Board of Trustees Chairman Patrick O’Connor was outraged when he heard professor Marc Lamont Hill’s anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian comments. And again when he saw faculty members had criticized his public response.
O’Connor called Hill’s remarks at the United Nations “lamentable” and “disgusting” in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Nov. 30.
Temple University President Richard Englert’s statement differed: it said that Hill was speaking within his bounds of free speech. Faculty members also stood with Hill, and quickly criticized O’Connor for potentially infringing on Hill’s academic freedom.
Hill, an urban education and media studies and production professor, ended his speech on the U.N.’s International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People with the call to action “Free Palestine, from the river to the sea.” Some say the phrase is anti-Semitic and calls for the destruction of Israel.
The remarks sparked national outrage, and the next day, Hill was fired from CNN from his commentator position. Some have demanded that the university do the same, and O’Connor told The Temple News on Tuesday that Hill’s comments have caused “immeasurable” damage to the university.
It’s rare for top-ranking officials to personally diverge from an institution’s official statement when controversies arise, communication and free speech experts said. But free speech is equally protected for all university personnel under the First Amendment.
O’Connor and Hill have “the same rights to speak as Nazis and Klansmen and other haters out there. That’s part of living in a multi-faceted country,” said Roy Gutterman, the director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University.
A UNIQUE RESPONSE BY TEMPLE AND O’CONNOR
Within an hour of the Temple community receiving the university-wide statement sent by Englert, O’Connor’s personal take was published in the Inquirer.
“It should be made clear that no one at Temple is happy with his comments,” O’Connor told the Inquirer on Nov. 30. “Free speech is one thing. Hate speech is entirely different.”
He also said that Hill’s speech “blackens” Temple’s name.
The back-and-forth is confusing for the public, said Gerard Braud, an international crisis communications expert who teaches at Loyola University New Orleans.
“It certainly is comforting to see when an institution doesn’t have conflicting points of views being spoken,” Braud said. “If the university president is designated as the official spokesperson, then that person becomes the official voice of the institution.”
It’s less common for a board chair or someone in a similar position to stray from an institution’s statements, Gutterman agreed.
Temple’s communication team did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the administration’s handling of the Hill controversy.
Chairman of the Board of Trustees
The Policies and Procedures Manual states that the 36-member Board of Trustees is responsible for Temple’s “instructional, administrative, and financial affairs” — not communications. But the words of a high-ranking university official about an ongoing controversy carry significance, even when they’re made as a private citizen, Braud said.
The ideal crisis communication strategy is to add context, Braud said. Baseless statements can be harmful, he added, although they’re becoming more common.
“What you’re seeing here is part of a growing trend where people feel compelled to judge others very quickly and very vocally,” Braud said.
DID O’CONNOR INFRINGE ON HILL’S ACADEMIC FREEDOM?
O’Connor’s statements prompted more than 60 faculty members to criticize him by signing two separate letters. More than 30 Klein College of Media and Communication faculty members signed a letter last week stating their solidarity with Hill, and nearly 30 professors across disciplines signed a letter of no confidence in O’Connor on Dec. 5.
Concern over Hill’s academic freedom being threatened was a common theme in faculty’s responses.
The letter signed by Klein faculty stated that O’Connor’s call against Hill was “a grave threat to academic freedom.” They wrote the field of communications is “where scholars’ expertise is often deeply tied to issues of public concern.”
“The University must not limit the ability of academic workers to participate in exactly the kind of engaged scholarship that Temple should be proud of- scholarship that connects itself to struggles for justice, and to the needs and interests of the wider community,” the letter reads.
O’Connor wanted to remind the university that he too has academic freedom, and he “resent[s] it when people think I don’t have the right to do it.”
O’Connor also said Hill’s speech wasn’t an exercise of his academic freedom, but of his First Amendment rights.
“This did not happen in the context of academia, so that’s a totally separate issue,” he said. “Academic freedom, you understand what that term means, doesn’t mean when you make statement of a political import at the United Nations. It means when you are speaking in academia on academic issues, you have the freedom.”
Academic freedom entitles professors “to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results,” according to the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure by the American Association of University Professors — which is regarded as a standard in higher education.
Taking action against Hill and his academic freedom would be a “slippery slope,” Gutterman said, but it’s ultimately up to Temple to decide what kind of faculty and viewpoints the university wants on campus.
Academic freedom is essential for robust debate in and outside of classrooms, Gutterman said.
