In February, we discussed investigation of St. Joseph’s University math professor Gregory Manco after he criticized reparations anonymously on social media. It was a direct and serious attack on free speech and ultimately the university concluded that Manco did not violate any school policy. However, in a chilling turn of events, the university has now refused to renew his contract. The message seems clear that, even if you are found to have protected speech, you are not protected as an academic for raising a dissenting voice . . . even anonymously.
The controversy began over three tweets from Manco’s anonymous Twitter account, “South Jersey Giants.” Manco compared slavery reparations to the great-great-grandchild of a murder victim asking the perpetrator’s great-great-grandchild for compensation. He also observed that racial training “divides us and *worsens* race relations.” Finally, when a woman said that black people and Native Americans “have been hurt horribly” in the United States, Manco responded “yet here you still are.”
Manco received a written notice from the school’s human resources department that he was responsible for tweets “biased or discriminatory,” and he has since been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.
It is easy to see why many would be offended by how he expressed his views, including the statement “Now get this racist reparation bulls**t out of your head for good.” However, other academics espousing anti-police or anti-Republican views have used similar language without triggering a campaign for termination.
We have previously discussed the concern that academics are allowed (correctly) to voice extreme views on social justice and police misconduct, but that there is less tolerance for the voicing of opposing views on such subjects. There were analogous 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. There was also such an incident at the University of London involving Bahar Mustafa as well as one involving a University of Pennsylvania professor. Some intolerant statements against students are deemed free speech while others are deemed hate speech or the basis for university action. There is a lack of consistency or uniformity in these actions which turn on the specific groups left aggrieved by out-of-school comments. There is also a tolerance of faculty and students tearing down fliers and stopping the speech of conservatives. Indeed, even faculty who assaulted pro-life advocates was supported by faculty and lionized for her activism.
Nevertheless, in the past, I have defended extremist views on academic freedom grounds lie those of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who has defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence. (Loomis also writes for the site “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.”) I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments “detonating white people,” 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.
In the Manco case, the free speech objections raised by many of us were seemingly and begrudging accepted. They had to be accepted given the express protections in the faculty handbook for such speech. However, it proved a pyrrhic victory for Manco who was then promptly canned when his contract came up. While the university insists that it made this decision on a math position on entirely separate (but unexplained) grounds, the decision appears to be raw retaliation for voicing such dissenting views and then challenging the university.
For other faculty members, the message could not be more clear: free speech rights will not protect you. In a statement to The College Fix, spokesperson Gail Benner stated that this was nothing more than a decision based on an evaluation of need. Moreover, she insisted “a non-renewal does not affect an individual’s eligibility for future employment opportunities with the University.” That latter statement is almost laughable. After suspending Manco for possible bias and discrimination, the university is now terminating him. He will be viewed as damaged goods or a prohibitively high risk by any other school. The campaign to punish him for his opposing views will likely resume at any school considering him for a new position. Once tagged, you are shunned and sanctioned.
Whatever the “needs” in math (and how they have changed in a year), one would hope that the university would strive to retain Manco as a demonstration of its commitment to free speech. After all, much of the last year for Manco was lost on an abusive investigation. That is, of course, unless the whole point is to send the countervailing message on the perils of free speech.
This is precisely why fewer and fewer professors are willing to speak out on such questions. Most remain in cringing silence or, worse yet, join the mob in denouncing colleagues. The threat is too great for most academics to stand against a mob.
Manco shows that, even when successful, you can lose everything that matters to an intellectual from speaking and publishing opportunities to your very job. A conservative North Carolina professor faced calls for termination over controversial tweets and was pushed to retire. Dr. Mike Adams, a professor of sociology and criminology, had long been a lightning rod of controversy. In 2014, we discussed his prevailing in a lawsuit that alleged discrimination due to his conservative views. He was then targeted again after an inflammatory tweet calling North Carolina a “slave state.” That led to his being pressured to resign with a settlement. He then committed suicide just days before his last day as a professor.
Manco will face obvious challenges in any lawsuit. These are discretionary decisions and most courts do not want micromanage academic decision making. The university knows that. It wanted to avoid further controversy by terminating the academic. Problem solved. However, there remains a danger that a court could allow such a case to go to discovery and Manco could demand documents and depositions to expose any connection to his earlier investigation.
The university insists that it is merely made a decision based on “an as-needed basis.” However, it was made abundantly clear that St. Joseph’s University did not “need” faculty challenging issues like reparations, even anonymously.