Academic Freedom Won’t Protect Us


“One day,” the tenure-obsessed mindset suggests, “I’ll be able to speak freely, pursue controversial projects, and teach on controversial subjects.”  Successful completion of the seven-year-long probationary period will offer me the ultimate goal for any scholar: academic freedom.  As I finish my second year in a tenure-track position at University of Richmond, I already feel underwhelmed with what tenure supposedly offers to my life.

I say that I am underwhelmed with my future tenured life for two reasons.  The first, which I have written about before, is that I am tired of waiting for the day when I can finally be the academic I want to be.  I don’t know that I’ll come out of the other end of the tenure-track in one piece if I keep prioritizing success by mainstream standards over authenticity, my values and identities, my health and well-being, and my happiness.

The second reason tenure underwhelms me is that I am no longer under the illusion that academic freedom will truly protect me.  Maybe I was naive to ever believe that any institution could truly protect me.  The attacks several colleagues have faced over the past year have made this abundantly clear to me.

Academic Freedom As Academic Tolerance

Scholars receive conflicting messages from universities about the value of public scholarship and the extent to which we are protected should the public not like what we have to say.  Some leaders in the academy go as far as to say that it is our obligation as scholars to engage the public.  On the other hand, few junior scholars are under the illusion that service — here, I am including community service, advocacy, and intellectual activism — counts much toward tenure.  I would argue that speaking to (but not with) the public as an expert about one’s research is likely the most valued service; service that falls into the realm of advocacy, activism, and community service is the least valued, perhaps even devalued.  Still, there is a limit to what public engagement universities value, as indicated by the slow movement to count open access publishing toward promotion and to facilitate and support this form of scholarship.  Perhaps the academy simply has not caught up with technological advancements, new forms of social media, and political, social, and generational shifts among academics.

Boston University’s recent handling of the conservative outcry over sociologist Dr. Saida Grundy’s tweets about race and racism highlight that universities will only protect a scholar’s academic freedom to a point., a conservative site that caters to US college students, featured an article that took issue with several of Dr. Grundy’s tweets about race, racism, slavery, colonization, and Bruce Jenner from the past few months.  It is unclear why the site or the article’s author took issue with Dr. Grundy and her tweets, as she was not already highly visible as a public scholar; she recently finished her PhD at University of Michigan, and will begin as an Assistant Professor at Boston U in July.  That article set off a firestorm among conservative media outlets, including Fox News, all which painted her as a racist (and sexist) bigot who could not be trusted to treat her white male BU students fairly; many called for her termination from a position she has not yet even begun.

Initially, BU’s media liaison noted the university’s respect for Dr. Grundy’s freedom of speech.  However, as the backlash grew, the university’s president issued a statement denouncing Dr. Grundy’s comments:

Boston University does not condone racism or bigotry in any form and we are committed to maintaining an educational environment that is free from bias, fully inclusive, and open to wide-ranging discussions. We are disappointed and concerned by statements that reduce individuals to stereotypes on the basis of a broad category such as sex, race, or ethnicity. I believe Dr. Grundy’s remarks fit this characterization.

Although the university defends Dr. Grundy’s “right to pursue her research, formulate her views, and challenge the rest of us to think differently about race relations,” the president argued that:

[W]e also must recognize that words have power and the words in her Twitter feed were powerful in the way they stereotyped and condemned other people. As a university president, I am accustomed to living in a world where faculty do—and should—have great latitude to express their opinions and provoke discussion. But I also have an obligation to speak up when words become hurtful to one group or another in the way they typecast and label its members. That is why I weigh in on this issue today.

Why did the university initially respect her freedom of speech, but then cease to protect her academic freedom?  Why didn’t the university stand up to a site called “SoCawledge” and notoriously biased conservative media outlets like Fox News?  Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom offered a compelling explanation on her blog:

Institutions are inherently conservative. They are built to last. One way that institutions last is by diffusing threats to the status quo across org charts, rules, forms, email chains and meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. That is why it is ridiculous to expect college institutions to be radical.

It seemed Dr. Grundy’s critical perspective on racism was acceptable — even protected — until she pissed white people off.  Or, as others have speculated, perhaps Dr. Grundy’s views and public engagement were protected so long as it didn’t hurt the university financially.  Her work, public engagement, and perspective are all protected so long as it does not negatively affect the university.  If this assertion is true, that’s not academic freedom — or it’s conditional academic freedom, or maybe academic freedom with a price tag.  What academic freedom entails is much more limited that many scholars realize.

