Targeted Harassment of Faculty: What Higher Education Administrators Can Do

There is nothing new about attacks on college and university faculty for what is deemed unacceptable political expression. Indeed, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was founded more than one hundred years ago in response to exactly these kinds of attacks. Consider the famous case at Stanford University in 1900, when the widow of the university’s founder demanded that the economist Edward Ross be fired for having, among other things, advocated municipal ownership of utilities and the free silver platform of the Democratic Party. His political associations, she wrote, “bring tears to my eyes . . . he cannot be trusted and he should go.” David Jordan, the university’s president, eventually acquiesced to his benefactor’s pleas.1

Other cases in the same period—usually involving economists—led to the AAUP’s Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure in 1915, and to John Dewey’s earlier observation that the social sciences were in greater danger than the sciences from challenges to their work. Dewey wrote (prophetically, it seems now):

The sphere of ideas which has not yet come under recognized scientific control is, moreover, precisely that which is bound up most closely with deep-rooted prejudice and intense emotional reaction. These, in turn, exist because of habits and modes of life to which the people have accustomed themselves. To attack them is to appear to be hostile to institutions with which the worth of life is bound up.2

In 1971, Angela Davis, then a lecturer in philosophy, was fired from the University of California–Los Angeles for a speech at a rally in which she called police “pigs” and maintained that academic freedom was an “empty concept” if it protected such views as “the genetic inferiority of black people.” The institution terminated Davis’s employment despite testimony from students making clear that her off-campus rhetoric did not spill over into her teaching and research. One of the few trustees who dissented from the decision reminded his colleagues that “in this day and age, when the decibel level of political debate . . . has reached the heights it has, it is unrealistic and disingenuous to demand as a condition of employment that the professor address political rallies in the muted cadences of scholarly exchanges. Professors are products of their times, even as the rest of us.”3

The cases in our own times are not all that different from these and many others investigated by the AAUP over the course of its history. What’s different now is, first, the speed with which social media can disseminate and inflate the issues, assembling online mobs in a matter of minutes; second, the vastly increased financial dependency of even public universities on private funders, whose opinions have to be reckoned with; third, the fear of university administrators of any tarring of their “brands” by bad publicity, however questionable its source (another consequence of scarce resources); and fourth, the organized attack on the university by right-wing foundations and think tanks (including the Koch family foundations, the Bradley Foundation, and the Goldwater Institute) in the name of the very principles for which the university stands: free speech, the exchange of ideas, and academic freedom.

And I’ll add a fifth difference: the election of Donald Trump, whose anti-intellectualism has enabled an unprecedented outpouring of venom against so-called elitists, among whom academics are a primary target. Consider Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos warning college students that “the fight against the education establishment extends to you, too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and, more ominously, what to think.”4 Or listen to the vice president of the College Republicans at the University of Tennessee, speaking about a bill, based on a model drafted by the Goldwater Institute, to protect student free speech: “Students are often intimidated by the academic elite in the classroom. Tennessee is a conservative state, [and] we will not allow out of touch professors with no real world experience to intimidate eighteen-year-olds.”5

How to respond

As the number of cases of targeted harassment of professors continues to grow, the question of how to respond is front and center.6 In recent years, there have been both bad responses and good ones.

Examples of bad responses include the removal of the targeted teacher from the classroom for unspecified reasons of campus or individual safety and security; the suspension and then firing of instructors, untenured professors, and contingent faculty without hearings to determine what campus rules they have violated; and the immediate placement on leave of absence of tenured faculty accused of offensive speech. In all these cases, the implication is that the teacher is a danger to her students and to the community as a whole. The double standard for offensive speech has been often noted: while some university administrators go to great lengths to protect the offensive speech of alt-right outside speakers like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos, they act in panic mode when it comes to members of their own faculty, denying the same First Amendment rights they are protecting for outsiders. Even as they go to great lengths to insist on the scholarly credentials (however controversial) of someone like Charles Murray, they fail to investigate the charges made against their own long-tenured faculty members.

Cases involving the politics of Israel/Palestine are particularly egregious: the objections of organized defenders of current Israeli politics to the teachings of Middle Eastern studies scholars suspected of criticizing those politics are allowed to prevail over evaluations of the credentials of the teachers involved. There are cases in which right-wing activists have doctored videos of a professor’s class, quoted a professor’s comments out of context, or attributed to a professor statements that have never been uttered—but these facts cannot come to light when administrators act precipitously, taking the word of Fox News as fact. There are also cases in which police have been called to remove targeted faculty from campus, but not to investigate those who have targeted them with vicious insults and threats to their families and their lives. And in some instances, university leaders have permitted searches of targeted faculty members’ email accounts (as if it were they who had committed a crime), investigations motivated by political critics of their serious and well-respected climate or stem-cell research, for example.

The stated aim of right-wing agitators like David Horowitz is to drive so-called leftist faculty off campus.7 They succeed in advancing this aim when administrators don’t take the time to follow established procedures of academic due process. And the capitulation to harassers harms more than the harassed; it compromises the integrity of the university itself.

