The New Dirty War Against Faculty
I am constantly subjected to baseless investigations by my university. Here's my story.
Title IX inquests are just the tip of the spear that administrators use to subjugate obstreperous professors.
In 2016, I was investigated by University of Utah, where I’ve taught since 1998. I was primarily investigated for things that I said to colleagues over pizza and beer off-campus almost 20 years earlier, most memorably the fact that I’d proposed to my wife (now ex-wife) at a strip club. After I was found “not responsible” for sexual misconduct, my dean tried to punish me anyway by fining me a month’s salary. “Hostile body language,” the dean wrote, “[is] unacceptable in a professional setting.” Lucky for me, the vice president for faculty at the time quashed the dean’s attempt at heavy-handed faculty governance.
If that didn’t brand me as a troublemaker, publishing a two-part account of my ordeal probably did. It was only fuel on the fire that part of my account was republished in The Wall Street Journal. I closed the second of the two essays on my ordeal with the bureaucracy of academic discipline with the sentence “I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Fast forward to this past July, when my department chair, that same dean, and my vice president for faculty together imposed a reprimand on me for what the university called a “condescending” tweet. I was warned that I’d be fired if I didn’t clean up my act.
As I’ve come to learn since 2016, nothing that’s happened to me is particularly unusual. This is the new dirty war against American college and university faculty.
My latest encounter with the machinery of academic discipline all started when I tweeted about an article, a quintessentially normal part of modern academic life. In response, a woman who wasn’t the author of the article I’d disparaged quoted my tweet, along with this assessment:
Of course, the insinuation that you’re a discriminator and harasser is par for the course on Twitter, and most of the time it’s easy to ignore. I didn’t know who this woman was, although she turned out to be a graduate student in another department at my university.
This time, however, I took the bait. I was proud of the research I’d done that had culminated in the book Do Babies Matter? Gender & Family in the Ivory Tower. Our research had identified the primary reasons why women dropped out of academic careers and made concrete suggestions for retaining them. Indeed, many of these suggestions had already been implemented at universities across the country. So I, perhaps foolishly, touted these accomplishments. I ended with the practical advice we all receive, implicitly or explicitly, in graduate school:
As a graduate student, you should refrain from publicly antagonizing faculty, at your university or elsewhere, because some day they’ll be in a position to hire you on to their faculties, or evaluate you for tenure. More fundamentally, the student’s tweet had struck me as breach of academic ideals: we viciously criticize each other’s research, but not each other. It’s hard to maintain a marketplace of ideas when the criticism becomes ad hominem. I grant that my response was haughty and ill-conceived. But haughty and ill-conceived is not the same thing as out of bounds or unprofessional.
That’s not how Twitter saw it. Within 24 hours I’d been mobbed for ostensibly threatening a graduate student. Many of the responses came from faculty and graduate students at other universities. Here are some examples:
“What a horrible and cruel way to treat a graduate student at your own institution. I hope consider [sic] what bad form this is and delete your tweet. Don’t punch down.”
“Dude, threats to people you disagree with isn’t [sic] cool :/”
“She clearly was unaware that you are a sanctimonious, self-absorbed, mansplainer unworthy of tenure. Be sure to add Threatener of PhD Students to your sparkling resume.”
Many participating in the pile-on tagged administrators at my university, or otherwise announced they were reporting me to my chair, dean, provost, or president. That didn’t prepare me for when one of my departmental colleagues joined the fray—as opposed to, say, just privately informing me that I’d been out of line:
Like most Twitter mobs, mine blew over quickly.
The following day, I received an email from my dean and my chair admonishing me for a tweet that was “interpreted as threatening a student with retaliation for criticizing you.” The passive voice is key here: my university couldn’t claim I’d threatened a student, because I hadn’t threatened a student. A standard definition of a threat is “an expression of intention to inflict evil, injury, or damage.” My tweet contains no expression of intent of any kind. One can’t discern any evil, injury, or damage I might inflict on this student. Nor is there any conceivable professional injury I might inflict on her: she is a graduate student in another department. I hold no power over her. Can it reasonably be assumed that I might call an acquaintance in her department, and implore them to punish her because she sassed me on Twitter?
In any event, I promised to be better without conceding the allegation, and thought that was the end of it. But it wasn’t. The university just needed time to build a case against me. As I later learned, on the very day I had tweeted my non-threat, my dean sent this email to the student:
I have just been made aware that you were the subject of a threatening exchange on twitter with Nick Wolfinger. I wanted to check in with you to make sure that you are OK and also let you know that I am happy to talk with you over the weekend or next week (your choice) about this matter. My cell # is 801-XXX-XXX and I’m happy to talk at any time.
