Facebook Hate and the University

Michael Chikindas is a professor of food science at Rutgers University. That he specializes in digestion evidently did not stop him from posting nauseating antisemitic material on Facebook. The website israellycool.com discovered and, on October 23rd, publicized, several loathsome examples, just one of which I provide so that readers can see with what we’re dealing.

Chikindas has said he was hacked but does not specifically deny having posted any of the material in question (“I cannot say with confidence that everything on my page was shared by me”). He has suggested that because “Facebook’s mediators” did not censor the posts, they can’t be that bad. He has said that he is an anti-Zionist, not an antisemite. He has complained that his critics manipulated photos of him to make him look fat.

Let us back slowly away from Chikindas’s response and not speak of it again.

Chikindas’s posts raise a simple question: how should a university respond when it learns that a faculty member has published unambiguously antisemitic content on a forum like Facebook? Because Rutgers is a public university, it is bound by First Amendment considerations by which private universities are not bound. But I will set these aside and stick to considerations that bind most colleges and universities, those that claim to be, to borrow the language of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “untrammeled institutions of learning.”

When a university learns that a faculty member has published unambiguously antisemitic content on a forum like Facebook, it should not respond, as Rutgers did, by issuing a series of confusing statements. Chikindas’s posts are a textbook example of extramural speech. Extramural speech, as Matthew Finkin and Robert Post put it in For the Common Good: Principles of Academic Freedom, is “speech made by faculty in their capacity as citizens typically about matters of public concern and that is unrelated either to scholarly expertise or institutional affiliation.” Chikindas, a professor of food science posting on Facebook about politics, is engaged in extramural speech, and, as John Wilson has observed, Rutgers has an unambiguous policy about that: “faculty members, as private citizens, enjoy the same freedoms of speech and expression as any private citizen and shall be free from institutional discipline” in exercising them. Yet in its initial statement, issued on October 25th, Rutgers indicated that Chikindas might somehow, through “actions taken in the context of his role as a faculty member,” have violated its “policy prohibiting discrimination.”

That is quite vague. But perhaps Rutgers was simply investigating whether the attitudes Chikindas expressed in his Facebook posts had led him to discriminate on the job. Nonetheless, President Robert Barchi, in a town hall on November 16th abandoned discussion of the discrimination policy, and instead asked whether Chikindas’s actions had created “an environment in his work that would compromise his ability to teach or to do research.” At the same time that he articulated this nebulous standard, Barchi, underplayed the significance of Chikindas’s posts, describing them as “crude jokes” which “most of us would find repugnant.” In fact, Chikindas’s posts are not jokes, and Barchi’s response smacks of what Steven Lubet, commenting on a different aspect of this case, and on related cases, calls “trivialization” of antisemitism. Finally, noting that Chikindas’s teaching record appeared spotless, Barchi left the impression that nothing was likely to happen to him.

It was therefore a surprise when, on December 8th, President Barchi and Debasish Dutta, Chancellor of Rutgers-New Brunswick, issued a statement detailing the actions Rutgers would take as a result of its investigation. Chikindas will be barred from teaching required courses so that no student “will be required to take a course that he teaches.” He will be removed from an administrative post he occupies, so that no faculty or staff member “will be required to work in an administrative unit that he heads.” He will be subject to “ongoing monitoring if and when he returns to the classroom” and “required to participate in a cultural sensitivity training program.” The university is also looking into suspending Chikindas at reduced pay. The statement, which does not mention academic freedom once, returns to the language concerning discrimination invoked in the first response and suggests that Rutgers might be engaged in discrimination if it requires students or employees to be graded or supervised by Chikindas, even if Chikindas has never discriminated against a student or employee.

So Rutgers used more than one standard to decide whether to discipline Chikindas. Chikindas may have run afoul of a policy prohibiting discrimination, though his posts were on Facebook and not directed toward any individual. Or he may have compromised his ability to teach and do research. What’s the right standard?

John Wilson sets forth the standard interpretation of academic freedom, promulgated by the American Association of University Professors. Extramural speech is subject to discipline only when it “clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position.” Notice that this criterion is different from that of creating “an environment in [one’s] work that would compromise [one’s] ability to teach or to do research.” Chikindas may, as Wilson says, inspire protests or informal boycotts that disrupt his classes or interfere with his research. But if a university can discipline Chikindas for those reasons, it can also discipline anyone who provokes protests or informal boycotts. That conclusion, which conditions academic freedom on how others react to what you say, is unacceptable. Fitness is a more exacting standard, and it suggests that unless Rutgers found something implicating Chikindas’s competence to teach or conduct research in the field of food science, something that had gone unnoticed in his 19 years of service, it should not have disciplined him.

