The Stakes of Standing Up to Threats and Terror Targeted at Academics Who Offend Trump

July 8, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


At least eight professors on different U.S. college campuses have been the targets of death threats and harassment, most in the last month, from pro-Trump white supremacists, misogynists and Nazis. These attacks have led to one firing, two incidents where campuses were temporarily closed, and scholars forced to cancel speaking engagements or leave town. Most of the professors being singled out are women and/or people of color. Overwhelmingly these attacks are based on comments or statements they made on social media or elsewhere, manipulated to discredit them as scholars while unleashing the vicious, hardcore social base of the Trump/Pence regime against them. These attacks are one front of an overall assault on critical thinking and dissent in academia, in service of the Trump/Pence regime. They cannot be tolerated.

Campus Reform—a right-wing “news” site aimed at academia directed by the powerful, conservative Leadership Institute—is the source of many of these attacks. Students are sent to comb through professors’ remarks on Facebook or Twitter, or elsewhere in public, searching for “liberal bias and abuse on America’s campuses.” Comments are taken out of context, distorted, and turned into hit pieces to be picked up by Fox News, the National Review, and other right-wing national media. Their sensationalized coverage whips up online pro-Trump trolls to terrorize these professors.

Meanwhile, Republican state congressmen threaten legislative action if the institutions don’t discipline their faculty. The impact is sending a chilling message throughout academia, exposing every professor to the threat that any off-hand or controversial remark they make in any context can be used to ruin their careers and silence their work.

Who Is Being Targeted?

  • Katherine Dettwyler, adjunct professor at the University of Delaware, permanently lost her position at the university because outrage was whipped up about online comments she made critical of the actions of the American student imprisoned in North Korea who recently died.
  • John Eric Williams, associate professor of sociology at Trinity College, had his life threatened for sharing a controversial article about race, violence and politics on social media. Williams was then put on leave by Trinity.
  • George Ciccariello-Maher, associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University, had his life threatened, and now is being investigated by Drexel for controversial and tongue-in-cheek tweets targeting white racists, and condemning the ongoing U.S. slaughter in Mosul, Iraq.
  • Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, assistant professor of African American studies at Princeton University, was flooded with racist, sexist slurs and threats following her commencement address at Hampshire College, in which she said Donald Trump had “fulfilled the campaign promises of a campaign organized and built upon racism, corporatism and militarism.” Professor Taylor had to cancel talks in Seattle and San Diego. To their credit, Hampshire College’s President and Chair of the Board issued a strong statement condemning this intimidation and fully supporting Professor Taylor.

The list goes on, including Professors Dana Cloud at Syracuse University; Sarah Bond at the University of Iowa; Tommy Curry at Texas A&M University; and Joseph Palermo at Sacramento State University, who’ve each been similarly threatened and terrorized.

Why Critical Thinking in Academia Is Under Attack

Political attacks on academics whose work challenges the agenda of the ruling class are not new. Academia is one place in this society with relative freedom to explore ideas. And in the past few decades, significant groupings of professors coming out of the 1960s especially, have brought forward new scholarship that sheds light on and refutes the official narratives about America’s history and role in the world. While it hardly dominates the overall character of universities today, this kind of intellectual challenge has been seen by a section of those in power as an extremely dangerous threat to the legitimacy and stability of this system. Scholars have been singled out and hit with overt blacklisting, invented academic scandals (as in the case of Ward Churchill), denial of tenure or other forms of censorship and suppression. And there has been a systematic effort to discredit academia as a whole.

Bob Avakian has emphasized that the imperialist agenda of those who rule cannot stand up to critical thinking and a rational pursuit of the truth. And so those behind this agenda have to change the definition of what is the truth and how the truth is arrived at. And they have to rule out of order and beyond the pale critical thinking and dissent that calls into question not only the justification of particular policies, but also the foundation on which those justifications are built. (We encourage readers to listen to BA’s talk “‘Balance’ Is the Wrong Criterion—And a Cover for a Witch-hunt—What We Need Is the Search for the Truth: Education, Real Academic Freedom, Critical Thinking and Dissent,” one of his 7 Talks.)


New Level of Political Assault on Academia

With the coming to power of the Trump/Pence regime, the attack on academia has taken on a whole other level of virulence and danger. Within days of Trump’s election, a “Professor Watch List” was publicized, announcing a list of 185 “unAmerican” professors who should be “watched,” and calling on students to report other professors. Very significantly, the person who started the “Professor Watch List” spoke at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland where Trump was nominated. This was followed by the battle at UC Berkeley where pro-Trump fascist propagandists were denied a platform to spew their poison on campus (see sidebar).

So far none of the threatened professors have been physically harmed. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the American Sociological Association are condemning the attacks on individual professors and calling on universities to protect those whose speech is targeted. There is no exaggerating the stakes involved in resisting these attacks, not just for the colleges and universities, but for whether this regime will succeed in enforcing a uniformity of views in society as a whole. The most powerful opposition must be built, determined to stop these attacks and the whole assault aimed at delegitimizing, and silencing academia, as a vital part of stopping this fascist regime and advancing toward an actual revolution.


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