What’s most insulting is that BU’s public reprimand of Dr. Grundy’s critique of slavery, racism, and hegemonic white masculinity essentially placed her comments in the same category as the racist comments by Duke political scientist Jerry Hough: as hurtful racial stereotypes.  Other scholars and activists didn’t bat an eye at her Tweets because they are supported by a great deal of theoretical and empirical work on racism; her own department at BU was unwavering in its defense of her perspective and scholarship.  Friends, colleagues, and future students stepped forward to express their support for Dr. Grundy, as well. However, the university distanced itself from Dr. Grundy because of gross mischaracterizations of her comments.  It seemed as though the university responded more to the perversion that became her words rather than her perspective itself.  (I’m sure Dr. Grundy’s apology and publicly expressed regret over her words fueled this.)

What I am getting at here is that the university didn’t stand up for Dr. Saida Grundy because her perspective is grounded in prior research.  BU’s president didn’t say, “Dr. Grundy’s critique is important and accurate, though poorly received and misunderstood by the public.”  The university didn’t engage with her perspective at all; it only responded to it from a distance — that she was free to say whatever she wanted, that her academic freedom is protected (unless it pisses white people off).  This, to me, highlights that academic freedom may actually constitute a form of tolerance for scholars’ ideas, research, and perspective with no real engagement from universities.  Our academic freedom is protected so long as it doesn’t upset anyone — an obvious contradiction that misses that much of what we do makes the public (and our students) uncomfortable because it challenges bias and conventional wisdom.

What universities actually offer is academic tolerance.  That tolerance appears to be quite low for scholars of color who dare to critique racism and white privilege.  The message to all scholars of color is clear: watch what you say.  There is a white way, and a wrong way, to talk about race.  Choose wisely.

Beyond Protecting Our Ideas And Words

In theory, a college or university’s assurance that it will protect you from external threats to your career is critical and a major perk of an academic career.  Unfortunately, this conceptualization of academic freedom does not match the reality that many scholars face as they brave the risky task of public scholarship.  Countless scholars, particularly women and people of color, have been harassed, been subject to hate mail, or, worse, have received death threats in response to op-eds, blog posts, tweets, and other media appearances.  Too many examples:

  • Earlier this month, (tenured) sociologist Dr. Tony N. Brown was attacked by Fox News and other conservative media outlets and blogs, and continues to receive threats of violence and hate mail — a backlash to an honest op-ed about racism and white privilege in the The Tennessean.
  • Dr. Anthea Butler, a (tenured) religious studies professor at U Penn, is regularly attacked by conservatives and bigots for her  critical views on race and racism (e.g., the verdict for George Zimmerman, who murdered Trayvon Martin), and religion.  It occurs so regularly, she decided to create a Tumblr, The Things People Say, devoted to hateful and hostile comments she receives from trolls and bigots.
  • Dr. Brittney Cooper (featured, along with Dr. Anthea Butler in this article about backlash), is an assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, and is also regularly subject to trolling, hate mail, and threats of violence.  On a panel we did together at University of Maryland on intellectual activism (around 01:02:00), she shared more details about her appearance being made fun of, and calculated efforts to have her and her colleagues fired from Rutgers.
  • Anthropologist Dr. Sarah Kendzior (writer, independent researcher, and reporter) was subject to threats of sexual violence after being cited in an article at Jacobin magazine on modern sexism.  Many were shocked that these rape threats came from self-identified liberals and radicals.
  • University of Illinois rescinded an offer for an associate professor position to Dr. Steven Salaita, a Native American studies scholar, because of his commentary about Israel on Twitter.  UIUC argued that his behavior failed to meet the university’s standards of civility — a justification that was not supported by the university’s Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

With the exception of Dr. Salaita, the aforementioned scholars were professionally protected.  That is, despite external threats, even calls for their dismissals from their respective positions, they weren’t fired.  But, what have their colleagues, departments, universities, and professional organizations done to protect them from the intangible harm to their reputations?  From the online trolling and hostility?  From the hate mail and threats of violence?

I suspect the answers to my questions are nothing — they should just be grateful they didn’t get fired.  Or, they should have anticipated these risks as public scholars.  Said another way, they are to be blamed for the hostility and threats they face by sharing their scholarship and scholarly opinion with the public.  (Victim-blaming.)

2nd Annual Congressman Parren Mitchell Symposium; Panel on Intellectual Activism in 21st Century America

2nd Annual Congressman Parren Mitchell Symposium — Panel on Intellectual Activism in 21st Century America: Ethics, Technology, and Constraints

Academic Freedom In The 21st Century

In light of universities’ apparent mere tolerance for controversial perspectives in the academy, and the obvious risks entailed in engaging the public, I wonder — what role do public scholars play in society?  Or, considering the trickiness of public scholarship in the 21st century, Dr. Anthea Butler more aptly asks, “[w]hat is the role of a public intellectual in the age of Twitter and soundbites? Is it to share your thoughts for the public good, or is it to curate the heaps of hate emails, tweets and right-wing articles that trash your intellectual and social work?”

