On the Boston University Charles River campus. Sculpture: “Free at Last” honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. by the sculptor Sergio Castillo (Photo: Istock.)

Boston University was already navigating a racially charged debate in the spring, with a well-known professor arguing that the school’s administration had “fostered a climate of hostility and discrimination against African Americans that is among the worst in the nation,” and calling on the head of the NAACP to cancel his commencement speech there next week.

Then things went viral. After the blog SoCawlege pulled together a bunch of comments on social media from Saida Grundy, an incoming assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies — such as “Why is white america so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?” — the backlash has been intense.

There was backlash to the backlash, too. People have been quick to defend free speech, her views, and academic freedom.

How volatile is it? Well, here’s a slice of BU’s public relations Web site Tuesday afternoon, in which their Facebook post highlighting a symbol of the school has just opened up another forum for people upset about racism:


A screen grab from Boston University’s http://www.bu.edu/news/ page Tuesday afternoon.

There are people petitioning against her. 

And more signing petitions supporting her.

According to SoCawlege, Grundy also concluded multiple tweets about Europeans and the history of slavery with, “in other words, deal with your white [expletive deleted] white people. Slavery is a *YALL* thing.” She wrote that she commits “to not spending a dime in white-owned businesses” every year around Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, and “looting is just poor black ppl’s best impression of Wall Street and the *entire rest of america*.”

BU’s president, Robert A. Brown, said in a statement Tuesday:

“We are disappointed and concerned by statements that reduce individuals to stereotypes on the basis of a broad category such as sex, race, or ethnicity. I believe Dr. Grundy’s remarks fit this characterization.

“I do not say this lightly or without a great deal of consultation and soul-searching. I understand there is a broader context to Dr. Grundy’s tweets and that, as a scholar, she has the right to pursue her research, formulate her views, and challenge the rest of us to think differently about race relations. But we also must recognize that words have power and the words in her Twitter feed were powerful in the way they stereotyped and condemned other people.”

Colin Riley, a BU spokesman, also pointed out, “It’s fair to say that distilling one’s research and point-of-view to 140 characters or less is a difficult proposition and a less-than-perfect way to give full-force to or reflect one’s research.”

Grundy did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Her tweets are now private, for confirmed followers only. Her profile reads: “i regularly neglect to codeswitch on this personal account. black+feminist+sociologist. and i like it that way. opinions: mine.”

[Key and Peele take on code-switching, talking differently with different groups, with a parody of President Obama’s “blaccent."]

Meanwhile, BU leaders are responding to anger about the decision to close the African Presidential Archives and Research Center.

The center, led by Amb. Charles Stith, who served in Tanzania during the Clinton administration, has not raised enough funds to continue to operate, Riley said in an e-mail, and they regretted that it must close at the end of June. Many such centers rely on grants and donations to operate, and BU officials had provided this one some additional subsidy in 2014 to try to lock down some external funding.

Stith’s response to the closure was scorching.

BU has “an abysmal record on diversity and African Americans,” Stith wrote in a letter to Cornell William Brooks, the president of the NAACP, asking him to cancel plans to speak at BU’s commencement next week.

Stith had many criticisms, including the relatively small number of black students and faculty.

“Among BU’s self-identified peers BU ranks 14 of 15 in terms of African American students,” he wrote. “In 1976, 2.4% of BU’s faculty was African American, it is less than that today…

“The irony of this state of affairs is that at its founding the university saw educating African Americans as central to its mission. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., BU’s most distinguished alumni, was attracted here for that reason. I am sure he would be ashamed of the university and the current situation.”

Spokeswomen for the NAACP did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

[Read Stith’s complete letter here.]

Riley defended the school’s depth and breadth of African studies, including more than 100 courses each semester: “Boston University remains committed to the study and teaching about Africa. Students have outstanding opportunities to be educated and learn about Africa through BU’s African Studies Center (ASC).”

Riley said the ASC “is one of the premier and oldest centers in the country dating back to 1953, and one of the centerpieces of teaching and learning and research at BU. The ASC has extraordinary disciplinary depth and breadth with 115 affiliated faculty from more than 20 BU departments and schools.”

Last week, students rallied to keep the center open, according to The Daily Free Press.

And it doesn’t look like the debates will end any time soon. On Friday, when he returns from Africa, Stith will hold a news conference about African Presidential Archives and Research Center,  and dispute the administration’s account of the matter. And the comments keep flying.

The full text of Brown’s letter about Saida Grundy is below:

May 12, 2015

To the Boston University Community:
Many members of our community are aware of comments made on social media by Dr. Saida Grundy, who on July 1st will become an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology with an additional appointment in African American Studies.
Dr. Grundy’s comments are receiving extensive coverage in the media; we are also hearing from alumni, friends, and others about them. Many have expressed the view that some of Dr. Grundy’s comments are offensive and/or racist.
At Boston University, we acknowledge Dr. Grundy’s right to hold and express her opinions. Our community is composed of faculty, staff, and students who represent widely varying points of view on many sensitive issues.
At the same time, we fully appreciate why many have reacted so strongly to her statements. Boston University does not condone racism or bigotry in any form, and we are committed to maintaining an educational environment that is free from bias, fully inclusive, and open to wide-ranging discussions. We are disappointed and concerned by statements that reduce individuals to stereotypes on the basis of a broad category such as sex, race, or ethnicity. I believe Dr. Grundy’s remarks fit this characterization.
I do not say this lightly or without a great deal of consultation and soul-searching. I understand there is a broader context to Dr. Grundy’s tweets and that, as a scholar, she has the right to pursue her research, formulate her views, and challenge the rest of us to think differently about race relations. But we also must recognize that words have power and the words in her Twitter feed were powerful in the way they stereotyped and condemned other people. As a university president, I am accustomed to living in a world where faculty do—and should—have great latitude to express their opinions and provoke discussion. But I also have an obligation to speak up when words become hurtful to one group or another in the way they typecast and label its members. That is why I weigh in on this issue today.
Too often conversations about race quickly become inflamed and divisive. We must resolve to find a vocabulary for these conversations that allows us to seek answers without intemperance, rancor, or unnecessary divisiveness. We expect our faculty members to strive to create this environment in their classrooms.
I also understand that some members of our faculty believe that any equivocation by the president is tantamount to not supporting a new colleague. To those who feel that way, I ask that we talk rather than jump to conclusions. I recognize this is a difficult issue and I welcome the chance to talk with all of you and Dr. Grundy about it.
Only when we hold these conversations will we—as an academic community, with our educational programs, research, and scholarship—meet the standards we set for ourselves.
Sincerely,

Robert A. Brown

President