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Drexel professor resigns after months-long investigation, exile from campus

Yesterday, Associate Professor George Ciccariello-Maher announced that he would no longer teach at Drexel University, bringing an unfortunate end to Drexel’s months-long investigation of his tweets — an investigation FIRE has repeatedly called on Drexel to abandon.

The trouble for Ciccariello-Maher began last Christmas Eve, when he tweeted “All I Want For Christmas is White Genocide.” As the Associated Press reported at the time, the professor explained “he was mocking what he called the ‘imaginary concept’ of white genocide, which he says was invented by white supremacists.”  The next day, Ciccariello-Maher tweeted again, writing: “To clarify: when the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a good thing indeed.” Ciccariello-Maher then faced threats and a social media backlash.

Despite Drexel’s initial promise to Ciccariello-Maher that he would not face punishment for his tweets, the university quietly launched an investigation in February 2017, with letters from Executive Vice President and Provost M. Brian Blake announcing “a special committee of inquiry” that would “investigate [Ciccariello-Maher’s] conduct and provide findings and recommendations to [Blake] concerning [Ciccariello-Maher’s] extremely damaging conduct.”

FIRE wrote to Drexel on June 2 and October 20 to remind the university of its commitments to academic freedom and to condemn its prolonged investigation into a faculty member’s extramural, political speech. As we pointed out, Drexel’s “investigation” had a predetermined outcome: that it was Ciccariello-Maher’s speech, and not the conduct of those who threatened him, that caused the university harm. That Drexel then let that investigation linger for ten months was contrary to Drexel’s promises of freedom of expression.

Drexel did not end that investigation. Instead, the university — perhaps sensing that the ongoing investigation was not enough of a hint that he should resign — barred Ciccariello-Maher from campus, then refused to answer questions about the propriety of its exile. Presumably, Drexel’s investigation will only now be at end —  not because the university is newly cognizant of its obligations to defend its professors’ rights, but because of Ciccariello-Maher’s resignation, which the university accepted yesterday in a short statement.

In his own statement, Ciccariello-Maher wrote:

To faculty: tenure is a crucial buffer against those who would use money to dictate the content of higher education. But in a neoliberal academy, such protections are far from absolute. We are all a single outrage campaign away from having no rights at all, as my case and many others make clear. The difference between tenure-track faculty and the untenured adjunct majority—which has far more to do with luck than merit—is a difference in degree not in kind.

Ciccariello-Maher is right to point out that outrage over protected speech is often the precursor to punishment. FIRE has seen universities seek to quell anger at a faculty member’s expression by launching investigations or restricting employment in lieu of defending basic free speech principles — again and again and again in just the past few months. Drexel, surely aware that Ciccariello-Maher’s status as a tenured professor barred the university from outright terminating him, instead appears to have seized upon criticism and threats as a means to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Ciccariello-Maher to work. In taking adverse action against Ciccariello-Maher, Drexel University responded to a test of its commitment to freedom of expression by abandoning it.

Outrage campaigns in response to controversial speech are nothing new, but social media has helped make them more regular occurrences. Drexel is hardly the first university to cravenly buckle in the face of outrage, but it ought to be the last.

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