Inevitably, every panel I have served on and attended about intellectual activism and public scholarship engages the crucial use of social media today.  But, the very technological tools that have made it easy for any scholar to become a public scholar overnight has also made it easier for public scholars to become targets of conservatives, trolls, and bigots.  Ideally, the academy will eventually catch up with the technological advancements in order to adequately conceptualize and protect academic freedom in an increasingly digital age.  But, that’s not enough.  Public scholars, particularly those of marginalized backgrounds, will only be adequately protected from public backlash when institutions embody greater academic bravery.  In the mean time, we must forge our own supportive networks and communities to buffer the painful attacks we face when speaking and writing in public.

These two points, academic bravery and supportive communities for public scholars, were raised during the panel on intellectual activism on which I served at U Maryland in April (especially around 00:55:45).  Dr. Brittney Cooper noted that there is a great deal of “academic cowardice” — that, too often, scholars avoid speaking up and speaking out, particularly against injustice and oppression, for fear of professional consequences.  This tendency is likely greatest among pre-tenure faculty.  But, many of us of marginalized backgrounds know that the good (Audre) Lorde said, “[y]our silence will not protect you.”  We cannot prioritize our livelihood as individuals at the expense of our communities; conversely, we cannot engage in our communities too much, for we may risk our jobs in institutions that devalue such work.  This burden weighs heavy on oppressed scholars.

But, this does not have to be our reality.  Our colleagues, departments, universities, disciplines, and the academy in general could be braver in supporting us as we take on the risky work of public scholarship.  Ideally, universities will have more integrity in standing with critical scholars, balking at inappropriate threats to cease donating to and funding them because of controversial scholarship.  Universities that proclaim to promote diversity should be brave in refusing to cater to the demands of bigots and conservatives who are hostile to diversity.  Professional organizations, like my own (American Sociological Association), will actually advocate on behalf of professors who come under attack, rather than staying silent or even adding to the attacks.  If “professors have a right and perhaps a duty to be ‘radical’ in its purest sense,” we can only effectively do our job if we are shielded from hostility and threats from the public when our views are misunderstood or rejected.

That’s a nice dream that I’ll likely never experience in my career in academia.  The reality remains: once I get tenure, I can bank on academic tolerance.  But, all of my public engagement and intellectual activism is at my own risk.  I can (mostly) count on not losing my job if certain groups dislike my perspective and research.  But, I’ll need to turn elsewhere for support when I endure hostility, hate mail, and threats of violence.

This is where the need for supportive communities comes in — another point that Dr. Britney Cooper made on our panel.  She noted that her fellow bloggers at the Crunk Feminist Collective serve as her support system to weather the regular hostility and threats she receives.  And, our friends, family, and colleagues with whom we don’t blog also can serve as our support network.  This support system can serve many functions: checking in on us; reading responses to our writing so that we don’t; reminding us to disengage from social media when negativity is heightened, but also to take breaks in general; to counter the negative messages with messages of love, support, and validation.  Let’s be clear about it: being a public scholar comes with risks, and academic freedom isn’t enough to protect us.  We are responsible for building and utilizing our own supportive networks to buffer the risks that arise.  And, this frankly goes for anyone, from part-time tweeter to daily blogger to regular guest on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show, because any public writing can be picked up and taken to task by the media.  (Even scholars who aren’t necessarily engaging the public can come under attack.)

Concluding Thoughts

In general, dismantling white supremacy and other systems of oppression is dangerous work.  Attempting to do so through, or at least within, academia is dangerous, for academic institutions are hardly separate from the rest of our racist nation.  In the long-term, ideally we can hold academic institutions and organizations accountable for protecting scholars’ academic freedom, period.  In the short term, we are responsible for protecting our selves, and relying on our own supportive communities to weather the storms that may come as we do critical and, sometimes, controversial work.

At a minimum, let’s get real about academia.  Academic freedom won’t protect us.  Tenure won’t protect us.  Our silence in the academy won’t protect us.

