The University of Memphis has been mostly silent in the last month as conservative bloggers and publications have criticized Zandria Robinson, until recently an assistant professor of sociology at the university.It is sociology. There are, however, ways to challenge perceived dominance by, for instance, publishing research in refereed journals, or, by teaching the controversies in a proper fashion, preferably using more than 140 characters and striking a balance between the provocative and the prosaic. And publishing research in refereed journals is part of the professor's mission, one which Donald Downs and John Sharpless argue in Politico is the part academic tenure protects. "Without tenure protections, professors like us who fight for free speech and liberty—values Walker himself espouses—could be even more at risk of being targeted on college campuses for our beliefs." Not, note, for making provocative statements on social media. For investigating inconvenient truths.
But on Tuesday afternoon, the university posted an 11-word comment on Twitter: “Zandria Robinson is no longer employed by the University of Memphis.” The university declined to say anything more, such as whether she had been fired and, if so, why.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Robinson's defenders took to social media to denounce her apparent firing. After a few hours, Robinson shared a post with some friends saying that she had not been fired, but had accepted a job elsewhere a few weeks ago. Faculty members at Memphis confirmed this.
But while Robinson has found a new employer, she has become a new cause in a culture war going on about the online comments of black women in academe, and specifically in sociology. To conservative critics, the issue is statements that they consider outlandish and racist (specifically, anti-white). To many sociologists, of a variety of races and ethnicities, black women who challenge white dominance are having their words and ideas taken out of context, are being flooded with hateful email -- and are at risk of having their careers disrupted.
Outnumbered and often targeted for our beliefs by members of the campus left, constitutional conservatives like us—who take individual liberty, freedom of speech and academic freedom very seriously—have long relied on tenure to protect our right to dissent and to preserve the free exchange of ideas in academia.That protection once kept Richard T. Ely and John R. Commons on faculty, and it will protect insurgent sociologists once race-class-gender and culture studies become research dead ends.
It’s no wonder conservatives in our state legislatures, rightly or wrongly, think our universities—not just Wisconsin—are liberal insane asylums under the control of the inmates. We know for a fact that many legislators are reacting to the intellectual intolerance they believe reigns on campus. But if indeed campuses are rife with liberal-progressive and politically correct orthodoxy, why expose on-campus critics of that liberal hegemony to greater chance at banishment?That hegemony, too, will pass, and then it will be the insurgent sociologists making the case for free exchange of ideas.