Voiceover: This is The Takeaway with Melissa Harris-Perry from WNYC and PRX in collaboration with WGBH radio in Boston.
Melissa Harris-Perry: About a month ago, a professor at Brigham Young University started getting harassing emails and phone calls. You see, she created an assignment about whiteness for one of her classes. Several of her students found it objectionable, and they posted the written assignment along with the professor's name and contact information on a conservative Instagram account. Almost immediately, she began receiving harassing and even threatening messages.
Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Recent reporting from the American Association of University Professors has traced an uptick in the targeted harassment of faculty members, and most often those who are accused of having a liberal bias and are teaching so-called controversial topics. The harassment included coordinated digital campaigns, and at times, even threats of violence.
What is rare is what happened next in the BYU story. Professor Eric Ruiz Bybee, another BYU professor, decided to take a stand. He sent a message to the group, explaining that posting the assignment violated the university's code of ethics, and he invited them to remove it. Within days, Professor Bybee also became a target of coordinated harassment.
Professor Eric Ruiz Bybee: One thing that is a bit different is that I decided to make all that hate mail and these hate voicemails public, purely in an attempt to shame people and to behaving nicely like, "Would you write this to me if your mom knew what you were writing or saying?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, I've been a college professor for nearly 25 years. I've witnessed and experienced cruel bombardment by anonymous strangers based on small snippets of lectures, assignments, or syllabi that have been taken out of context. When I learned about these experiences of BYU colleagues, I knew I wanted to talk about it. I sat down with Eric Ruiz Bybee, associate professor in the department of teacher education at Brigham Young University to learn why he decided to make these experiences of harassment public.
Professor Eric Ruiz Bybee: I'm an active believing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the sponsoring institution of the university where I work, which is Brigham Young University, and that's really important context because BYU has a unique religious identity. Some of the things that it does to preserve that identity, which is to develop both intellect and faith, is that it asks its faculty members as well as its students to commit to a higher behavioral standard.
We were required to get yearly interviews with church leaders and to sign an honor code, and for faculty members, it even governs our speech, specifically one of those guardrails is that we don't say or do anything that is going to harm the unique religious mission of the institution, and that's-- I think understanding that context is important to understand why I reached out, because I'm coming from a place that I believe, and has been my experience that holds students to a higher standard in terms of their behavior and their speech.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's pause for a moment because in the long history of the scholarly pursuit of knowledge, churches typically have not been on the side of academic freedom. Think here of Galileo Catholic Church, 17th-century inquisition, you get the idea, but here in 21st century Provo, Utah, Professor Bybee felt that his fidelity to church teachings empowered him to protect the academic freedom of a fellow faculty member. Since my own mother is a 1964 graduate of BYU and my maternal ancestors were handcart pioneers, I teased him a little bit about being a good Mormon kid.
Professor Eric Ruiz Bybee: I will absolutely own the good Mormon boy, good Latter-day Saint boy, as we like to be referred to. I've read an AAUP, which is the American Association of University Professors report about this topic that they just published last year, as well as some research articles about it. It's a problem lots of places. I think the typical response is for faculty members to crouch in a fetal position, just wait for it to go away.
I felt because of, again, because of my beliefs, because of the beliefs and standards that my institution espouses that I had some additional tools to counteract this harassment that my colleague was experiencing. I still believe that to be the case. I still believe that my institution, because of those values, can lead out on this issue and in terms of thinking about what are some of the reasonable limitations for speech.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There is nothing new about social and political debates affecting the life and work of American scholars. More than a hundred years ago in 1915, the American Association of University Professors, or the AAUP, drafted a declaration of principles on academic freedom and tenure in response to nearly a dozen dismissals of controversial faculty members.
Just over 20 years ago in the aftermath of 911, the conservative nonprofit group Campus Reform launched a watchdog program, targeting faculty who teach Middle Eastern studies. For at least a decade, debates about free speech have fueled American campuses.
Professor Eric Ruiz Bybee: It stems from the very human tendency to project complex issues onto people, and to think, "Oh, if I could just shut this person up, then this complex issue will be solved." I think the issue that I perceive that lots of conservatives are dealing with is the perception that their voices aren't heard on campus, I'm sympathetic to that.
Again, when you look at the actual outcomes of what happens when my information and other professor's information is shared with these organizations, what professors do is they get harassed, according to this AAUP report, about 40% experience threats of harm against them, and those that experience threats of harm are much more likely to change their behavior.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When the faculty, staff, administrators, or other students behave in ways that are truly harmful, institutions of higher ed have good reason to want those actions to change, or to have those individuals leave the learning community, bodily harm, assault, violence, cruelty, academic dishonesty but what if a professor is simply introducing ideas, asking students to consider alternate ways of reasoning, thinking about differing viewpoints?
Professor Eric Ruiz Bybee: There have been instances at my institution recently of professors saying things in public that have upset both more progressive students who are interested in racial justice and then in this case where this assignment about whiteness has riled up some conservative students. I found myself saying essentially the same thing to both groups of students. Some students who I mentor, who are in my classes, who are very, very fired up about equity and belonging and issues of racial justice saying like, "This person that you're fired up about who made this wrong comment about race is a person, they've got a family, they're human, they deserve the right to be a learner in this space and we don't just stop learning once we get PhDs. We continue to learn." Like I said, I don't believe that it's a left thing or a right thing. I think it's a human thing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Assigning tough text, thoughtful assignments, and provocative discussion prompts to a classroom of smart and often audacious young people, that requires a certain courage. In 1915, the AAUP wrote, "The claim of academic freedom of teaching is made in the interest of integrity and it is therefore only those who carry on their work and the temper of the scientific inquirer who may justly assert this claim."