25 thoughts on “Academic Freedom Won’t Protect Us

  1. I absolutely love the work that you’re doing on this site. In regards to this post, I think you really tapped into some interesting subtext here: “However, the university distanced itself from Dr. Grundy because of gross mischaracterizations of her comments”. As you mentioned, many times, the professional critiques and analyses of women of color are misrepresented and / or misrecognized (Melissa Harris Perry talks about this at length in her book). To compare Dr. Grundy to the professor at Duke was strategic (in regard to re-establishing social norms through mass media) because it a) disconnected her statement from her sociological and professional work / research, b) made it more palpable to “do away with” her statements instead of reasoning through them, c) shift the focus toward a media spectacle and away from engaging in more transformative dialogues.

    Thanks for writing such an engaging piece!

    Jade Perry,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is a distinction between tweeting the findings of your own research or a body of research to shed light on a social issue or topic at hand and tweeting one’s private thoughts and feelings about a social issue or topic at hand. The former is academic freedom and the latter is a private expression of thought. Please get don’t them mixed up.


    • Where do you draw the line between personal opinion and opinion based upon one’s expertise? I would hardly classify Dr. Grundy’s views as her personal opinion, somehow detached from her expertise as a race and ethnicity scholar. That classification is the very problem with how BU and conservatives have handled the situation, dismissing what she said as personal bias.


  3. I think it is disingenuous of her defenders to continually describe those tweets as a “critique of racism”. So any general lashing out at white people such as “college age white males are a problem population” is a “critique”? In what way? I am not a conservative but as a fellow educator I am appalled at her declaration of one group of students, defined by biological differences, as a “problem population”. Educators should not use students as pawns in their political battles.

    I don’t think she should be fired, but people sharing her tweets and discussing them, why not?? And I see no problem with parents avoiding sending their kids where they feel they won’t be respected. There seems to be an idea among black activists that white people should take any insulting stereotype or slur from blacks or else they “are crying white tears” well screw that no one should have to sit there and be insulted!


    • I’m not sure how to respond — it seems your anger extends beyond your reaction to Dr. Grundy, perhaps to all anti-racist activists of color.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My anger? Hmm, I think my post seems rather calm and considered, especially compared to the tweets you are defending.

        Not sure how to respond? Surely you are familiar with twitter yourself, and the popular hashtags such as #whitepeopletears that appear when a white person objects to sweeping insulting characterizations in tweets (such as those you are writing about in your article).

        If the goal is not education but hyperbole and simple provocation, young white college age males are indeed being used here as pawns in a political statement. She considers it of no consequence to disrespect this group of students, even as she accepts a job as a university professor.

        The insult is deemed acceptable because it is believed that no black person can ever affect the fate of any white person, because it is not sufficiently ‘systematic’, which is ridiculous. These are teenagers, some may be from poor backgrounds, and she is a university professor.


      • My apologies for mischaracterizing your comment. The last line particularly read as anger to me: “well screw that no one should have to sit there and be insulted!”

        We differ in our views of Dr. Saida Grundy’s tweets. I see a critique of racism, slavery, white privilege, and hegemonic white masculinity. Considering the widespread evidence of white men’s prejudice, discrimination, and violence against oppressed groups, her tweets are founded and her passion about ending oppression is appropriate. There is a difference between a scholarly critique of white men’s predatory, exclusive, and discriminatory behaviors and simply stereotyping white men.

        I wasn’t aware of the discourse about white people crying. Again, that seems to be an issue you have with Black anti-racist activists, at least those who use Twitter. As far as I know, Dr. Grundy did not contribute to that discourse, and it’s not relevant to her tweets or the backlash she’s faced.


  4. Reblogged this on TASA Sociology of Education and commented:
    Raises issues that are clearly being considered inside and outside the US academe, white sensitivity, black activism, variations of freedoms. I’d like to know, do we in Australia have our own version of this type of discourse? I try to, with my students, through my teaching, behind closed doors – but I don’t need to worry, no one is trying to knock them down to see what is happening in my pre-service teacher classrooms. Just Annabelle on another rant… So there is the time factor, the interest factor (who follows my blogs/tweets/posts, let alone makes comment!) and will it help me get secure employment / be noticed by my peers / be recognised by my institution? I’m working on our good Lourde’s words (thanks Dr Grollman) ‘[y]our silence will not protect you” … even if it does seem to get you more secure work than noisy ol’ me. Anyway, a worthwhile read with many useful hyperlinks.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a great article. However the characterization of Sarah Kenzidor’s situation is 100% incorrect. Kenzidor had tweeted about receiving threats of sexual violence, which was linked to in a Jacobin blog post, which Kenzidor asked to be removed, which the magazine did. Kenzidor then erroneously claimed that the magazine had linked to rape threats, which angered one of the editors. Then Twitter abuse was hurled at both sides of this silly, small stakes debacle, including rape threats towards the writer of the original blog post, who is also a female journalist. If anything, Kenzidor tried to censor and start a Twitter pile on against the Jacobin and the writer. This was not a repression of anyone’s academic freedom. Just a really ugly social media call out war.
    Please get your narrative straight or don’t include the Kenzidor situation at all. Thank you.


