I’ll never forget the first time I received a panicked call from a fellow academic who was being harassed online by a “white identity” group. That was about six years ago, and it has happened many times since, becoming more coordinated and more frightening as the years go by. Now, not a month goes by that I do not receive such a call.
In recent years, public approval of colleges and universities has fallen dramatically, especially among conservatives: From 2015 to 2016, in just one year, Republicans who believe our institutions of higher education have a positive effect on the country dropped by 11 percentage points, according to Pew. But it’s no coincidence that I received that first terrified call long before, in 2011 or 2012.
That was a moment in which universities were pushing their professors to take their scholarship out into the “real world,” to write op-eds and go on television and become public intellectuals. Academics needed some new PR. As American workers were dealt a devastating double whammy ― technological change that makes their jobs feel more precarious and weak social policy to protect them from poverty ― it became easy to resent and revile the people whose jobs seemed safe. In the public imagination, academics were secure in their jobs and free to punish conservative students and brainwash good kids into hating America.
In reality, our positions are precarious, and we are relatively underpaid given how much time we sit out of the labor market to develop our expertise. Still, to the aggrieved outside observer, ours sounds like a pretty good gig. And, as the ranks of academia finally, slowly, became less white and less male, academics became even easier to dislike. Not only were we liberal propagandists with cushy, well-paid, tenured gigs ― some of us were women of color to boot.
There were other reasons universities wanted their star academics on television and on Twitter and otherwise out in the world engendering public trust. A college degree was becoming a harder sell as tuition prices rose, student loan debt climbed and wages didn’t always offset the burden of going to college. Non-traditional students ― these are college students who are anything but the straight-from-high-school 18- and 19-year-olds ― became the new norm and with them came a host of conflicts about what knowledge and training was worthwhile for work versus what we had been trained to provide in a comprehensive education.
During this very period, the culture of conservatism took a hard right turn. The internet allowed people with right-leaning, alt-right, right-right and nativist racist right ideologies across the world to converge on anonymous chat boards. They used the economics of online advertising to push their views up into mainstream media. They pioneered and practiced trolling techniques, running thousands of experiments until they figured out the most effective ways to intimidate and silence their targets.
It was the best of times and the worst of times to ask professors to go public.
The first clue a professor gets that her life is about to change arrives in the most bureaucratic and benign of ways: It is often an email. The email may say that a known right-wing publication is planning to run a story about your research or your teaching, and it offers you a chance to comment.
Next, the architecture of online news media takes over. A story, perhaps about your syllabus or a story you told in a lecture, is posted. A series of outraged tweets goes out. An army of social media accounts, some run by real humans and some by “bots,” is pressed into service. The targeted advertising that Facebook uses to sell you the shoes you thought about buying on Amazon last week also helps the troll armies push stories about a “liberal commie” into the social media feeds of those on the right who are likely to believe and share it.
Within 24 hours, your university email is swarmed with messages from people claiming to be concerned students, concerned parents and concerned donors. Somewhere in the hundreds of emails there may be official communications from students and co-workers, but you don’t have the resources to find them. You cannot do your actual job of teaching and researching because you are drowning in emails, phone calls and messages.
If you are one of the lucky ones, it stops there. Increasingly, it does not stop there. Angry consumers of this kind of culture war red meat do not live just on the internet. They live in your community. They may mail you packages, perhaps with dangerous contents in them. They may send you death threats. They may use the surveillance apparatus we built to sell internet ads and control poor people to find out where your children go to school or where your spouse works. They may threaten them, directly or indirectly.
The distance between these trolls and their targets is shrinking; Increasingly, the perpetrators of this harassment have a real-life presence on campus. They organize sophisticated armies of student “journalists” to surveil and trap professors and students into being “liberal.” They record and remix footage, circulating it on a vast web of social media, blogs, content farms and even in mainstream media. They capture the public’s imagination, feed conservative media’s obsession with the liberal academia, and they make it seem safe to hordes of on-the-ground soldiers fighting an imaginary race war to come to a campus near you to recruit.
And they are recruiting. The Anti-Defamation League reported a 258 percent increase in white supremacist propaganda on campuses from the fall of 2016 to the fall of 2017, affecting 216 campuses across the country. On-campus attacks are ramping up: From 2012 to 2016, colleges reported an average of 970 hate crimes annually, with little variation from year to year, but the number of reported campus hate crimes increased by 25 percent from 2015 to 2016.
Obviously, attacks like this feel overwhelming. And, if you are a woman or a person of color, your sense of vulnerability is not an illusion: You are being attacked by a network you cannot outmaneuver, in a system that does not value you enough to defend you. Some of the most vitriolic incidents of internet outrage against supposed liberal professors have picked off women, African Americans and other members of racial minorities: The internet outrage industrialists know we’re easy targets, because the very university that pushed us to be public scholars won’t do much to defend us when we’re targeted.
As far as I know, I am the only academic to have ever successfully negotiated for technology and administrative resources to help shield me from racist attacks. I screen my voicemail messages. I have contingency plans with our university IT department. We even chose the location of my office to minimize foot traffic from strangers. For all the safety presumed liberals are said to have in academia, look at the contingency plans I have to make just to do my job.
Given higher education’s reputation as a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, it’s no wonder that it’s seen as a ripe target for angry white men. To many Americans, we are, as one angry internet troll recently told me, responsible for producing the “social justice warriors” and “feminazis” who are supposedly destroying the world. In reality, “the university” in 2018 is mostly a constellation of underfunded, overextended public institutions that still serve mostly working-class and middle-class whites and smaller numbers of minorities, including some undocumented young people known as Dreamers. Those institutions rarely have the resources to target conservative students or brainwash students.
You could be forgiven for not imagining that university when people talk about liberal colleges and coddled professors. We do not appear often in elite media, which tends to focus on the fringiest and most outrageous goings-on at elite universities. But even elite institutions are not nearly as radical as the alt-right believes. They are, if anything, the finishing schools for conservative economics, social science and social policy. A handful of gender studies courses could not begin to check the power of an economics department or a business school at any university in the U.S. The college down the street from most Americans is a conservative institution that is sensitive to the pluralist needs of the students they serve because its economic viability depends on it.
Of course, racism does not need logic. White racist organizations are flourishing in the space between perception and fact, and in that space, the university is the mecca for aggrieved white masculinity to reassert its dominance. When I get those emails from colleagues across the nation and the political spectrum, the focus is usually on survival rather than analysis. We talk about communication plans and safety contingencies for their families. I send notes to their administrators to explain how networked attacks work. Many of us help raise money to offset the real cost of protecting ourselves while merely trying to do our jobs.
If you’ve never experienced it, this kind of harassment may seem like a small thing. In fact, it’s a crippling symptom of a much larger illness. Most college campuses are struggling to serve student needs that have become more expensive to provide. People feel left out of the race for good jobs and blame those same colleges for that because in our cultural imagination all colleges are flush with endowments and tenured professors. White men are especially aggrieved because they perceive any loss of status as a deep betrayal, whereas other groups take it as par for the course.
The internet makes it easier for these people to find each other, to generate profit for publications who use that outrage to sell advertising. And higher education institutions ― the rank-and-file workhorses ― don’t have a voice telling the story of who we are, who we serve and how we work. Racist ideologies fill the void, telling a compelling story where we haven’t written one. People are listening.
Tressie McMillan Cottom is a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.