Carnegie Mellon’s reckless damage control — University Affairs
What the university could have done better to protect academic freedom after a professor’s controversial tweet went viral.
On September 8, amid all the global backlash to Queen Elizabeth’s death, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) released a shocking and disturbing statement distancing itself from Uju Anya, a professor in its modern languages department.
As rumors spread that the Queen was dying, Dr Anya, a Nigerian-born Professor of Applied Linguistics, Critical Sociolinguistics and Critical Discourse Studies, tweeted: “I heard the Chief monarch of a genocidal thief and rapist empire is finally dying. May his pain be excruciating. Unsurprisingly, the tweet received very disapproving responses. But it wasn’t until about four hours later when Amazon owner Jeff Bezos deemed the tweet had gone super viral.
Mr Bezos, who has 5.1 million Twitter followers, retweeted Dr Anya’s original post with the comment “Is this someone supposedly working to make the world a better place? I do not think so. Wow.”
With Mr. Bezos’ tweet, the backlash against Dr. Anya escalated exponentially. Dr Anya reports that she received 500 emails within minutes of Mr Bezos’ tweet, many of which use a racial slur to refer to her. She dug in her heels, tweeting “If anyone expects me to express anything other than disdain for the monarch who oversaw a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family and whose victims are still trying to overcome the consequences, you may continue to wish for a star.
Twitter removed the previous tweet for violating its to reign against abuse or harassment, which reads: “You may not engage in the targeted harassment of anyone, or incite others to do so. It includes wishing or hoping that someone would suffer physical harm.
Then came the tweeted statement from Carnegie Mellon: “We do not condone the offensive and objectionable messages posted by Uju Anya today on his personal social media account. Freedom of expression is central to the mission of higher education, however, the views she shared do not in any way represent the values of the institution, nor the standards of discourse we seek to promote.
Despite Carnegie Mellon’s mandatory concession to freedom of speech, the statement is a three-fold attack on academic freedom. First, he calls Dr Anya’s posts “offensive and reprehensible”. Second, he says Dr. Anya’s comments do not represent the values of the institution. Finally, it implies that Dr. Anya’s tweets do not meet Carnegie Mellon’s speech standards. Let’s go through each of them in turn.
The first of Carnegie Mellon’s undermining statements criticizes the content of Dr. Anya’s opinions as “offensive and reprehensible”. Let’s be clear: some of the work teachers do is offensive and objectionable. It is the job of universities to broaden the horizon of our understanding, including through extramural expression on matters of public interest. When we step out of current orthodoxies, it can provoke offense and objection. Moreover, some scholars aim to provoke offense and objection. Dr. Anya certainly did. His tweet was calculated to produce such a response. She is a critical race scholar who has commented publicly on colonial violence. She chose to speak forcefully — even offensively — to better convey the strength of her disapproval. But it is precisely controversial work – including offensive and objectionable work – that requires the strongest protection of academic freedom. Nobody tries to silence harmless scientists!
Next, Carnegie Mellon says that Dr. Anya’s opinions do not represent the values of the institution. What a remarkable and unnecessary statement! No one would think that Dr. Anya speaks for the university. And indeed, his Twitter bio says “the views are mine.” While it may be helpful for researchers to include such notes on their social media accounts, it is not strictly necessary. Universities are made up of scholars with a wide range of perspectives, values and methods, some of which are incompatible with others. It’s a feature, not a bug. The university cannot share all these different values and nobody expects it. However, all these different approaches should be united under the higher value of scientific pluralism of the university. By disavowing Dr. Anya’s position, Carnegie Mellon weakens this commitment. Instead of pluralism, it’s pluralism with the exception of this.
Finally, the Carnegie Mellon statement laments Dr. Anya’s standard of speech. Again, universities must embrace the broadest conception of discourse norms. In their communications, scholars must not break the law or engage in misinformation. Dr. Anya didn’t do any of those things. She shared a strong and sincere opinion about a public figure. She did it in a shocking way, but universities cannot and should not expect their members to be polite. Indeed, on matters of grave moral concern such as the colonial misdeeds of the British monarchy, politeness might be the wrong standard of speech.
