Free Speech at Boston University

This could have been "Salaita 2: A Censorship Sequel." Once again, a new college faculty member whose appointment has not yet officially begun has been denounced for offensive speech. Once again, the speech consists entirely of tweets. Once again many alumni and donors are in an uproar. Once again, the university has felt obliged to respond.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Professor Steven Salaita lost a faculty position last August because Chancellor Phyllis Wise decided that his tweets denouncing the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza failed to meet her standard of civility. In a mass email to the university community, she informed all faculty and students that uncivil speech would not be tolerated.

At Boston University, the tweets came from Dr. Saida Grundy, who on July 1 will become an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies. In one tweet, she asks, "Why is white america so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?" In another she asserts, "white masculinity is THE problem for America's colleges." In a third she admonishes, "deal with your white sh*t, white people" because "slavery is a *YALL* thing."

This time, however, the official response has been quite different. In a May 12 letter addressed "To the Boston University Community," President Robert A. Brown made it clear that Dr. Grundy's faculty position was not at stake. "At Boston University," wrote President Brown, "we acknowledge Dr. Grundy's right to hold and express her opinions. Our community is composed of faculty, staff, and students who represent widely varying points of view on many sensitive issues."

Acknowledging the strong reactions to Dr. Grundy's tweets, he stated clearly:

"Boston University does not condone racism or bigotry in any form." Still speaking for the university, he added: "We are disappointed and concerned by statements that reduce individuals to stereotypes on the basis of a broad category such as sex, race, or ethnicity." Then, making a personal judgment, he wrote: "I believe Dr. Grundy's remarks fit this characterization."

President Brown did note "a broader context to Dr. Grundy's tweets" and affirmed her "right to pursue her research, formulate her views, and challenge the rest of us to think differently about race relations." Nevertheless, he wrote, "the words in her Twitter feed were powerful in the way they stereotyped and condemned other people." As president he has "an obligation to speak up when words become hurtful to one group or another in the way they typecast and label its members."

Finally, he acknowledged "that some members of our faculty believe that any equivocation by the president is tantamount to not supporting a new colleague." In response he urged conversation and welcomed "the chance to talk with all of you and Dr. Grundy" about what he recognized as "a difficult issue."

Saida Grundy then issued a statement of her own regretting that her "personal passion" about racial issues led her "to speak about them indelicately. I deprived them of the nuance and complexity that such subjects always deserve." She added:

As an experienced educator, I take seriously my responsibility to create an inclusive learning environment for all of my students. Both professionally and ethically, I am unequivocally committed to ensuring that my classroom is a space where all students are welcomed. I know firsthand that students learn best by discussing these issues openly and honestly without risk of censure or penalty.

I suppose this is a happy ending. But I have to wonder why anyone would expect "nuance and complexity" on Twitter. Do we really need apologies for indelicacy in social media? Why are we even talking about professorial tweets?

If I were president of Boston University the letter would have been much shorter. I would have affirmed the university's commitment to free speech for all, including students, and then made it clear that Boston University faculty are and will continue to be hired and evaluated on the basis of their teaching, research, and professional service, without regard for the civility of their tweets.