The act of free speech is to allow people to stand publicly and openly behind their convictions. Larson simply declares Bergman’s “personal politics” as “offensive” and calls for university action against him. Larson would eliminate the free speech protections to get at those who hold, what she views, as “offensive” thoughts. Then there will be hiding as professors withdraw further into the shadows — avoiding those like Larson who will not tolerate opposing viewpoints.
As I have maintained at my own university for years, professors can individually or as groups voice their views on such controversies. However, some faculty want to use their institutions to denounce dissenting views despite professors or students who may hold opposing views. These faculty members know that it is hard for other professors to speak out against such institutional statements when they could then be accused of the same “abusive” viewpoints. Many faculty likely do not support Bergman’s arguments but support his right to voice his opinions. Yet, the whole point of forcing institutional statements is to convey that such viewpoints are unacceptable. It is less effective in convincing than coercing others.
NBC originally acquired the letters below.