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Oberlin College dismisses professor who posted anti-Semitic messages on social media

Oberlin College (Tony Dejak/Associated Press)

Eight months after the Oberlin College Board of Trustees condemned some social-media posts by assistant professor Joy Karega as “anti-Semitic and abhorrent,” it has dismissed her “for failing to meet” academic standards and “failing to demonstrate intellectual honesty.”

Karega issued a statement on Wednesday, saying that she would fight the dismissal and accusing Oberlin College of campaigning “to implicate” her “professional fitness using arbitrary, inequitable, and discriminatory practices.”

Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, was criticized early this year for sharing Facebook postings that, among other things, claimed that “Israeli and Zionist Jews” were responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in 2015.

Does academic freedom protect professors who promote outrageous falsehoods?

Karega, whose academic interests include black political and protest literacies as well as social justice writing, also wrote that the Islamic State is not “a jihadist, Islamic terrorist organization” but rather “an operation” of the CIA and Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad. And she said Israel had brought down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 widely believed to have been shot down by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.

After the controversy erupted, Oberlin President Marvin Krislov issued a statement saying that while he is a Jew who had family murdered in the Holocaust, academic freedom was fundamental to higher education. The Board of Directors of the liberal arts college in Oberlin, Ohio, however, was not satisfied with allowing Karega’s statements to fall under the protection of academic freedom and in a statement said it had ordered the administration to “challenge the assertion that there is any justification for these repugnant postings.”

In August, amid some concerns that the investigation was taking too long, she was placed on leave, and at that time, her lawyer, Chui Karega, said in an email to Inside Higher Education that Oberlin’s administration was “pandering to the dictates of a handful of vocal and wealthy religious zealots.”

In September, Krislov announced that he was stepping down after 10 years as Oberlin president at the end of the 2016-17 school year. And on Tuesday, the board released this statement saying that Karega — who never apologized for her posts — was being dismissed:

The Oberlin College Board of Trustees, after extensive consideration and a comprehensive review of recommendations from multiple faculty committees and Oberlin President Marvin Krislov, has voted to dismiss Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition Joy D. Karega for failing to meet the academic standards that Oberlin requires of its faculty and failing to demonstrate intellectual honesty.
The dismissal is effective Tuesday, November 15, 2016.
As a Board, we agree with President Krislov and every faculty committee reviewing this matter that the central issues are Dr. Karega’s professional integrity and fitness.  We affirm Oberlin’s historic and ongoing commitment to academic freedom.
During this process, which began with Dr. Karega’s posting of anti-Semitic writings on social media, Dr. Karega received numerous procedural protections: she was represented by counsel; she presented witness testimony, documents, and statements to support her position; and she had the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses testifying against her.
The faculty review process examined whether Dr. Karega had violated the fundamental responsibilities of Oberlin faculty members — namely, adherence to the “Statement of Professional Ethics” of the American Association of University Professors, which requires faculty members to “accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending and transmitting knowledge” and to “practice intellectual honesty.”
Contrary to this obligation, Dr. Karega attacked her colleagues when they challenged inconsistencies in her description of the connection between her postings and her scholarship. She disclaimed all responsibility for her misconduct. And she continues to blame Oberlin and its faculty committees for undertaking a shared governance review process.
For these reasons, the faculty review committees and President Krislov agreed on the seriousness of Dr. Karega’s misconduct. Indeed, the majority of the General Faculty Council, the executive body of Oberlin’s faculty, concluded that Dr. Karega’s postings could not be justified as part of her scholarship and had “irreparably impaired [her] ability to perform her duties as a scholar, a teacher, and a member of the community.”
In the face of Dr. Karega’s repeated refusal to acknowledge and remedy her misconduct, her continued presence undermines the mission and values of Oberlin’s academic community. Thus, any sanction short of dismissal is insufficient and the Board of Trustees is compelled to take this most serious action.

Does academic freedom protect professors who promote outrageous falsehoods?

Karega’s statement said in part:

On February 25, 2016, several of my Facebook posts were taken out of their original context and grossly misrepresented by a magazine with a political agenda. Since the publication of the posts, I have been inundated with HUNDREDS of hatemail filled with slurs (racial, misogynist, classist), harassment, and threats. To add insult to injury, for the last eight months, Oberlin College has campaigned to implicate my professional fitness using arbitrary, inequitable, and discriminatory practices. Indeed, the College launched an assault on my substantive rights… I will challenge the College’s decision and assault on my substantive rights through ALL the avenues I have available to me.