By Abby Ferber
*This article will be open access on the website for the rest of 2018
“I never thought such brutality could come out of the classroom.” These are the words of a University faculty member who was secretly recorded by a student intern for the “College Fix.” One sentence was taken out of context and turned into the focus of an “article.” The reality was twisted into a story designed to be picked up by other right wing websites disguised as “news” and to trigger readers and trolls. The professor awoke to over 700 abusive and harassing emails. Mission accomplished. The student plant dropped the class.
These occurrences are becoming more common on right-wing social media sites like the College Fix, Campus Reform, Professor Watch, and others that engage in similarly unethical methods. They target higher education Faculty who teach subjects like race, privilege, climate change and other subjects deemed threatening to right wing politics. People of color and white women are especially vulnerable. More than 100 cases occurred over the past year. I was one of
My own experience over the past five years is consistent with the patterns I have found in talking to others who have been targeted. Most cases follow a pattern as they are ushered through the “outrage The new alt-right sites have been strategically set up and very well-funded by foundations with familiar names like Koch, Coors and Devos. Money is funneled through alt-right (white Nationalist) organizations like Turning Point USA and The Leadership Institute. They are frequently picked up by other more mainstream sites including Breitbart, The Blaze, National Review, aggregators like the Drudge Report and eventually Fox news, in addition to overt extremist sites like The Daily Stormer. At the same time, Armies of trolls are called to attention and begin their work, utilizing email, Facebook, Youtube, and other social media tools to harass, scare, and silence their targets and exert control over the curriculum.
Social media has been weaponized to advance an extreme political agenda on campuses across the country. Campus administrators and public relations offices are frequently unprepared to respond. These attacks are highly organized and strategic; to develop an equally strategic response, it is essential that we understand why these attacks have so quickly proliferated and will
Various contextual factors make faculty and institutions particularly vulnerable at this moment. Shrinking state financial support for public colleges and universities has forced administrations to seek new sources of money, turning to donations from wealthy individuals, corporations, and foundations. These funds often come with strings attached. For instance, the Koch brothers have poured millions of dollars into higher education institutions across the country to create positions and programs that advance their agenda. George Mason University has received a lot of attention, but this is only one example.
Along with the monetary carrot comes the stick. In addition to attacking faculty and their curriculum, extreme white nationalist organizations, including those self-labeled “alt-right,” leaflet and blanket campuses with racist, hate filled flyers. Alt right speakers are funded by external right wing organizations and foundations to speak on campuses and promote hate. The concept of free speech has been manipulated to curtail academic freedom and open civil dialogue on campus. These multi-pronged attacks are given free reign and encouraged by the cultural climate established by the Trump administration.
The direct attacks on Faculty are not a new phenomenon, but the tools of attack and the level of sophisticated coordination have changed. In 1934, Elizabeth Dilling published The Red Network-A Who’s Who and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots, a list of 460 individuals and organizations including faculty and higher education administrators. The Anti-communist blacklisting of the McCarthy era, and more have dotted our history. Many of these movements led to threats of violence against faculty.
A lack of trust in higher education has primed segments of today’s population to believe the alt-right’s lies. Books like D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, Shapiro’s Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth, and Horowitz’s The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America are just a few.
Social media is a crucial tool that differentiates the wave of harassment we are experiencing today. Social media serves as a means of manufacturing crises, spreading and legitimizing these stories with each retelling in combination with the strategic use of search engine algorithms so that these stories are easily found even years later.
The attacks aimed at faculty take the form of harassment, abuse, and outright threats. Examples include “Traitor; Communist Jew pig; Fat cunt; N—–; You deserve to be raped; I have seen your children; I know where you will be and I will be there.“ Under the guise of protecting free speech, these messages are clearly meant to silence.
The interviews that I discuss in my article for Gender and Society reveal that these attacks evoke great anger and fear but these emotions are often outweighed by the conviction that we must have “really hit a chord, or people wouldn’t bother.” For myself and indeed most faculty, this has served as motivation to continue the work we are doing, with more passion and commitment than ever.
Abby L. Ferber is the co-founder and Director of The Matrix Center for the Advancement of Social Equity and Inclusion, and a Professor of Sociology, and Women’s and Ethnic Studies. She has published numerous books and teaches about race, gender, sexuality, intersectionality, privilege, oppression, and the far right. She serves on the national organizing team of the annual White Privilege Conference and co-facilitates the Knapsack Institute: Transforming Teaching and Learning. She is the editor of Understanding and Dismantling Privilege, an on-line international journal.