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A dean’s divisive tweet casts San Diego State into debate over academic free speech

Adela de la Torre, president of San Diego State University, prepares to speak at a ceremony in December.
(Sam Hodgson / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Academics have been the source of a lot controversial comments lately. Some say that’s their job. Others see ‘ideology factories.’

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In a 2016 essay about life in academia, Monica Casper said that “in a shallow Twitter zeitgeist” you need to speak in a nuanced way when talking to the public about hot-button issues.

She recently learned how ugly things can get if you choose to do otherwise.

Casper, dean of the College of Arts and Letters at San Diego State University, went on Twitter in December and made statements about conservatives that were anything but nuanced, leading to an angry backlash that included threats of violence against the campus.

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She said: “Just so we’re clear on the Right’s agenda: racism good, abortion bad, money good, women bad, capitalism good, sustainability bad, stupidity good, science bad, power good, equality bad, white people good, nonwhite people bad. Stench, indeed.”

Casper also said on Twitter that Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal in the fatal shooting of two people in Wisconsin was an act of white supremacy.

The school’s president, Adela de la Torre, recently took to Twitter to uphold Casper’s right to free speech. But in a rare move, she also chided her dean, saying, “ I do not support actions that seek to divide us or undermine civic discourse for any reason.”

‘Ideology factories’?

Academia prides itself on nurturing free speech, a culture that arose in the U.S. in the early 1900s when professors began to push for rules that would shield their work and speech against interference from schools, donors and politicians. The movement led to academic freedom, a set of principles widely in place nationwide.

Those principles help make it possible for professors to freely make the sort of hair-raising comments that have been coming out of academia lately.

A University of Pennsylvania professor recently said the U.S. would be “better off with fewer Asians.” A UC Berkeley professor suggested that a U.S. senator be slapped for her vote on the filibuster.

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And at Georgia Southern University, a literature professor said, “The [critical race theory] conspiracy theory is rebranded Nazi-style antisemitism that’s being used by wealthy donors and their think tanks to weaponize history for their own purposes while radicalizing people to take over local governments and clear the way for the privatization of education.”

Such comments are sparking debate nationally about free speech, decorum, and whether universities are intemperate “ideology factories” that generally lean hard left.

The concern has given birth to the University of Austin, a new school in Texas whose backers say they “are alarmed by the illiberalism and censoriousness prevalent in America’s most prestigious universities.”

The school’s advisors include Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born author of “Infidel;” and playwright David Mamet.

Hostile remarks occur everywhere. But the rhetoric at colleges and universities gets special attention because they drive social change on issues such as race and gender.

The in-your-face comments are grist for social media platforms like Twitter, where outrage comes lickety-split. And little is overlooked, especially by websites like the College Fix, an independent, conservative news organization where veteran journalists work with student reporters around the country to produce stories and opinion pieces on higher education.

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Jennifer Kabbany, editor of the College Fix
Jennifer Kabbany is editor of the College Fix
(Courtesy of Jennifer Kabbany)

“There are thousands and thousands of posts by professors,” said Jennifer Kabbany, the San Diego State graduate who serves as the site’s editor. “We only write about the jaw-droppers. And there are a lot of them.

“Casper’s remark was drenched with fallacies and ad hominem attacks.”

The site’s stories often are picked up by larger media outlets that span the world, and the political spectrum.

The digital warfare has left Peter C. Herman, a tenured professor of literature at San Diego State, in a funk about its effect locally and nationally.

“Casper’s words confirmed people’s suspicions that this is how progressives on campus think about the right,” said Herman, a self-described liberal. “But many on the right show the same intolerance for those on the left. There’s a sense that tolerance doesn’t exist in academia anymore — that we don’t let a thousand flowers bloom.”

Casper, a sociologist with deep expertise in gender and women’s studies, did not respond to requests from the Union-Tribune to discuss the matter. But she said in an email to faculty:

“You may know that just before the winter break, I shared tweets through my personal [her emphasis] Twitter account. Though I was not tweeting in my capacity as Dean, coverage nonetheless focused on my role here.

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“Stories portrayed the College, the University, and me very poorly and also led to a deluge of disgusting and threatening emails ...

“I deeply regret that SDSU was centered in the media coverage and that members of our community were hurt by the tweets. I remain committed to free speech and academic freedom — for everyone. I also remain focused on creating a humane and collegial workplace, core themes in our planning process ...”

De la Torre, the economist and social justice advocate who hired Casper in 2020, would not consent to an interview with the Union-Tribune.

A new voice

Casper, a Chicago native and first-generation college graduate, is little known to the public. But she has a following in certain areas of sociology, particularly for her writings on health, trauma, gender and reproductive justice. In March, she will publish a book titled, “Babylost: Racism, Survival, and the Quiet Politics of Infant Mortality.”

