In mid-July, President Trump gave a speech in which he repeated the frequently invoked right-wing claim that U.S. colleges and universities have become bastions of “radical left indoctrination.” The solution, he said, was to empower the Treasury department to “re-examine their tax-exempt status and/or funding.”
Activists responded quickly and denounced the assertion as a blatant attempt to silence those who oppose the administration’s racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and xenophobia.
But right-wing politicians are not the only ones threatening progressive voices in academia. Colleges and universities have also taken several tacks in an attempt to suppress these voices. Some have zeroed in on outspoken progressives, threatening them with censure or dismissal unless they quiet down. Other campuses have responded with greater subtlety.
For example, at some schools, COVID-19 safety protocols have been selectively deployed to ban events or limit the number of people attending overtly political programs, while permitting non-politically-charged events to involve larger crowds. In other places the demands of campus activists have been ignored, while on still other campuses, individuals have been gaslighted, as if the experiences underlying their demands are figments of overly active imaginations.
Uma Kumar-Montei, an undergraduate double-majoring in neuroscience and political science at Tulane University in New Orleans, told Truthout that students mobilized shortly after classes began in late August to protest police brutality and demand that the $9 million currently spent on campus security be redirected to the low-income community surrounding the school.
“We marched to a park near campus. Everyone was masked and stayed socially distanced,” Kumar-Montei reports. “There were several hundred people and everything went smoothly. Then, eight days after the protest, two students got an email from the Office of Student Life saying that the gathering has been a violation of Tulane’s social distancing protocols. It was ridiculous since the dorms are open and indoor classes with more than 50 people are meeting. The email to the two was also completely arbitrary and no one knows why they were targeted.”
Although the pair were not threatened with expulsion, the group that organized the protest — simply called The Movement — was told that future events involving more than 50 people would no longer be permitted. In addition, the administration demanded the names and phone numbers of all event participants, allegedly for contact tracing.
“It’s clear that they are using COVID-19 to crack down on campus organizing,” Kumar-Montei says. “Before the August protest, we evaluated the risks we should and should not be taking. We did not want to endanger anyone or prevent anyone from going to school.” The demands, she continues, were thoughtfully developed after months of discussion.
“Tulane police are the same as the NOLA police, with the same weapons and the same arrest powers,” Kumar-Montei says. “Since the fall semester began, the increase in patrols on and near campus have been hard to ignore. We have to wonder if this is happening because of COVID or if the uptick is because they saw us protesting and want to scare us.”
Organizers emphasize that they are taking COVID-19 protocols extremely seriously, but say that administrations are exploiting the virus’s threat to crack down on dissent.
“Using COVID-19 transmission risks to squash demonstration and campus free speech, while still demanding students return to group housing and packed classrooms, is dishonest,” says Jasmine Banks, Director of UnKoch My Campus, a national organization working to limit the impact of right-wing funders on curricula and campus life. “This is just the latest tactic to subvert accountability and governance at all costs.”
Ignoring Student Protest
On the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas, students are sitting-in to demand the removal of a statue of William Marsh Rice, the school’s slave-owning founder. The action, started by student Shifa Abdul Rahman, has to date been ignored by the school administration. Instead, administrators have deferred to a Task Force on Slavery, Segregation, and Racial Injustice which is expected to issue recommendations in 2021.
“The administration is dragging its feet,” senior Aurora Kesler told Truthout. “The students want the Rice statue removed and a statue of Raymond L. Johnson, the first Black student admitted to Rice in 1964, erected in its place.” There is a huge amount of support for this, she continues, citing a petition that had garnered nearly 3,000 signatures by the end of September.
Rice students also want the administration to respond to a document, Tangible Ways to Improve the Black Experience as Demanded by Black Students, that was written by an ad hoc group over the summer. Among its demands: an increase in the number of Black students admitted to the college; transparent hiring and promotion criteria for Black employment and advancement; a more diverse curriculum; and the creation of a Black House as a safe space for Black students to meet.
The university’s lack of response has led to great frustration, Kesler says, something that the Rice Thresher, a student newspaper, has affirmed. “Students are protesting now and deserve acknowledgement now, not in a year when the [Task Force’s] research is released,” an editorial in the Thresher concluded.
But as frustrating as it is to be ignored, getting in the crosshairs of a college administration can be equally unsettling.
