Joy Karega, formerly the assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College, has been fired. One rejoices because Karega is an anti-Semite. Consider one of her Facebook posts, first noted by Jacob Gerstman of Tower Magazine. Next to a picture of investment banker Jacob Rothschild, these words appear: “My name is Jacob Rothschild. My family is worth 500 trillion dollars. We own nearly every central bank in the world. We financed both sides of every war since Napoleon. We own your news, the media, your oil, and your government.” Karega’s comment: “Yep. This family and several others.” As Gerstman points out, this is not Karega’s only post on the Rothschilds, whom she implicates in the disappearance Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
The case for firing Karega seems strong. Karega was untenured. Her case was reviewed by an elected faculty committee, a plurality of which voted for dismissal. She was represented by counsel and permitted to present evidence in her favor. No one would shed any tears if every faculty member who held views as straightforwardly unhinged and hateful as Karega’s were fired after such a review.
But I oppose firing academics over constitutionally protected hate speech, whether it is directed against blacks, Muslims, women, homosexuals, or Jews. I share the view of old fashioned liberals that, at least at colleges and universities, we run little risk in giving wide latitude to rotten and even unhinged ideas. If we limit ourselves to firing only people whose terrible ideas undermine their ability to teach, conduct research, and serve on committees, we will probably be rid of most Karegas anyhow. To do more, in the hope of firing every last one of them, is the equivalent of demolishing student speech protections in order to catch the last racist bathroom graffiti artist. Disgusting and unhinged views will always be with us. Our dedication to the protection of speech and academic freedom cannot be contingent on the elimination of such views.
Moreover, if we agree that speech despised by the vast majority of the academic community is a fireable offense, given the present politics of our colleges and universities, we will more likely catch non-tenured equivalents of conservatives like Robert George and Harvey Mansfield in the net than radicals like Joy Karega. We should not be comforted by the idea that Karega’s anti-Semitism is so blatant that only a straight up Klansman could be fired on the grounds Karega was fired. We won’t get to decide who stays and who goes.
Admittedly, even if we concede that a professor of physics can have repulsive and insane political views without thereby being disqualified from teaching and conducting research in physics, we still might consider firing Karega. She taught “social justice writing,” and her Facebook posts therefore directly concern the subject she supposedly teaches. It can be a pleasure to hold to their own standards those who have shattered the barrier between scholarship and Sunday school so that holding palatable political opinions is a qualification for teaching composition. It seems wiser, though, to reject the whole premise that university teaching is about ensuring students hold the right opinions.
I understand that Karega’s views are not only reprehensible but also beneath any credible standard for the pursuit of the truth to which scholars are supposed to dedicate themselves. But we also know that people can hold absurd views in one area and be capable of Nobel-caliber work in another. We should be very reluctant to fire teachers over offenses that have not somehow manifested themselves in scholarship, teaching, or service, or that do not directly implicate their fitness (if Karega were a historian or a political scientist, the case for firing her would be stronger than if she were a professor of nutrition).
To be sure Oberlin did not fire Karega, officially, for expressing hateful opinions. They appealed to “The Statement of Professional Ethics” of the American Association of University Professors. This statement has it absolutely right that “membership in the academic profession carries with it special responsibilities,” not just special rights. Karega shirked those responsibilities when she “attacked her colleagues” for challenging her and “disclaimed all responsibility for her misconduct.” Moreover, she “continues to blame Oberlin” for reviewing that misconduct.
I don’t mean to make light of the professional responsibilities of academics, or discount the possibility that Karega’s actual misconduct during the review was damning. Perhaps Oberlin was quite right to fire her. But if we stick solely to the reasons offered–that Karega attacked (presumably verbally) colleagues who criticized her, that she refused to admit wrongdoing, and that she blamed the college for her woes–we would have to start handing out pink slips at faculty meetings, where all three of the behaviors in question are not so rarely on display.
There is no question that Karega’s views should be condemned as they eventually were by a majority of Oberlin’s faculty and by the Board of Trustees. But if Oberlin fired her merely for her loathsome opinions, then Oberlin made a mistake.