Campus Incidents Involve Academic Freedom Vs. Hate Speech
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Campuses around the country are struggling to balance free speech with incidents of bigotry and hate speech. This month at Indiana University Bloomington, the provost condemned tweets from a tenured professor named Eric Rasmusen. The provost described the tweets as racist, sexist and homophobic. But she said the school could not fire him. Meanwhile, Syracuse University in upstate New York is dealing with a run of anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and racist incidents on their campus. NPR's Anya Kamenetz has been following these situations and joins us now. Hi, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: So let's start with Syracuse. What's the backstory there?
KAMENETZ: So at Syracuse, the FBI and local law enforcement are investigating a dozen different incidents, including racist graffiti, threats and slurs being yelled at some students - at least in some cases by fellow students. And in response, anti-racist protesters held a sit-in lasting several days. And one Syracuse professor I talked to called the campus a powder keg.
MARTIN: Wow. And Indiana University?
KAMENETZ: So at Indiana, an economics professor, Eric Rasmusen - he shared an article from a right-wing website on Twitter with a headline about women destroying academia. And some of his previous public statements were unearthed and found to be racist, sexist and homophobic.
MARTIN: And this is where we introduced the provost of that school, right? Lauren Robel - she condemned this.
KAMENETZ: Right. She issued a kind of unusual statement in which she said that no one would be forced to take classes with this professor but that the university wasn't going to fire him because as a public university, they're bound by the First Amendment. And Rasmusen has responded online. We should say he said that he's been mischaracterized. And he called the whole thing a kerfuffle.
MARTIN: So, Anya, there isn't any explicit connection between these two situations...
MARTIN: ...At least on the surface? OK. So what do they have in common?
KAMENETZ: Well, they're both examples, Rachel, of an increasingly common trend where racism and bigotry are rearing their head on college campuses, and colleges are struggling to respond because colleges have this institutional commitment to freedom of speech and, actually, a diversity of thought and ideology and debate. And so some experts are saying that Rasmusen's case is probably best understood as a question of academic freedom and not only the First Amendment, meaning on campuses, they're sort of a super First Amendment. The core of what it means to be a scholar is to be able to research and debate unpopular ideas and not be silenced.
MARTIN: And what about Syracuse?
KAMENETZ: So these same values, Rachel, are in tension (ph) also at Syracuse. You know, there's a history here. The hashtag of the activists that they're using is #NotAgainSU because there was an incident about a year and a half ago where fraternity members were suspended for creating racist videos. And since then, the campus has been reviewing its policies on free speech and civil discourse and also trying to increase diversity and inclusion. But, you know, there's a bigger picture here, as well. The FBI reports that hate crimes are on the rise on campuses nationwide since 2015. In fact, just in the last few weeks, there's been incidents involving swastikas and nooses and other messages at the University of Georgia, at Auburn, at Iowa State and the University of Wisconsin.
KAMENETZ: Yeah. So what the activists at Syracuse are saying is that this is part of a pattern, and they don't want this to be swept under the rug. And the university leadership is accepting many of the activist demands, but there's still a lot of dissatisfaction. This is Jenn Jackson. She's an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse.
JENN JACKSON: The primary purpose of university is to teach students and to prepare them for the world. If it is a place where they can't even walk on campus and feel safe, then the university is not meeting its primary goal and function and objective.
KAMENETZ: She told me her students of color, LGBT, immigrant or Jewish students - they're scared. And that's not conducive to learning or free debate.
MARTIN: NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Thank you so much for your reporting on this, Anya. We appreciate it.
KAMENETZ: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.