The response was swift, ferocious, scary even.
Johnny Eric Williams, a sociology professor in Hartford, Conn., had written in charged language on his personal Facebook page using a profane hashtag. His words, he said, were a reaction to police shootings and violence against black people. It did not take long for the bombast to begin surging in.
“That scared me, because I had never had that kind of response,” said Williams, a tenured professor at Trinity College. “They were calling, they were tweeting, they were trying to get to me on Facebook.”
The matter drew so much attention in June that Williams and his family left their home to avoid the media swarm. Amid the outrage, Trinity, a small liberal arts school, closed its campus.
That’s what can happen when a professor’s words or actions spark headlines and cause controversy: a crush of phone calls and emails, and in the most extreme cases, threats. It’s not just Williams. A Georgetown professor knows, too. They aren’t alone. These days, professors across the country understand.
“From all accounts,” said Henry Reichman, of the American Association of University Professors, “it is not a pleasant experience.”
At a time when culture wars simmer on college campuses and political tensions remain high, faculty members often find their words and actions the subject of scrutiny.
For professors and others involved in higher education, that raises concerns about the limits of speech and academic freedom. The confederation of professors issued a statement Thursday denouncing the “vicious threats of violence” that professors receive because of their remarks, or misconstrued comments.
But those who monitor faculty comments say watchdogs offer a check on institutions they see as left-leaning.
“People have an interest in this sort of news,” Sterling Beard, editor in chief of the conservative website Campus Reform, wrote in an email. “When you consider the extreme amount of money Americans spend on higher education, they want to know how their taxpayer money and alumni donations are being used to educate tomorrow’s leaders.”
C. Christine Fair has felt the scorn that can follow a viral story. Fair is the Georgetown University professor who confronted white nationalist Richard Spencer at their local gym. After that encounter, she dealt with childish pranks and a slew of phone calls.
Fair has been in the spotlight before, including a recent clash with a former Wall Street Journal reporter who voted for President Trump.
“It was a really horrific, drawn-out thing. And at times, those emails were really frightening,” Fair said. “They threatened to kill me if I showed up on campus.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education has been tracking the blowback directed at comments from professors.
There was Sarah Bond, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, who highlighted matters of race in a piece discussing how classical white marble statues were often painted. “Marble was a precious material for Greco-Roman artisans, but it was considered a canvas, not the finished product for sculpture,” she wrote. “It was carefully selected and then often painted in gold, red, green, black, white, and brown, among other colors.”
Stories about Bond and her work circulated online, lighting up conservative websites, according to the Chronicle. “Prof: ‘white marble’ in artwork contributes to white supremacy,” read one headline. She was hit with “hate mail and threats,” the Chronicle reported.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor at Princeton University, canceled public appearances after criticizing Trump in a commencement address. In a statement posted to Facebook, Taylor said she got “more than fifty hate-filled and threatening emails,” including some that “contained specific threats of violence, including murder.”
In other cases, universities have taken action against professors whose aggressive statements drew ire. The University of Delaware did not rehire an adjunct professor who suggested on Facebook that Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who died after he was detained in North Korea, “got exactly what he deserved.” It didn’t take long for the University of Tampa to fire a visiting sociology professor who seemed to suggest on Twitter that Hurricane Harvey was karmic payback for Texas voters having supported Republicans.
Beard, Campus Reform’s editor, said the site is getting more tips about these types of episodes than previously. “But make no mistake, this has been going on for years,” he said.
Campus Reform’s coverage gets noticed. Stories from the site were carried on television more than 100 times last year, including more than 50 mentions on Fox News, said Morton Blackwell, president of the Leadership Institute. Campus Reform is a project of the nonprofit group, according to the news organization’s site.
Blackwell said there is a greater sense of outrage over liberal presence on college campuses now.
“And to some degree, our website has helped raise that, because our stories get picked up, not just on television but talk radio, and in print media and in online media,” he said. “The reach of Campus Reform is immense, because various other communicators pick up the stories and run with it.”
Campus Reform was among the outlets that wrote about the Facebook posts from Williams, the Trinity professor whose words spawned the backlash.
In one post, Williams wrote he was fed up with “self identified ‘white’s’ daily violence” directed at immigrants, Muslims, and “sexual and racially oppressed people.” It was time to confront these “inhuman” people and “end this now,” he wrote, according to a review of the matter.
He also had posted with a hashtag — “LetThem[expletive]Die.” In an article on Williams’s posts, Campus Reform linked to coverage of the shooting at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., writing that Williams “seemingly endorsed the idea” that victims should have been left to die by emergency workers.
“Our reporting was accurate, as any plain reading of the story — complete with screenshots of his social media posts — will make obvious,” Beard wrote in his email.
Williams said the hashtag was an attempt to join an online conversation and was unrelated to the shooting. In his posts, he was talking about his “frustration with the continued daily violence of white supremacists, going off on black folk,” he said.
He was eventually cleared after a review.
“I just posted something on my personal account, which in the state of Connecticut is okay, it’s fine,” he said. “You have First Amendment rights in the state of Connecticut . . . but you also have, in academia, academic freedom.”