Casper has described herself as an optimist. She also has publicly said that, for as long as she can remember, she has suffered from chronic anxiety that shapes how she views the world — feelings she described in a 2020 essay published in Medium:

“The past four years have led to a state of collective chronic anxiety. It is not ‘situational’ to worry about the collapse of democracy when every day under corrupt, autocratic leadership brings a new concern. It is not ‘situational’ to worry about racist violence when the president encourages white supremacists to arm themselves and to take to the streets. It is not ‘situational’ to worry about dying of COVID when 230,000 people have already perished from a lack of effective leadership.”

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San Diego State recruited Casper in 2020 from the University of Arizona, where she was associate dean for faculty affairs and inclusion in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Her new job, which currently pays $264,000, put her in charge of the College of Arts and Letters, whose faculty members have made many comments that triggered publicity.

In 2017, political science professor Jonathan Graubart received death threats after he went on Facebook and said that Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who had just been diagnosed with cancer, was “a war criminal and, more to the point. someone who as a politician has championed horrifying actions and been lousy on state commitment to public health.

The San Diego State university campus.
(Gary Robbins / San Diego Union-Tribune )

“So dying or not, he’s a risible public figure (I have no idea what he is like on the personal level and don’t care).”

The war criminal reference arose from the fact that McCain had been a pilot during the Vietnam War and participated in Operation Rolling Thunder, a bombing campaign that killed many civilians.

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A year later, economist Joseph Sabia was excoriated by politicians shortly before he was scheduled to appear before a congressional subcommittee when stories circulated that he had made anti-gay and anti-feminist comments nearly 20 years earlier, while attending Cornell. Sabia, who is gay, said his remarks were meant as satire.

And in 2021, lecturer Robert Jordan used a cultural stereotype about Black people while trying to make a point about racial ideology in cinema. It spawned an uproar. San Diego State replaced him with another teacher. The university says he’s working on a university-related project.

San Diego State University is the latest institution to become embroiled in a heated debate over what’s acceptable language in an academic setting

April 24, 2021

Muted response

Controversial remarks usually don’t result in faculty losing their jobs. They are protected by the freedom of speech and, in most cases, academic freedom, which is meant to shield teachers and students from unreasonable restrictions and pressures.

But there can be a chilling effect at a university when there’s an uproar over viral tweets involving things such as race and abortion.

In mid-January, a small faculty group at San Diego State attempted to secretly tell de la Torre by email that she was wrong to publicly rebuke the dean and that she needed to more strongly defend free speech and academic freedom.

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The email was leaked to the media and became public.

San Diego State professor Peter Herman sits on steps outdoors.
San Diego State professor Peter Herman says a hostile tweet about the “Right’s agenda” could make it harder to recruit conservative faculty.
(Ana Ramirez / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Herman said the email reflects a deep, long-standing reluctance among his colleagues to publicly challenge the administration on controversial issues for fear of retribution.

“I don’t worry about speaking out because I can see retirement in the distance and there are no more promotions to go after ...” Herman said. “I think [Casper’s] tweet implies that anyone who leans right is not welcome at SDSU, and so, her speech chills the speech of anyone subject to her authority.”

Graubart agrees, up to a point. “People think, ‘Maybe I won’t’ get some kind of grant or I won’t be appointed to a particular position. But we’re not going to lose our jobs. That’s the good thing about tenure.”

Indeed, some San Diego State faculty spoke frankly about the university’s response to Casper’s tweets and the idea that academic free speech is being challenged.

“In this instance [de la Torre] got it right,” said philosophy professor Peter Atterton. “She was not shutting down freedom of speech so much as underscoring the importance of ensuring ‘viewpoint diversity.’ ”

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He added that Casper “certainly is within her rights to share her opinions using her own personal Twitter account. But what you have a right to say may not be the right thing to say, especially when you are a dean at a public university.”

Roberto D. Hernandez, a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies, said de la Torre should not have rebuked Casper publicly, noting, “This was not a matter of university business. This is a private person expressing a private view. And Monica has been very open and welcoming to all faculty on campus.”

He reflected a bit longer on concerns that many universities have devolved into ideology factories.

“Is the university a place of enlightenment? I wish to say we were,” Hernandez said. “But I don’t think that’s the case. I think that’s the aspiration in terms of the work we do.

“The university is a place that has a wide range of views, some of which are highly problematic, some of which are meant to challenge the status quo, but which actually reinforce it.

“I don’t think we should speak of it as just a place of tolerance or intolerance.”

Updates

5:35 p.m. Feb. 1, 2022: This story has been updated to clarify Professor Jonathan Graubart’s feelings about Dean Casper’s tweet.

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