“It forces us, as a society, to look at things in different ways and maybe to expose some wrong ideas,” he said. “That’s how these things play out, and hopefully the good ideas will rise to the top and bad ideas will be exposed for being ignorant or being hateful.”
Academic freedom was mentioned as a tenet protecting Hill in multiple public statements, including:
- The letter of no confidence signed by more than 30 professors on Dec. 5
- The letter signed by more than 30 Klein faculty members last week
- A statement released by the Temple Association of University Professionals on Dec. 1 in response to O’Connor’s statements, calling them “unacceptable”
- A letter by the Faculty Senate Committee on the Status of Faculty of Color published in The Temple News on Dec. 11
- A letter by the organization Scholars for Black Lives that has more than 500 signatures from more than 230 institutions across the world
- A letter penned on Nov. 30 by Students for Justice in Palestine groups and Palestinian liberation organizations that was signed by hundreds across the nation
Hill’s academic freedom is also more protected since he is a tenured professor, Jennie Shanker, the vice president of TAUP, told The Temple News earlier this month.
According to a 2017 report by the American Association of University Professionals, the 2016 election and current political climate is causing “politically motivated witch hunts” against academics advocating against issues like racial justice.
Temple’s treatment of Hill is another sign of the national shift, said George Ciccariello-Maher, who was a Drexel professor until 2017. He resigned after a year of online harassment, stemming from a tweet he posted in 2016 that read “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.”
“What happens if you back down or undermine principles of academic freedom is that the university is simply purged of any critical voices,” said Ciccariello-Maher, who’s now a visiting scholar at the Hemispheric Institute in New York.
“When you hear the chairman of the Board of Trustees talking about looking for ways to…eliminate Marc Lamont Hill, that’s the language of purge,” he added.
O’Connor said the faculty’s criticism is “the essence of hypocrisy.”
“I would say to the faculty, whoever is critiquing this, remember the Constitution is not selective, that Patrick O’Connor has First Amendment rights as they do, and I don’t critique them when they criticize me and ask for my ouster,” O’Connor said.
He added that he would “say it to their faces, whoever they may be.”
O’Connor also felt that not enough attention was paid to positive reactions his comments received. He said his views were “ratified” by the Board’s unanimous statement condemning Hill’s comments. It was released at the Board’s meeting last week.
Critics of O’Connor were also concerned about his use of the word “blackens” when critiquing Hill.
Have you asked trustees board chair Patrick O'Connor how racist he meant to be when he said Hill's speech "blackens our name"? pic.twitter.com/crW6PR9Dxd— Craig Willse (@cwillse) December 5, 2018
A letter to The Temple News by the Faculty Senate Committee on the Status of Faculty of Color said the need for dialogue about the treatment of faculty, students and staff of color on campus was made clear by O’Connor’s comments.
“As faculty, none of us is exempt and any of us can be subjected to similar punishments at any time when arbitrary lines are crossed,” the letter published on Dec. 11 read. “History has taught us that discipline/punishment is often autocratic, capricious, authoritarian, and reactionary.”
O’Connor called these accusations “absurd.”
“For anyone to suggest that Patrick O’Connor used a word that’s racist is foolish, and it’s parsing and dicing,” he said. “My record speaks for itself and I’m offended by anyone who says that my comment with respect to Hill was racist. It’s obnoxious.”
He added that “blackens” is not a racist term, and he uses it often.
“You ever hear of a ‘black out,’ is that racist? ‘I blacked out,’ is that racist? Come on. This new day of correctness is absurd,” he said.
O’Connor also told The Temple News on Tuesday that he still stands by his comments in the Inquirer, which he said he made as a private citizen.
“Of course I have,” O’Connor said when asked if he’s spoken out on public controversies in the past while chairman.
“On the Cosby issue when people asked me, I spoke,” said O’Connor, who represented the former trustee in a 2005 sexual assault civil suit. “I’m a person with rights just as anyone else. I have the right to speak. … If I speak as chairman of the Board, I would only do so with the consensus of the Board.”
Though O’Connor didn’t consult with other trustees or administrators before speaking to the Inquirer, several trustees shared their personal opinions about Hill’s comments with The Temple News after the meeting. They ranged from wanting further action from the Board, to finding the statement they unanimously issued last week to be “appropriate.”
Despite the verbal tug of war, Hill and O’Connor share one vital commonality: their speech is protected by the Constitution.