Combined, Carnegie Mellon’s three disavowals of Dr. Anya’s tweets risk creating a chilling effect for other academics – and that in the context of a black professor who was reprimanded by one of the richest men in the world. world, the Twitter followers he followed. , and the media that picked up the story. When a member of academic staff receives this kind of acute censure from the public, it is all the more important that their university is behind them. Carnegie Mellon should have contacted Dr. Anya to monitor her and offer her support. If he released any statement, it should have been a statement defending Dr. Anya’s right to vigorous criticism.
The university’s curtailment of Dr. Anya’s academic freedom is particularly shocking given the painstaking work she has done on academic freedom. In 2020, in response to a political school nomination controversy, Carnegie Mellon President Farnam Jahanian established a Commission on Academic Freedom and Free Speech and released an incredibly nuanced and well-informed report. defense of academic freedom. Here is an exerpt :
Academic freedom…protects the critical exchange of ideas that has sparked scholarly innovation and important conversations about equity and justice, and launched new areas of inquiry unbounded by the sociopolitical context of the era. At the same time, freedom of speech, a cornerstone of our First Amendment-protected democracy, guarantees our right to speak out on matters of public interest in language appropriate to the achievement of our purpose.
The statement goes on to discuss the difficulty and complexity of balancing robust academic and freedom of expression with the need to promote “an inclusive, civil and nurturing environment for all”. He keeps on:
While we facilitate important debate on critical issues, we recognize that in rare instances such speech may be offensive or alienating individuals or groups on campus, even though those individuals or groups have equal freedom to refute the ideas that they oppose, or that are contrary to the values of our community. This tension is heightened in the current American socio-political climate, and all the more so by the accelerated and pervasive impact of technology and social media.
It is immediately apparent that Dr. Jahanian’s statement and Carnegie Mellon’s Sept. 8 tweet were not written by the same person or even by the same department. Dr. Jahanian’s statement is keenly aware of the importance of academic freedom, the complexity of defending it, and the new challenges posed by social media. On the other hand, the tweet does not betray any awareness of these things. This is pure, panicked damage control and deeply at odds with the work of Dr. Jahanian’s commission.
So what exactly put the university into damage control mode? Well, they no doubt get tons of phone calls, emails, and social media posts complaining about Dr. Anya, demanding that she be fired, and withdrawing donations. It’s always a tough storm for a university to ride out, but in the age of social media firestorms, universities need to have good playbooks ready for such outbreaks.
It is also quite possible that they were afraid of losing the support of one of their major donors. In December 2020, Amazon make a donation $2 million to college. Mr. Bezos’ tweet may well have raised alarm bells within the donor relations department even though Amazon did not contact the university directly. Honestly, though, I’d be shocked if Mr. Bezos even knew about the donation. Amazon is worth $1.36 trillion and Mr. Bezos’ personal worth is $151 billion. He was the first centi-billionaire in history. He loses $2 million like most people lose dead skin cells. So he probably wasn’t trying to intimidate the institution. Still, one can imagine the donor relations team was feeling quite anxious when they saw Mr Bezos’ tweet. I’ve written before about how important it is for universities to have good policies and training to ensure that the development side and the academic side understand each other’s roles and maintain good and healthy boundaries.
In the two weeks since Carnegie Mellon’s statement was released, thousands of students and scholars have signed a open letter in solidarity with Dr. Anya. The professor thanked her supporters and reassured them that the university has no intention of firing her.
Is it too late for Carnegie Mellon to do the right thing? Since September 8, they have remained silent about the case on social and traditional media. Perhaps they are waiting for the storm to pass. No doubt they are also having internal conversations about how the case unfolded. Ultimately, if Carnegie Mellon wants to land in the right place, it must issue a retraction, an apology to Dr. Anya, and a statement of strong support for her academic freedom. Allowing her hasty September 8 statement to stand undermines the work of the Commission on Academic Freedom and Free Expression, betrays a black scholar, and sacrifices the university’s scholarly mission to public opinion.