Steven Lubet dissents. He grants that Wilson is on solid ground when he says that Chikindas should not be disciplined for his antisemitic posts. Rutgers probably should not suspend Chikindas. But there is no right to teach a particular class, nor is there a right to hold an administrative post. Rutgers’s actions in those areas constitute “not punishment of Chikindas, but rather a protective measure for students and staff” that does not “implicate academic freedom.” The university is not necessarily compelled to honor a student’s “legitimate objection to mandatory studying under a bigot,” but there is a strong case that students should not have to learn from a teacher who has “grotesquely ridiculed their ethnicity and religion.”

That response is too legalistic. I do not have a right to a particular office, but if the university exiles me to a windowless basement office in a remote location, that action may well “implicate academic freedom.” Even if we were to adopt the position that discipline implicates academic freedom, but well-meaning efforts to protect one’s students do not, Rutgers would hardly be in the clear. Look at the statement again. After discussing initial measures, Barchi and Dutta describe the “further disciplinary action” (my emphasis) Rutgers is pursuing. In the eyes of Rutgers, Chikindas has committed an infraction for which he is now being disciplined.

Rutgers could have offered legitimate reasons to remove Chikindas from his administrative post—administrators do not enjoy the same academic freedom protections as professors do otherwise. But if we stick to the reasons Rutgers has provided so far, it has violated Chikindas’s academic freedom, as the AAUP presently defines it.

Yet the AAUP’s present understanding of academic freedom could be wrong. As Jonathan Helwink has argued, the AAUP has, since its founding, acknowledged that professors have obligations, not just rights, with respect to extramural speech. In the language of the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, “academic teachers are under a peculiar obligation to avoid hasty or unverified or exaggerated statements, and to refrain from intemperate or sensational modes of expression.” In 1940, the AAUP affirmed that although professors should be “free from institutional discipline” when they write “as citizens,” they “should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”

It is true that in the same year, the AAUP argued that these norms could be used in disciplinary proceedings only if their violation justified “grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness for his or her position.” But the AAUP has not been altogether consistent on this question. Even if it had been, it is reasonable to ask the question Helwink is implicitly asking: why should professors, speaking outside of the expertise that gives them special standing, enjoy protections that other citizens typically do not? Even if they do enjoy such protections, why should those protections extend so far as to encompass hateful speech unworthy of a reasonable or decent person? Or similarly, as Lubet asks, why should academic freedom be interpreted so as to tie a university’s hands when it seeks to protect students from being forced to attend class with a bigot?

To answer these questions, we must, as the AAUP does, consider colleges and universities as “untrammeled institutions of learning.” At the least, that characterization implies that universities should guard freedom of expression more zealously than other communities and workplaces. Consider in this context Lubet’s proposal that students might legitimately object to studying under a bigot, and that Rutgers is protecting its students. Outside the university, if my neighbor displays a Confederate flag, and if that same neighbor is elected to head up the neighborhood watch or to run the P.T.A., I have no legal recourse. The United States has by and large adopted the theory that citizens are less likely to slit each other’s throats over hatreds, if seizing the authority to silence one’s neighbors is taken off the table. It is reasonable not to want to look at a Confederate flag every day, but a liberal democratic political community has good reasons not to satisfy that desire. If that is true of American society outside of the university, how much more must it be true of the intellectual community that is a college or university, which rejects orthodoxies and deals with even dangerous, despicable ideas without coercion?

That “without coercion” is important because academic communities are also less accepting of irrational ideas and passions than other communities. That is one reason why the standards for publishing in an academic journal are different from the standard for shouting at passers-by in Washington Square Park. But, to go back all the way to the Socratic dialogues that remain in some ways a model for universities, an intellectual community supposes that even dangerous and immoral ideas, like Thrasymachus’s proposal in the Republic that strong men should seize power and enslave the weak, can be refuted. Socrates confounds, ridicules, and shames Thrasymachus, but he doesn’t contact the dean of student affairs. In most communities, the idea that good ideas drive out bad ones can seem naive. But an intellectual community seeks to set the conditions whereby bad ideas, including hateful ones, suffocate.

The power of ridicule and shame, incidentally, is estimable. Consider how, in 2015, Andrew Pessin, a professor of philosophy at Connecticut College, was hounded out over a poorly worded Facebook post in which he appeared, on an ungenerous and context-insensitive reading, to compare Gazans to a snarling pit bull that needed to be caged. Formally denounced, albeit not by name, by numerous academic departments at the College, and informally declared a racist by other community members, Pessin requested medical leave, in part because of the stress imposed by being made a scapegoat for long-simmering complaints about equity and diversity. My guess is that any principle that enables Rutgers to discipline Chikindas will bag a lot more Pessins than Chikindases, who are very rare birds in American academia. Meanwhile, Pessin’s experience suggests that even shame and ridicule should be deployed with care at universities, to further their aspirations to be intellectual communities, not to exorcise demons.