Can a professor with tenure be fired?
That’s the question being debated after a professor enraged thousands of people with social media comments written hours after the death of Barbara Bush, wife of former president George H.W. Bush and mother of former president George W. Bush. Randa Jarrar, a professor at California State University at Fresno (Fresno State), took to Twitter this week to attack the former first lady’s legacy and call her names — and the professor seemed to taunt her critics, telling them to take their complaints straight to the university president.
Many did, furious about such Jarrar comments as “I’m happy the witch is dead.” On social media, in opinion pieces and with direct appeals, people called on the public university’s leaders to fire Jarrar.
Those demands sparked a debate over free speech and academic freedom, and whether there are lines that even tenured professors cannot cross.
“I will never be fired,” Jarrar wrote on Twitter.
But experts on tenure said the protections it provides are not unlimited.
“It’s a common misconception that academic freedom is absolute,” said Gregory Scholtz, director of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance of the American Association of University Professors, a group that strongly defends professors’ rights to speak as citizens without being sanctioned. But a university can seek a dismissal if a professor’s speech — even outside the classroom or university setting — raises “grave doubts” about fitness for the position, he said.
“A faculty member can be accused of unethical conduct or can be accused of incompetence,” Scholtz said. The association advises that professors should be judged by a panel of their faculty peers, not fired unilaterally by an administrator or a governing board.
Jarrar did not respond to requests for comment Friday. But Fresno State’s president, Joseph Castro, said at a news conference Wednesday that, although he couldn’t discuss specifics of Jarrar’s case because it is a personnel matter, officials would review the facts, as well as the collective bargaining agreement, according to the Fresno Bee. “A professor with tenure does not have blanket protection to say and do what they wish,” Castro said. “We are all held accountable for our actions.”
On Thursday evening, Castro issued a statement saying academic freedom “is at the core of our university.” He said he was a fervent supporter of that freedom. “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.
“I also recognize that people will have different opinions on the proper balance between freedom of expression and the responsibility to exercise it in a way that promotes constructive dialog. We are constantly striving to get that balance right.”
Last year, a Fresno State lecturer, Lars Maischak, was put on leave after tweeting “Trump must hang.”
Shortly after Bush’s death was announced this week, Jarrar issued a flurry of tweets blasting the former first lady’s legacy. “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal,” Jarrar wrote, according to the Fresno Bee.
“I’m happy the witch is dead,” Jarrar, a creative writing professor, wrote in another tweet. “Can’t wait for the rest of her family to fall to their demise the way 1.5 million iraqis have. byyyeeeeeee.”
Her words did not go unnoticed. More than 2,000 people had replied to Jarrar before she made her Twitter account private, the Bee reported.
She called her critics “racists going crazy in my mentions” and said she was being attacked because she was “An Arab American Muslim American woman with some clout.”
And above all, she told them she was a tenured professor who makes six figures and has rock-solid job security.
Jarrar even told people how to contact university officials if they wanted to lodge a complaint:
“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!”
But on Wednesday, Castro told the Bee that Jarrar’s comments were “beyond free speech. This was disrespectful.”
The school newspaper, the Collegian, wrote in an editorial: “In this age of extreme ideological divide, we question why Jarrar felt the need to share her candid thoughts in the one place where anything productive rarely happens.” It concluded, “Jarrar chose poor taste over prudence.”
The protections that faculty members have — designed to ensure they can tackle controversial and provocative ideas without fear of retribution — are bedrock principles in higher education. But academic freedom and tenure are not a license to act in an unprofessional manner, said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education. Speaking in general terms, not about Fresno State specifically, he said the further a faculty member gets from disinterested academic inquiry, “the more likely questions will be raised about academic integrity and professional judgment.”
Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, said Jarrar’s opinion was disrespectful and not thoughtful “about a person who just passed away and who a lot of people appreciated … but it was clearly protected under the First Amendment.”