Yulia Gilichinskaya is a Ph.D. student in Film and Digital Media at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Last fall, she and other graduate teaching assistants withheld grades as part of a job action to demand an increase in their monthly stipend. “We received student conduct summonses for violating the Student Code of Conduct,” Gilichinskaya told Truthout. “Our position was that they could not use the Student Code of Conduct to punish workers. The administration treated us as if we were only students even though we were also workers. This retaliatory response motivated us to escalate our tactics and we were all fired. The sanctions came in waves; the first wave was in February and the last in May.”
Although 41 of 42 fired workers still connected to the university were eventually reinstated, Carlos H. Cruz was the sole student not to be rehired.
“The UC has levied several Student Conduct Codes against me and decided to give me a two-year suspension,” Cruz explains. “The suspension will push me out of the Ph.D. program I had been in, in history. It is the administration’s opinion that I was a ringleader and the cause of many of the disturbances that the university experienced. I am being singled out, I believe, and scapegoated, for a collective action. I feel that I am being criminalized for student activism
Cruz has challenged the sanction, most recently attending an early October hearing to contest claims that he occupied administrative offices without authorization; grabbed at a police officer in an effort to disarm him; obstructed a roadway; threatened the health and safety of university employees; and intimidated staff.
In a letter refuting the charges, Cruz says that he was simply exercising his First Amendment right to free speech during a labor dispute and was acting in concert with other teaching assistants and student activists. He and his fellow organizers remain disturbed by the university’s decision to focus on him, and him alone, as a campus dissident.
“Carlos is outspoken, but he was not the sole leader,” Gilichinskaya says. “In my mind, his targeting was racially motivated.”
And it is not only students who have received reprimands, as faculty, too, have been castigated for their activism. Shortly after September’s two-day #ScholarStrike, organized by professors Kevin Gannon and Anthea Butler, two strikers received notice that their participation violated the Faculty Codes of Conduct at their universities.
James M. Thomas, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi, and sociology professor Wendy Leo Moore of Texas A&M, were among the thousands of academics who participated in the event, meant to give faculty a chance to “step away from their regular duties and classes” and engage in teach-ins about racial justice, policing and racism.
Thomas told students in the three online classes he is teaching this semester that he would not be lecturing, holding office hours, or responding to emails during the strike. Apparently, state auditor Shad White got wind of this and charged Thomas with violating a law that prohibits public employees in Mississippi from taking part in work stoppages or strikes.
Likewise, Wendy Leo Moore was told that she, too, had broken a state law against strikes by public workers.
Although Moore did not respond to Truthout’s interview request, Thomas says that he has not been suspended. What’s more, he has not received word from the university about what disciplinary action it intends to pursue. “You can call it a bit of a holding pattern,” he reports. “We have codified processes for certain kinds of misconduct — academic or fiscal — but none of my actions fit these definitions of misconduct so I am not exactly sure what they might accuse me of, outside of what’s in the Faculty Handbook.”
A long-time anti-racist activist, Thomas says that he participated in #ScholarStrike as a way to draw increased attention to “the continued pervasiveness of racism within the criminal justice system, including police violence toward Black people and other communities of color.”
And while he is heartened by the support he and Moore have received — nearly 900 academics from all over the US have signed a letter demanding that University of Mississippi and Texas A&M “disavow the threats and intimidation being levied against these two professors” — he nonetheless finds it disturbing that institutions that purport to support academic freedom and equal opportunity are taking this stance.
Perhaps their institutional temerity stems, in part, from a fear of losing federal funding since Trump has told universities that their tax-exempt status might be rescinded if they persist in “indoctrination, not education.” Thanks to an influx of dollars from conservative donors, groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education; The National Association of Scholars; The National Bureau of Economic Research; and the Foundation for Excellence in Education have spent the last four years lamenting what they call “brute intimidation” of Trump supporters on campus, an indignity they see as weakening the body politic and loosening the grip of capitalism on the American psyche. Indeed, as colleges grapple with COVID, reduced enrollments, and budgetary shortfalls, it is disappointing, but not surprising, that they’re pushing back against the demands of their students and faculty.
Truthout attempted to reach administrators at Rice, Tulane, UN-Santa Cruz, the University of Mississippi and Texas A&M. They did not respond.