Two months later, I received another joint email from my dean and my chair informing me of their intent to issue a formal reprimand, with the warning that I would be fired if I didn’t shape up and fly right. My tweets had had a “chilling effect on students who may disagree with faculty.” I had “tarnished the reputation of the University of Utah and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences,” and had harmed the reputation of my department’s graduate program “by suggesting that it may be an unsafe space for graduate students.”
My dean and chair were on shaky ground, both legally and with respect to the University of Utah’s bylaws. They freely concede they sought to reprimand me because of people’s reactions to me on Twitter, for my “tweets … which were widely perceived as intimidated [sic] and threatening.” Yet reprimanding me on the basis of popular sentiment is expressly prohibited by Policy 1-007: University Speech Policy, III.G.1.a:
Every faculty member has the right to academic freedom and the right to examine and communicate ideas by any lawful means even where such activities generate hostility or pressures against the faculty member or the University (emphasis added).
What’s more, First Amendment case law makes clear that speech can’t be prohibited on the basis of listener reaction alone—see Forsyth v. Nationalist Movement (“Listeners' reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation”) and Bair v. Shippensburg Univ. (“regulations that prohibit speech on the basis of listener reaction alone are unconstitutional both in the public high school and university settings”).
After I received the second email, I was instructed to contact the Vice President for Faculty—unfortunately, not the same VP who had saved my bacon back in 2016—if I had any questions. Indeed I did: the faculty code states a preference for informal resolution of disputes. My accusers had ignored this option, but I wanted to pursue it. My request led to two Zoom meetings with the VP-Faculty, where I made several concrete suggestions for informal resolution, including an apology to the student. The university offered no counter-proposals. Most of the second meeting was consumed by the bizarre accusation that I was intoxicated (I’ve been a teetotaler since my teenage years).
A couple of weeks after this meeting I was told that informal negotiations had failed. Moreover, the VP-Faculty, who’d posed as a neutral arbiter of the dispute between me, my chair, and my dean, had added herself as a complainant. Clearly the university never had any intention of seeking an informal resolution and had negotiated with me in bad faith.
The University of Utah complies with American Association of University Professors guidelines stipulating that faculty members can have any administrative punishments adjudicated by a jury of their peers (for unknown reasons, known in local parlance as the consolidated hearing committee). I asked to have my day in court, and it was scheduled for the last week in May of this year.
Administrative hearings have become one of the hallmarks of the dirty war against the faculty. They often stretch out for hours of torment and expatiation that evoke a budget production of Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. They are costly, since any chance of a positive outcome requires high-priced counsel. Nominally intended to offer an accused faculty member due process, these hearings themselves are an element of coercion: Does a controversy over a tweet really merit a three and a half hour hearing? Yet that is indeed how long my hearing lasted. But it could have been worse: the University of Central Florida subjected a tenured faculty member, psychologist Charles Negy, to nine hours of hearings over a few tweets before eventually firing him.
The University of Utah does make one favorable provision for its hearings: aside from a five-minute opening statement, my attorney could speak on my behalf. This turned out to be especially advantageous, because the University seemed intent on provoking me into an intemperate outburst by chronicling a litany of grievances extending all the way back to 2011. There were also ludicrous attempts to blame me for almost everything that had ever gone wrong at the University of Utah. Within 20 minutes, for instance, my dean had made the claim that my tweet had harmed the recruitment of graduate students and new faculty members.
This turned out to be a recurring theme: all the “harm” my tweets had inflicted on the university. The colleague who’d denounced me on Twitter appeared as a university witness to make this case, idly speculating that my tweets were responsible for an underwhelming volume of applicants for a faculty post in our department. I’d been able to wield this influence, he maintained, as our department’s de facto Twitter representative: he and I are the only department members with Twitter accounts and I have more followers than he does. Therefore, I’m apparently the public face of the department.
The other repeated complaint—that I’d “chilled” student speech—is both risible and ominous in its implications. The student I’d purportedly threatened had publicly insinuated I was complicit in sexual discrimination and harassment with utter impunity. Meanwhile, I was subjected to a three-hour inquest, over $10,000 in attorney fees, and the threat of termination. This threat was bluntly acknowledged in the consolidated hearing committee’s report:
During the hearing, the complainants indicated that their goals were to change behavior and have Dr. Wolfinger take responsibility for his actions; however, their apparent unwillingness to negotiate toward informal resolution suggest that their true objective is to set the stage for termination rather than seek to change Dr. Wolfinger's behavior.