They define this temperament as, "The fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language." This kind of sincere inquiry between students and teachers is the ideal, but it requires shared vulnerability.
Professor Eric Ruiz Bybee: Incumbent on being vulnerable in that space is a sense of trust, and what I get is that because of this fast hot-take social media culture that we have, where we're literally talks that my colleagues have given that are on YouTube, videos on YouTube, they've been taken, they've been cut up, and they've been reposted on YouTube sites to advance a narrative of radicalism on our campus. That leads to the defensive crouch.
Melissa Harris-Perry: To be clear, these were not just a few disgruntled messages. What Professor Bybee and his colleague and so many other faculty members have experienced in recent years is a more coordinated effort.
Professor Eric Ruiz Bybee: I do think that one key distinction is that there is this infrastructure on the far right of organizations whose sole purpose appears to be the harassment of professors. I don't see that mirrored on the left. I think if I did see something like that, I would also be interested in calling it out. It's very systemic. It was immediate. I got almost within just a couple of days, I got over two dozen really angry and vulgar emails and voicemails.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As Professor Bybee notes, researchers and journalists who've tracked these challenges to academic freedom have found that targeted harassment is far more likely to emerge from well resourced, right-wing groups, pressuring faculty who are deemed liberal or progressive, but it would be a mistake to imagine that faculty members with a more conservative perspective have found the modern campus to be a place where they can freely teach and lead.
Chris Surprenant: My name is Chris Surprenant and I'm a Professor of Ethics, Strategy, and Public Policy at the University of New Orleans.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In full disclosure, I've known Professor Surprenant for years. He and I have appeared together in academic conferences and presentations, and though we have important points of ideological and personal departure, we often find ourselves on the same side of critical issues of policy and pedagogy.
Chris Surprenant: Engaging ideas at the core is exactly what we're supposed to be doing, and I think it's often, as you say, we're working with students and it's always important I think for us as faculty members to take a step back and to remember where we were when we were 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 years old. We were still trying to figure out what we thought of the world.
I think it's really important for faculty members who are engaging with students on difficult issues to remember that our job, first and foremost, is to put the students in a position where they can think critically about the world for themselves and that they're able to form their own ideas about what they value and why they value it. Instead of say using the students as-- that we're trying to persuade the students to adopt a particular worldview.
I do worry when you see universities or see faculty members go in that direction because we're in such a wonderful position to be able to help guide students, but that also comes with certain obligations. I think for me it's-- I remember back when I was a student and the ideas that I had and how my own thought process shaped during the four years I was in college.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For several years, Professor Surprenant has led a program at the University of New Orleans called the Tocqueville Scholars. It identifies students interested in ethics and public policy and offers them a broad-based curriculum for pursuing those interests. The program also offers meaningful scholarships to students with high need. The program is funded, in large part, by the Charles Koch Foundation. That's the conservative philanthropy that is the target of a national effort called UnKoch My Campus who self-described mission is, "To preserve our democracy through protecting higher education from actors whose expressed intent is to place private interests over the common good".
Chris Surprenant: Our program does receive funding from the Charles Koch Foundation in addition to other donors. What I can tell you about the Koch Foundation and the money that comes from them is that all of the decisions related to how we spend that money, whether it's hiring faculty or the research we support, or the students we support, or really anything else, at the end of the day, ultimately, those decisions have been and always are mine, or the decisions of the faculty members of the administration at the University of New Orleans.
At any point, if someone from the Koch Foundation or any organization or any donor that we worked with came to me and did something like that, we would stop accepting that money and we would return it. To me, that's far more important than dollars.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I've been a stern critic of the influence of Koch's political donations in local elections. At the same time, I've been a staunch defender of university colleagues whose scholarly work is supported by the academic philanthropic work of the Koch Foundation.
Chris Surprenant: UnKoch My Campus has put me on their watch list. They don't call it a watch list but obviously anyone who receives funding from the Koch Foundation is added to their list. I find all of these lists to be completely abhorrent and undermine what we should be doing at the university. If people who are on the right don't speak out against other organizations that are seen to be on the right when they're doing things that undermine the university really shame on us.
I think it goes the same thing as you have done to speak out against some these organizations on the left. I think all of us have an obligation to make sure that our universities are able to do what they were established to do, which is expose our students to a wide range of viewpoints from scholars who approach these issues from all different backgrounds and perspectives.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In a political environment marked by deep partisan divisions and bad faith posturing about curriculum, it can be easy to question if a fight for academic freedom even matters. Here again is UNO professor Chris Surprenant.
Chris Surprenant: There's part of this that you just don't want to exaggerate and we don't want to fall into hyperbole about how bad things are and long for the good old days where there were all sorts of other problems, but you're right, as more contemporary US politics and that type of political discourse enters our class, as our students themselves become more political, I think then it's we have a greater responsibility as faculty members to push back against those things and to make sure that our students have the opportunity to develop as intellectuals, and scholars, as thoughtful citizens of the world.
Melissa Harris-Perry: His is a sentiment echoed by BYU's Eric Ruiz Bybee.
Professor Eric Ruiz Bybee: Preparing their students to be engaged citizens, in my case, to be future teachers and professionals, I would also say the extra aspect of that that my institution has added is that I'm developing them to be leaders in our faith and to put challenging issues regarding race, regarding gender and sexuality into conversation with their beliefs in an attempt to strengthen them. I can't do that job if I'm worried about one of my assignments showing up and it leading to all kinds of harassment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: My thanks to Eric Ruiz Bybee, Associate Professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Brigham Young University, and to Chris Surprenant, Professor of Ethics, Strategy, and Public Policy at the University of New Orleans.
Voiceover: You're listening to The Takeaway with Melissa Harris-Perry from WNYC and PRX in collaboration with WGBH radio in Boston.
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