The latest reason for why professor Anthea Butler ended up in the news cycle, and why Penn dealt with numerous complaints, was over a tweet. Butler sent one last October with the words, “If only there was a ‘coon of the year’ award,” which she said people misinterpreted. The since-deleted tweet was in response to a conversation with Daily Beast editor-at-large Goldie Taylor.
“If you teach [African American Studies], you know about this word, you know what’s going on, right,” Butler said. “And I didn’t mean it about him. I meant we had a whole cadre of people that could get this award this year. I didn’t say him but they said I said it was him. It doesn’t matter what you say; they twist it.”
“They’ve called every dean,” Butler says. “They’ve called the president’s office.”
Butler said people who disagree with her opinions are constantly complaining to Penn, asking the university to get rid of her (a spokesperson for Penn did not respond to a request for comment). For her, it’s relatively routine. It’s not even the worst pressure she’s experienced after speaking her mind about politics and current events. That would have been after the George Zimmerman case. Butler’s post on Religion Dispatches titled “America’s Racist God” led to threats so serious she said Penn didn’t publish her classroom locations the next semester.
Professors’ words, social media accounts and fields of study can lead to controversy for the universities that employ them, and Philadelphia is no stranger to this. Butler is probably the best known, given her routine appearances on the now-defunct Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC and editorials in publications like The Guardian and The Washington Post. But there’s also the University of the Arts’ Camille Paglia. She’s written for and been quoted in numerous publications regarding feminism and political issues. These days, she’s an outspoken critic of Hillary Clinton and recently wrote for Salon that Donald Trump’s candor can be refreshing.
At Temple University two years ago, a professor was fired for what he claimed was retaliation for voicing his opinion about a department head. Temple also just hired Sara Goldrick-Rab from the University of Wisconsin, who made headlines earlier this year for comparing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to Hitler.
“Universities in general are very concerned about their reputation and so very concerned about any public relations that they believe somehow reflect poorly on their reputation,” said Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary of the professor advocacy group American Association of University Professors. “The other question is, why does a segment of the public at large bristle at professors expressing their views? If there weren’t the response I don’t think that universities would particularly care.”
Philadelphia has been a place where outspoken professors have been alternately condemned and defended going back at least 100 years. As part of its mission, the AAUP investigates controversial firings of professors, and one of the cases it first took on after its inception involved Penn professor Scott Nearing in 1915.
Nearing advocated against child labor in Pennsylvania, and his beliefs didn’t sit well with Penn’s Board of Trustees, which fired him rather than risk the loss of $1,000,000 in appropriations from the state. The incident began a discussion over the rights of university professors that continues to this day. Some 50 years after his firing, Penn made Nearing an honorary professor emeritus and acknowledged its mistreatment.
Butler said she generally feels the university supports her, especially the Department of Religious Studies to which she belongs. But she’s also a tenured professor, which affords her job security many others don’t have.
“It’s a big problem now, especially for untenured professors,” said Butler, who’s been at Penn since 2009. “They don’t even have to say anything. It can be the work they do, and they’re in peril.”
Anthony Monteiro was a professor at Temple from the early 2000s until 2014 and taught courses related to the teachings of W.E.B. Dubois. He was also a community activist.
In 2013, Monteiro publicly criticized the dean of Temple’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Teresa Soufas, for her rejection of the faculty’s pick for the African American Studies Department’s interim chair. Soufas had also been the target of community protests because of what Monteiro characterized as a strained relationship between her and black professors. He was fired in 2014. The department’s reason for his dismissal was that it intended to go in another direction and courses about Dubois were not needed. Monteiro called the firing retaliatory.
“This is an injustice,” Monteiro said at the time. “Temple is a powerful institution, but it is not yet a great institution because it has lost its moral bearings.”
His firing led to protests on campus and support from famous professors like Noam Chomsky and Cornel West. Temple didn’t budge. Monteiro couldn’t be reached for comment.
Butler’s saga spilled over from conservative websites to campus when the Daily Penn student newspaper reported a story last month saying the locations of her classes had been changed and she was under special protection from Penn police. The newspaper later corrected its article to say Penn police had only communicated with her about threats but not put her under any special protection. Butler, who rebutted the article in an editorial, said the classroom location for the lone class she’s teaching this semester, a graduate course, had been changed to accommodate a student who was also completing work at Temple.
Butler said the commotion over her Tweet that’s extended for months was “upsetting” to university administration and she understands why.
She said looking back she might have tried to be clearer with her intent of the tweet from October — “It was in a back and forth. A lot was going on on Twitter that morning with prominent black people that was crazy” — but she has no plans to stop sharing her views.
“I’m already out there,” Butler said. “I worry about it in the sense that I don’t want people to misinterpret what I say to affect other people around me. It’s not so much about me. It’s about my colleagues and friends that I don’t want out there.”