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  7. Saying Steve Salatia was fired for tweets about Israel is like saying those frat boys in Oklahoma were expelled because they criticized Africa. He spewed anti-Jewish hate speech and his supporters (including the mainstream media) have not shown those tweets. He was never even hired to begin with. Also, why no support for those frat boys who were expelled due to remarks made about blacks off campus? Why never any support for those persecuted for remarks that are not positive about blacks, Muslims, illegal immigrants? Your support for free speech is selective.


    • Your comments, like all of the conservative backlash Dr. Grundy faced, suffer from a problem of assumed equivalence. Comments that critique an privileged (read: oppressive) group are put on par with comments that stereotype and belittle disadvantaged (read: oppressed) groups. Even if Dr. Grundy’s comments were nothing more than prejudice toward white men, that prejudice is not backed by a system of power that places white men in subordinate positions in every institution in society, and justifies violence against them. Still, there is a difference between critiquing the oppressor and stereotyping them. I stand by that distinction.


  8. Thanks for your replies.

    “There is a difference between a scholarly critique of white men’s predatory, exclusive, and discriminatory behaviors and simply stereotyping white men.”

    Again we clearly differ in our ideas of what constitutes scholarly critique, if you really are being honest in your assertion that her tweets qualify.

    Since you wrote the OP it has come to light that Dr. Grundy impersonated another woman and created social media profiles for her including one on an “adult” web site, because she believed her romantic interest was involved with the woman. She stole the photos from her boyfriend’s phone by guessing his password. The victim’s email was spammed with sexual messages from strange men for months. This happened only 7 years ago when she was 24 and in grad school (she admits to the charges but blames youth and jealousy).

    Regarding the social media activist attitude about “white tears” that you thought was irrelevant – while reading that story, which incidentally screams “sociopath”, another controversial incident was linked to, a recent facebook thread (since deleted but you can find screen grabs), where Dr. Grundy berates a white woman rape survivor who disagreed with her about something, in exactly, word-for-word the style I described above, including use of the #whiteladytears hashtag. She continued lashing out aggressively, using all caps and so on, even after the woman requested out of the conversation, screaming at her to “to go cry in a corner”. The unfortunate object of the attack mentioned being especially upset when she realized it was a professor speaking to her that way.

    I think perhaps you should research this trend in “communication” in the supposed conversation about race we are all supposed to be having before you come down on people who object to it.


    • Again, I’m not sure what more to say. She’s gone from a racist to a sociopath in your eyes. I’m skeptical of commenting on any additional details that are dug up from this scholar’s past, all driven by an intent to discredit her to the point that she is fired and perhaps pushed out of sociology all together. No matter her past behavior and mental health status, her academic freedom has been threatened. If we approve of this threat, we set a precedent that only “sane” scholars with no history of criminal behavior are allowed to speak freely to the public. Since I have openly discussed suffering from anxiety for years, I guess that would preclude me.


  9. I appreciated this article, thanks. I work in the Australian university system (and have tenure and am relatively far up the academic career ladder), simply for context. I write on the effects of the marginalisation of knowledge and the way power is diffused throughout the neoliberal university to ensure knowledge production has an impetus toward the conservative middle. I am also a scholar activist working with, and for, other species and my work is pretty marginal as a result. As a consequence of my interests and my situation, i tend to spend too much time thinking about the kinds of issues you raise!

    One of the things i have found is that i also have to spend a lot of time fighting not to get despondent about them, and about the road we are so clearly on with the corporatisation of our higher education systems. At the moment, for instance, I am involved in long discussions with university administration about the next level of ‘metrics’ they want to apply to research performance. Again, these metrics serve to push critical voices out or to re-align them with the conservative middle. This is subtle and pervasive but not actually different than the kinds of insecurity you mention above. The only real difference is the subtlety makes it tougher to identify, name and fight.

    Keeping strong in the face of this when it is coming from all sides can be extremely difficult, and i would say is not possible every day. The work you do here, and the space you have carved out to support like minded individuals is invaluable. Allies really do matter – whether they are online, across the other side of the world or country, or in the office next to you. Finding ways to find them and to bring us together is so important. Thanks for what you are doing here.


    • Nik, I great appreciate your affirmation, and adding a global context to this conversation. So many academics are still under the illusion that the academy supports critical and radical thought, activism even; yet, higher education has changed, including its priorities. I’m doing my best not to be discouraged, too!


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