In the hours after Barbara Bush died Tuesday, even those who didn’t share the former first lady’s political views expressed their condolences and recounted warm memories of the Bush family matriarch.
Former president Bill Clinton, the man who once campaigned against her husband, called Bush “a remarkable woman” with “grit & grace, brains & beauty.” Another former president, Barack Obama, said she had “humility and decency that reflects the very best of the American spirit.”
But a creative writing professor at California State University at Fresno had a blunt message for those offering up fond remembrances:
“Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal,” Randa Jarrar wrote Tuesday night on Twitter, according to the Fresno Bee.
In another tweet, the professor wrote: “I’m happy the witch is dead. can’t wait for the rest of her family to fall to their demise the way 1.5 million iraqis have. byyyeeeeeee.”
Jarrar’s words — and others that she used as she argued with critics for hours during an overnight tweetstorm — sparked a backlash that would soon prompt the university to distance itself from her remarks.
School officials also said they were reviewing the tenured professor’s position, and the university’s president and provost have rebuked Jarrar.
More than 2,000 people had replied to Jarrar before she made her Twitter account private, the Bee reported.
Some were upset at what they viewed as her incivility about a woman widely regarded as genteel.
For others, the sin was more basic: She had spoken ill of the dead.
Jarrar pointed to the comments as an example of “what it’s like to be an Arab American Muslim American woman with some clout online expressing an opinion.”
“Look at the racists going crazy in my mentions right now,” she tweeted.
The professor taunted those attacking her, sharing a contact number that was that of Arizona State University’s suicide hotline, and said she was a tenured professor who makes $100,000 a year.
“I will never be fired,” she tweeted.
Enraged, some people tagged Fresno State and the institution’s president, Joseph Castro, demanding that the professor be fired.
Jarrar laughed at them.
“LOL let me help you. You should tag my president @JosephlCastro. What I love about being an American professor is my right to free speech, and what I love about Fresno State is that I always feel protected and at home here,” Jarrar wrote. “GO BULLDOGS!”
On Wednesday, Castro told the Bee that Jarrar’s comments were “beyond free speech. This was disrespectful.”
“A professor with tenure does not have blanket protection to say and do what they wish,” he said. “We are all held accountable for our actions.”
Jarrar is on leave of absence and is not teaching any courses on campus during the current semester, a university spokeswoman told the Visalia Times Delta on Wednesday.
The professor did not respond to a request for comment.
As the controversy swirled, Fresno City College said Jarrar had dropped out as the featured reader at an upcoming literary festival. Jarrar had been scheduled to headline LitHop on Saturday but informed organizers this week that she was withdrawing, the college said.
“While we respect the right to free speech, even objectionable speech, Jarrar’s statements are her own and do not reflect the values of LitHop or Fresno City College,” the statement said. “We acknowledge the severity of her statements and take very seriously the concerns expressed throughout the community. The safety of each individual, including Jarrar’s, and all members of the LitHop and Fresno City College community is our paramount concern. We do not support violence or threats on social media or elsewhere; rather, we value civil discourse and look forward to the necessary healing ahead.”
At a news conference Wednesday, Fresno State Provost Lynnette Zelezny said the university had put in place “additional security,” a common action, she said, “when we feel that there’s a spotlight on us.”
Fresno State originally responded to the controversy with a statement by Castro that said Jarrar’s words were “obviously contrary to the core values of our University” but that they “were made as a private citizen.”
On Wednesday, on talk-radio station KMJ, the university president told host Ray Appleton: “I want all of your listeners to know that I condemn the tone, substance and timing of Dr. Jarrar’s comments on Twitter last night. I want that to be unambiguous. And how do I feel? I was shocked, upset, appalled just like everybody else.”
A day later, the school issued another statement, in which Castro declared that “academic freedom is at the core of our University, something we promote and practice every day in our teaching, research and public service. I am a fervent supporter of academic freedom and its underlying principles, as defined by the First Amendment. This is the essence of our democracy.
“I recognize that in the exercise of free speech rights, individuals may present personal opinions in a provocative manner, and I also value the First Amendment rights of individuals, even when others may find the speech unpleasant and inappropriate.”
But in a video shared on Fresno State’s Twitter account Thursday, Castro reiterated that he was upset by Jarar’s remarks, and added: “I think it’s very important for us to condemn that part of what was done and said.”
Zeleny, the provost, called Jarrar’s comments “deeply disrespectful” and said the school’s administration is taking the matter “very seriously,” KMJ reported.
Fresno State also noted that its flags were flying at half-staff.
The Fresno State College Republicans said they were “outraged” by Jarrar’s “reprehensible” and “completely irresponsible” remarks, which, they said, were “yet another example of intolerance that we have seen at other universities around the country.”
The California College Republicans said they would hold a memorial for Bush on the Fresno State campus and invited Jarrar to attend.
Others incensed by Jarrar’s remarks found other ways to strike back.
The rating on the Amazon.com page for her books took a precipitous drop after they received a slew of bad reviews in the wake of her comments. “Prosaic, poorly-written, poor grammar, incoherent,” one reviewer said. “Will make for expensive toilet paper.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, the author, who is in her late 30s, was born in the United States to Palestinian and Egyptian parents and has lived in the Persian Gulf region and Cairo and on the East Coast.
She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a degree in creative writing before earning a postgraduate degree in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Texas at Austin and a master’s of fine arts from the University of Michigan, according to the Fresno Bee.
Her books include “A Map of Home” and her debut collection of short stories, “Him, Me, Muhammad Ali,” about mostly female characters who are “all of Middle Eastern descent and all deviate from the usual perceptions many Americans have about Arab women,” according to the Times.
The last review of Jarrar on RateMyProfessors.com was in December 2017, in which the commenter said that Jarrar taught an “amazing class” and that the professor was “super caring and funny, always encouraging us to write more.”
Amid the barrage of criticism, some defended Jarrar.
Jasmine Leiva, a Fresno State graduate, tweeted that “@randajarrar is a gem and @fresno_state is honestly so lucky to have her on staff. She cares about her students, is wildly talented, and told no lies.” (Leiva later made her Twitter account private.)
As critics slammed Jarrar, the points she made about Bush were still reverberating across the Internet.
She brought up, for example, the former first lady’s statements about the mostly black evacuees taking refuge in Houston’s Astrodome during Hurricane Katrina.
Bush made statements that many viewed as insensitive after her son George W. Bush’s administration was criticized for its slow response to Katrina in 2005, according to The Washington Post’s obituary. Barbara Bush told the public radio program “Marketplace” that the evacuees who had fled their homes and were being sheltered in Houston’s Astrodome “were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”
On Wednesday, the contact page on Jarrar’s website said: “I do not read or respond to messages about Barbara Bush.” Next to the message was a heart emoji.
But Jarrar did return to Twitter briefly Wednesday, according to the Bee.
“I’m still fabulous, thanks for checking in. Love to all of you who have sent support,” she tweeted.
Her account, @randajarrar, was still set to private as of Thursday evening.