Jarrar’s remarks have an additional layer of protection because she is a faculty member, said Ben-Porath author of the recent book “Free Speech on Campus.” Tenure is intended to promote a fundamental goal of universities: extending knowledge, she said.
“This is part of what we are expected to do as academics,” Ben-Porath said, “… not just work according to dogma, but push the boundaries of what is acceptable that people would say or think or consider. That is what academic freedom is for.”
But that is not always how it works today, she said. “There are strong efforts by organized groups online to target faculty as a way of silencing left-leaning speech.” In some cases, there have been violent threats against a professor or a campus, and she said faculty members at some campuses have lost their jobs because of online protests.
Ari Cohn, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, saw in the story a now-familiar pattern. “This is just a continuation of the past year’s worth of targeting faculty members for outrage mobs because they said something that offended people,” Cohn said.
He said he is not surprised people were offended by comments so soon after Bush’s death. But he said it is indisputable that Jarrar, a government employee, was speaking as a private citizen about a matter of public concern by commenting on policies during the Bush administrations. “The only way Fresno State could punish that statement is if it makes a pretty strong showing that its interests are being harmed,” Cohn said.
Universities should be tolerant of controversial speech because of the nature of the work scholars do, said Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University and author of “Speak Freely: Why Our Universities Must Defend Free Speech.” Entire academic fields are inflammatory to some people, and research can provoke. “Leaders of universities need to be emphatic that there are lots of people on university campuses that say controversial things, and lots of disagreement,” he said. “That’s something we ought to value.”
But Whittington said he has no interest in defending Jarrar’s speech in this case, saying it had little value from a scholarly perspective or as a contribution to public discourse.
And she crossed a line, he said, when she posted a phone number suggesting it was a way for people to contact her.
It wasn’t her phone number. It was that of a mental-health crisis line for Arizona State University students. After Jarrar tweeted it out, calls spiked, an ASU official said, from a typical five to seven calls a week up to 50 to 70 calls an hour. Staffing was increased and no calls went unanswered, he said, so the effect was an annoyance to employees rather than a harm to students in distress.
“There’s really no excuse for that,” Whittington said. “That’s clearly irresponsible. It is closer to a kind of vandalism than an exercise of free speech, and there may well be consequences for doing that.”
Professors should be reaching for a wider audience, he said — it’s important to inform public debate. “But we have to be cautious that we’re lifting up public discourse, rather than dragging it down.”
One thing is clear: Social media amplifies both the reach of a controversial comment and the outrage it provokes.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education joined with the ACLU of Northern California, the National Coalition Against Censorship and other organizations in calling on the Fresno State president to end the investigation into Jarrar, saying: “Fresno State places itself at odds with the First Amendment and the very principles of higher education.”
Diane Blair, a professor in the communications department at Fresno State who is chapter president of the California Faculty Association, said she could not confirm whether Jarrar had reached out to the union. But she said, “In more general terms, we do believe that faculty have free speech rights, especially when someone is speaking as a private citizen from a personal twitter account and not speaking as a representative of the university.”
Even if a university removes a tenured professor, the firing can mean protracted — and costly — legal wrangling.
In October, Michael Stuprich, who had taught in the English department at Ithaca College, filed a $1 million lawsuit after he was dismissed, according to the Ithacan.
The suit claims that Ithaca didn’t follow academic due process regarding a dispute about a student who had received a D in Stuprich’s class and later claimed an email Stuprich sent him about the grade was unnecessarily harsh. Stuprich said the university violated its own dismissal policies.
In 2006, engineering professor Debabrata Saha sued George Washington University for $1 million after it made Saha the first professor in the university’s history to have tenure revoked, according to the George Washington Hatchet.
Faculty review panels found Saha hadn’t attended faculty meetings, submitted student evaluation or conducted research, something they called an “egregious and persistent neglect of her professional duties,” the newspaper reported. Saha had been suspended four times in eight years and had been removed from the classroom once before.
When officials notified Saha that they were reviewing the professor’s tenure again, school police officers had to escort Saha from the classroom.