The good examples are those in which administrators defend the speech rights of their faculty and follow established procedures of due process and faculty governance. They involve, first, a resounding defense of the professor’s right of free speech, if the targeted speech is extramural (on Facebook or Twitter or in an op-ed piece in the local paper) or, if the speech is in the classroom, of the professor’s academic freedom to teach in his or her area of expertise. In the good examples, the university leader refuses to bow to the demands of legislators, politicians, trustees, donors, or outside agitators, instead using the occasion to instruct trustees about the principles of free speech and academic freedom upon which the university is based. In such cases, the president may use his or her bully pulpit to condemn the targeted professor’s ideas or choice of words, but the point is to teach tolerance of, not to silence, speech and ideas with which some may disagree.

If there are serious questions about the competence of the teacher, the institution can follow established procedures to examine those charges. As in legal rulings, a jury of one’s peers can weigh the merits of the charges and how they reflect on the faculty member’s scholarship and teaching. But this is usually beyond what is necessary; the firm insistence by the institution’s leadership on the speech rights of the targeted faculty member is usually enough.

Two cases

The case of tenured associate professor Johnny Williams at Trinity College in Connecticut is an example of the bad and the good. When Williams’s tweets became the object of an extended hate campaign against him (fomented by the conservative news website Campus Reform), he was immediately placed on an involuntary leave of absence by the dean of faculty, who said he was reviewing the circumstances but gave no hint of the timing of the process. After an outpouring of support for Williams, including from the AAUP, which charged that Trinity was in violation of its own stated commitment to recognizing faculty freedom of extramural utterance, the Trinity administration took the stand it should have taken in the first place. In July of last year, Williams was cleared of all charges of wrongdoing and of making racist remarks.8

The president of the college, Joanne Berger-Sweeney, said that Williams’s words and actions—though she disapproved of them—were protected by academic freedom and did not violate Trinity’s policies. She also condemned the hate speech fostered by Campus Reform, stating that their post “led to distortions and an ensuing harassment that has become troublingly common for people of color and those who speak out on issues of race and racism.” She referred to harassment of the kind Williams experienced as “a threat to freedom of expression and to robust debate aimed at discovering truth and knowledge.” She apparently also swayed her board of trustees, one of whom noted that although not all of the trustees agreed with the decision, they all “support[ed] the tenets of academic freedom that are critical to an institution of learning.”9

Welcoming Berger-Sweeney’s decision, faculty at Trinity nonetheless said she should have immediately defended Williams against outside attacks. They pointed to the position taken by Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud when asked to fire Professor Dana Cloud, who had tweeted what were taken to be threats of violence from a rally in New York City that was protesting an anti-Sharia demonstration. Cloud was already on the right-wing Professor Watchlist for her support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement and was clearly being tracked by the list’s editors. Staunch supporters of free speech such as Ann Coulter demanded her firing. The chancellor offered this exemplary reply: “They insist that the University—and that I—denounce, censor, or dismiss the professor for her speech,” Syverud said, refusing to concede. He went on, “I can’t imagine academic freedom or the genuine search for truth thriving here without free speech. Our faculty must be able to say and write things—including things that provoke some or make other[s] uncomfortable—up to the very limits of the law.”10

As far as we know, Syracuse has not been harmed by Syverud’s outspoken defense of academic freedom and free speech, and the harassment of Dana Cloud seems to have stopped. Leadership of the kind Syverud provided maintains the university as a place where ethical practices and engaged scholarship can thrive. The firm and courageous refusal to allow threats to compromise the integrity of the institution, or to bow to those who would impugn it, is the only way to protect the university as a safe space for debate and for the pursuit of the knowledge on which free societies depend.


1. Walter Metzger, “The Age of the University,” in The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, ed. Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), 438 and 442–43.

2. John Dewey, “Academic Freedom,” in John Dewey: The Middle Works: 1899–1924, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976), 58.

3. American Association of University Professors, “Reports on Academic Freedom and Tenure: The University of California at Los Angeles,” AAUP Bulletin (Autumn 1971), 398 and 417.

4. “Betsy Devos’ Entire CPAC Speech,” remarks at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference, February 23, 2017, video, 3:00,

5. Luke Elliot, quoted in John K. Wilson, “The Tennessee Legislature’s Attack on Free Speech,” Academe Blog, February 12, 2017,

6. Among the AAUP’s work to address this phenomenon is its statement “Targeted Online Harassment of Faculty,” published January 31, 2017,

7. Horowitz has articulated this aim through his website, Frontpage Mag.

8. Kathleen Megan, “Trinity Professor Flees Campus After Threats Over Facebook Comments, Issues Public Apology,” Hartford Courant, June 22, 2017, Colleen Flaherty, “Trinity Clears Threatened Professor,” Inside Higher Ed, July 17, 2017,

9. Joanne Berger-Sweeney, letter to the Trinity College Community, July 14, 2017, ; Cornelia Parsons Thornburgh, “Statement from the Chair of the Board of Trustees,” July 14, 2017,

10. Julie McMahon, “Syracuse University Chancellor Defends Prof After Tweet Sets Off Right-Wing Backlash,”, June 26, 2017,

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JOAN WALLACH SCOTT is professor emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and a member of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure at the American Association of University Professors. This article was adapted from her remarks at the 2018 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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