In June, Trinity College suspended professor Johnny Eric Williams after he shared a controversial post on Facebook. The post Williams shared suggested that people of color should “let them f—ing die,” referring to white people who were racist toward non-white medical professionals. Williams’ actions yielded a social media avalanche and protests before Trinity College decided to not only suspend the sociology professor at the end of the month, but also briefly close off its campus.
The media frenzy surrounding Trinity College has since died down, but on Sunday, the Washington Post published a feature on the changing role of university professors in today’s political climate — a time when ideas that were previously unheard of throughout modern history have wormed their way back into the mainstream at the expense of many marginalized groups within America’s increasingly diverse population.
The feature, entitled “What it feels like when a professor’s comments ignite a fury,” is woven with perspectives from a number of stakeholders in this campus political shift, from a representative of the American Association of University Professors to a female professor at Georgetown University who confronted white nationalist Richard Spencer when he came to speak at the university, and was widely trolled as a result of this.
The article serves as a clear — and not unjustified — warning of the dangers and vitriol that university faculty who dare to publicly take political stances might face. Today’s national political dialogue includes no shortage of big-picture debates, and yet the mere act of weighing in on these big-picture debates has ironically become one in and of itself — and a big one, at that.
The definition of “being political” has dramatically broadened in the era of President Donald Trump, which is particularly impactful for university professors whose jobs can sometimes depend on their neutrality. Ultimately, in the face of this culture shift, it’s become increasingly clear that forcing college faculty to inorganically transform their classrooms into depoliticized spheres is doing more harm than good.
As a society, we’ve collectively reached a moment in which almost everything has become “politics.” Now, it has become a matter of politics to be respectful or to call your peer a “liberal snowflake” and go on speaking when they tell you a topic makes them uncomfortable; to give or not to give a platform to pseudoscience that says African Americans are biologically inferior to white people at universities. Openly taking stances about what may have once seemed like the norm — that women are the equals of men and have a right to be part of the workforce, that where you were born should not limit your access to the American Dream — has become a politically charged act.
To be neutral at a time when that which was once self-obvious is now suddenly and dangerously on the table for discussion is no easy feat — especially for academics, many of whom have studied the historical consequences of silence in times like this. To explicitly or implicitly demand neutrality from professors who lecture about politics, history, gender, race and identity in today’s political climate benefits no one.
Giving equal weight to fundamentally unequal ideologies establishes dangerous false equivalences that are often the forces that normalize hatred and bigotry. This can also breed ignorance in students who may be misled about history or current events if their professors equate vastly different experiences or vastly different events for the sake of adhering to a status quo that discourages them from “taking sides.”
In the era of “fake news” — a time when inaccurate information, sensationalized headlines and premature reporting, often with one slant or another, are dominating social media — students should be able to rely on their classrooms and academic environments to be sites of truth and honest, factual discussions. And put simply, when large-scale humanitarian debates such as the reality and urgency of climate change have become written off as “politics,” it’s become impossible to provide truth and honest, factually based discussion without being “political.”
It’s quite a tall order to ask a professor to discuss climate change as a matter of “some believe it, some don’t,” when people are literally dying, starving and getting sick as a result of this ecological phenomenon. And yet, in today’s polarizing political climate, to unequivocally say that climate change is not only objective fact but also a human rights issue is to inject “liberal bias” into academic dialogue.
As of late, the USC administration has contributed to dismantling this dangerous and prevalent norm with two community memos responding to recent Trump administration decisions. One from earlier this month clearly stated that the University supports undocumented students despite the administration’s intention to rescind the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. On Friday, the University released another statement pledging to adhere to Obama-era Title IX guidelines to protect sexual assault survivors’ rights, despite a rollback from the Department of Education.
Today, to be nonpolitical often requires sacrificing human decency and camaraderie with the marginalized. And for academics, this also means sacrificing their intellectual integrity. But at the end of the day, addressing this dangerous norm is ultimately the fight that all university professors must take part in.