Exactly whose speech was being chilled here? Just to be on the safe side, I’ve now blocked virtually every Twitter account—student, faculty, staff, institutional—associated with the University of Utah. Better safe than sorry.
And the end of the day, the consolidated hearing committee decided that the University’s bad faith negotiations didn’t negate the fact that I’d violated the faculty code by acting unprofessionally—but not, as the complaint had originally specified, for threatening a student. The university president duly issued my reprimand on the basis of what he identified as condescending tweets.
In 2015, an anonymous academic wrote a much-publicized essay in Vox titled “I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.” He got it wrong. Instead, it should be: “I’m a liberal (or conservative) professor, and everyone terrifies me: my students, my colleagues, my administrators, my university, other universities, other faculties.”
Anyone can gin up an investigation, a hearing, or a reprimand against a faculty member at any time. Some schools made things even easier for accusers, with anonymous portals for denouncing students and faculty, accompanied by shadowy bias response teams.
My school, the University of Utah, has a portal that seems designed for the laziest of accusers, with pull-down menus to narrow down the accusation:
Universities can’t tolerate discrimination on campus, but they can’t function if students, faculty, and staff live their lives under the constant threat of anonymous denunciation.
In the space of five years, I’ve now been through a Title IX investigation, a follow-up investigation from my dean after being found innocent, and now an investigation over a tone-deaf tweet. I can only imagine that the investigations will continue until I pull the plug and resign, tired of constantly writing memos, attending interminable hearings, and writing huge checks to lawyers.
Some version of this story has played out in many cases that have made the news.
Pamela Smock, a University of Michigan sociologist, had an experience similar to mine: exonerated of Title IX charges, her dean decided to punish her anyway. She sued her university, got a settlement, and remains in her job.
Buddy Ullman, who used to be a professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Oregon Health & Science University, finally retired after his fifth investigation.
Peter Ludlow, the Northwestern University academic at the center of Laura Kipnis’s book Unwanted Advances, resigned in the face of spiraling investigations and legal bills.
Alec Klein headed the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern, where he helped to exonerate prisoners wrongfully convicted of murder. He resigned his professorship in the face of multiple Title IX accusations.
There are probably scores of similar examples that never made the news, either because the professor didn’t teach at a top university, or she choose to slink away in ignominious silence.
Perhaps the most instructive case is one that hasn’t resulted in a firing or resignation, and is still ongoing at the time of this writing. Yale Law School’s Amy Chua became one of the best-known academics in America subsequent to the publication of her 2011 treatise on iron-fisted parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, have long been popular professors and productive scholars. They’re also edgelords, prone to provocative public pronouncements, provocative scholarship, and random moments of whimsical weirdness (writes the political scientist Daniel Drezner: “Pro tip: If you have been accused of behaving badly in academia, do not agree to pose for a photo staged to make you look like a Bond villain.”)
In June, stories appeared in every major news outlet that Chua was in hot water for, well, it’s not entirely clear. Yale seems to think she broke a promise about meeting with students during the pandemic, but it’s all fairly nebulous. Chua also seems prone to talking about sex with her students, but it’s anyone’s guess whether that would have been enough to get her busted. It didn’t help matters that her husband is currently serving a two-year unpaid suspension for Title IX-related misconduct, allegations he firmly denies. The suspension is so sweeping that Yale took the unusual step of scrubbing all mention of him, Yezhov style, from its website.
The Chua saga has generated an astonishing amount of media coverage, with excellent reporting from Irin Carmon, Elizabeth Bruenig, and others. While the facts are murky, the upshot is not: Yale just doesn’t like her very much. She’s too familiar with students. She voices, often awkwardly, politically outré opinions. Perhaps more damning evidence will emerge, but it doesn’t seem likely.
So this is where we are: universities will punish their faculty simply because they rub some people the wrong way. Chua’s celebrity will probably save her, but the rest of us might not be so lucky. As Anne Applebaum recently wrote, the dirty war often targets people just for coming across as difficult—and academia surely has no shortage of those.
Fire often accompanies smoke, so many readers will assume that faculty members perennially under investigation must have done something wrong. But that’s an assumption that flies in the face of how the administrative powers within our institutions of higher learning are able to operate.
University administrators who didn’t like me found it far too easy to threaten my career through capricious use of bureaucratic power. That’s just not right.