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David Leonard, a professor in Washington State University's Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies, says the rise of viral right-wing media sites have left some faculty members wary about speaking out.
Websites like Campus Reform
and The College Fix
thrive on left-wing college campus absurdity. It's their business model, after all. Put out something that sounds crazy or goofy on college campuses, and get conservatives outraged about what's happening.
They do this with headlines like "'Ecosexual' professor spurs movement
: Have sex with Earth to save it," and "Students must confront 'white fragility' before going abroad, profs."
In last week's cover story, we wrote about the campus culture wars
between college students at Washington State University and how they've been inflamed by social media. But it's not just college students who can find themselves sucked into the maelstrom of national controversy over free speech.
It's also professors. These days, a single mention by one of those websites can lead to professors being subjected to waves of hate mail, internet outrage and administrative meetings. The result can leave them wary of talking about controversial issues in public at all.
Two years ago, College Reform targeted WSU faculty members with an article that began this way
"Multiple professors at Washington State University have explicitly told students their grades will suffer if they use terms such as 'illegal alien,' 'male,' and 'female,' or if they fail to 'defer' to non-white students."
Three WSU professors were specifically called out:
• Selena Lester Breikss’ “Women & Popular Culture" class syllabus, for example, suggested that if students repeatedly used offensive language (including "'The Man,' 'Colored People,' 'Illegals/Illegal Aliens,' 'Tranny' and so on — or referring to women/men as females or males") they could eventually be kicked out of class
or even removed for the semester.
• In Rebecca Fowler's “Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies” class, according to Campus Reform
, students would lose a point anytime they wrote the word "illegal alien" instead of "undocumented immigrant."
• In professor John Streamas’ “Introduction to Multicultural Literature” class, students were encouraged to "defer" to non-white students if they wanted to do well in the class.
The post blew up, with the syllabus controversy getting picked up by the Spokesman-Review
, the Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed,
and Fox News.
It put two different sets of rights in conflict: The free-speech rights of students and the academic freedom of faculty members.
WSU quickly issued a press release: "Blanket restriction of the use of certain terms is not consistent with the values upon which this university is founded," then-Interim President Dan Bernardo wrote. The syllabi were amended, and national outrage appeared to die down quickly.
But for the department of Critical Culture, Race and Gender Studies, it left a lasting impression.
WSU professor David Leonard, who was not singled out in the college reform story, suggested that the controversy spurred "an endless supply of emails and phone calls and tweets" that resulted in his department being "thrown under the bus."
"It had a dramatic effect on our unit, when you had days of viciously violent, racist and threatening emails and phone calls, without much support [from the University]," Leonard says.
According to a 2016 International Examiner article
, Streamas testified that the incident brought waves of hate email. One letter was brimming with profanity, "multiple uses of racial slurs against African Americans and Latino-American immigrants, a call for 'White pride,' concluding that “Trump will build a fine wall!'" Streamas got a phone call where the voice on the other end reminded him they knew where he lived.
Sitting on a picnic table at the WSU mall, he opens a folder and pulls out a letter he was sent from a white supremacist about the rally in Charlottesville.
“I get hate mail all the time," Leonard says.
He says he has a whole email folder — labeled "Haters" — for such letters. Some of the hate mail had to do with a Washington Post op-ed he wrote about Amy Schumer
, but a lot of it has to do with simply teaching about white supremacy.
“There’s rightful concern, particularly for faculty who might be at the assistant level, that being public, that being too visible, might not be good for one’s career, or for one’s health and happiness,” Leonard tells the Inlander
This sort of environment has left even Leonard second-guessing what he's willing to discuss.
“Hey, do I want to talk about these issues?" Leonard says he asks himself. "What sort of response will come in talking to you?’
In an email Wednesday, Leonard says that the impact of the syllabus controversy has lingered.
"While its effects can be seen in a myriad of ways, the lack of support for the unit from university leadership was yet another reminder that the work we do is not valued," he writes.
Right-wing websites slamming liberal college professors have been around for decades. But the rise of social media has made it easier than ever for outraged mobs to form around any target, whether they're liberals or conservatives, professors, students or dentists
Such a controversy can mark a person for life. In November, a right-wing organization called Turning Point USA launched a website
called Professor Watchlist
, which aggregates years and years of professor-controversy stories into a searchable database.
Search for WSU and you'll not only find references to the syllabus controversy, but a controversy from 11 years ago, where Streamas
suggested that a Republican student was a "white shitbag"
for supporting a mock border wall on campus. ("At least one outside grant to WSU may be threatened by donor concern over the faculty conduct," the subsequent investigation found.)
Turning Point USA argues that Professor Watchlist is simply providing more information, writing that "students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls."
But professors have complained that the citation of such incidents almost invariably leaves out significant context.
Breikss' syllabus also encouraged
students to use the classroom to discuss "disagreements" with the classroom material "in a civilized, academic manner." Fowler argued that losing one or two points for using the wrong term for immigrant was just a drop in the bucket for the entire semester.
The goal of the department's syllabi two years ago, Leonard says, was to create a classroom environment that was empowering to all.
"If you and I walked into a journalism class, I'm sure we should be told there's appropriate language," Leonard says. "We might even get a list from the AP, of these are the terms that are used. The question is what was different here?"
Indeed; take a WSU journalism course from Roberta Kelly, and expect to lose points for failing to follow Associated Press style.
(Associated Press recommendations concerning illegal immigration have changed dramatically over the past decade. In 2003, the AP discouraged using the phrase "illegal alien," pushing writers to use "illegal immigrant" instead. Then in 2013, the AP recommended not using the phrase "illegal immigrant" either, but declined to recommend
using another phrase, like "unauthorized" or "undocumented" immigrant instead.)
Leonard says the syllabus controversy could have sparked debate about what the appropriate language was to be used inside the classroom. But it didn't.
Some WSU professors say that the responses to right-wing websites like College Reform have resulted in their
freedom of speech being constrained, instead of defended.
After our cover story came out, Streamas emailed the Inlander
outlining his frustrations with the environment around academic freedom on the WSU campus, citing the syllabus controversy explicitly.
"Your writers — and administrators — need to ask who is censoring whom? Two years ago I was ordered to change the word 'deferring' in my syllabus because Fox News and the university charged that it was coercive to 'certain readers,'" Streamas wrote. "But unlike those who attack our speech, I use the dictionary and know 'deferring' is an innocent word. Who is silencing whom?"