Saida Grundy this week may have become the most discussed new assistant professor of the year, without even starting her position. While Grundy’s tweets on race have been debated intensely, she initially stayed on the sidelines. But on Tuesday she released a statement of “regret” and a clarification of her comments that were critical of white male college students and white businesses.
Her statement came hours after Robert A. Brown, president of Boston University, where Grundy becomes an assistant professor of sociology July 1, issued a statement that was highly critical of her comments on Twitter. Via email, Grundy responded to an Inside Higher Ed question about whether the university had asked that she issue her statement: “No, all parties were in agreement that dual statements from myself and President Brown would best address tensions and confusions around the matter.”
The tweets in question (captured by critics before Grundy made her Twitter feed private) have led to calls for BU to fire her (which the university is not doing) and have resulted in widespread criticism from the conservative blogosphere and some others. They’ve also attracted sympathy and praise from many black academics and some others.
Among the comments Grundy made on Twitter, one that has led people to question her fairness as an instructor said, “Why is white america [sic] so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?” Another said, “Every [Martin Luther King Jr.] week I commit myself to not spending a dime in white-owned businesses. And every year [I] find it nearly impossible.” At the end of April, after a multitweet conversation about the uniqueness of European slavery, Grundy allegedly wrote, “in other words, deal with your white sh*t [sic], white people. Slavery is a *YALL* thing.”
As the story broke over the weekend, Grundy did not comment. But in her statement Tuesday, which she provided to Inside Higher Ed and others, she expressed regret over her tweets. Grundy explained them a bit and talked about her commitment to being inclusive of all students:
In the past year alone, the inconvenient matter of race has made itself an unavoidable topic of discussion in our country. These issues are uncomfortable for all of us, and yet, the events we now witness with regularity in our nation tell us that we can no longer circumvent the problems of difference with strategies of silence. I regret that my personal passion about issues surrounding these events led me to speak about them indelicately. I deprived them of the nuance and complexity that such subjects always deserve.
As an experienced educator, I take seriously my responsibility to create an inclusive learning environment for all of my students. Both professionally and ethically, I am unequivocally committed to ensuring that my classroom is a space where all students are welcomed. I know firsthand that students learn best by discussing these issues openly and honestly without risk of censure or penalty. I look forward to more dialogues about race, diversity and inclusion in my career at Boston University, and to having the honor of knowing and teaching some of the finest minds in the world.
In his statement, Brown said he does not normally comment on the views of individual faculty members except to support their right to pursue ideas of their own choosing. He said:
We fully appreciate why many have reacted so strongly to her statements. Boston University does not condone racism or bigotry in any form, and we are committed to maintaining an educational environment that is free from bias, fully inclusive and open to wide-ranging discussions. We are disappointed and concerned by statements that reduce individuals to stereotypes on the basis of a broad category such as sex, race or ethnicity. I believe Dr. Grundy’s remarks fit this characterization.
I understand there is a broader context to Dr. Grundy’s tweets and that, as a scholar, she has the right to pursue her research, formulate her views and challenge the rest of us to think differently about race relations. But we also must recognize that words have power and the words in her Twitter feed were powerful in the way they stereotyped and condemned other people. As a university president, I am accustomed to living in a world where faculty do—and should—have great latitude to express their opinions and provoke discussion. But I also have an obligation to speak up when words become hurtful to one group or another in the way they typecast and label its members. That is why I weigh in on this issue today.
Reaction to Brown’s statement was mixed on BU’s Facebook page. Some people backed Grundy (as have many of those posting comments on the #IStandWithSaida hashtag on Twitter). One comment typical of her supporters: “#IStandWithSaida because it disgusts me to know that speaking on racism is more reprehensible than actually being racist in this country.”
Others noted that Grundy’s field of sociology focuses considerable attention on race and inequality. “Speak to any sociology scholar committed to the truth and they will tell you that what she said about white males in our society is true. It’s the entitlement,” wrote one sociologist.
But many of those who are critical of her tweets said that, had a white person made similar comments about black men, that professor’s career would likely be over. One woman who identified herself as an incoming freshman at BU (and whose photo suggests she is white) wrote that Brown’s statement didn’t go far enough:
I can’t deny that all people in our great country have the right to free speech, but when the words she is posting on a public forum are so hateful and blatantly racist, is she still right to be educating at your school? If the situation were reversed and she were a white racist would you still be condoning this? As a university should you not be standing up for equality and sending the message that racist banter will not get you a job at a university like your’s [sic] which is supposedly respected for the quality of education it gives? How can a women [sic] so clearly biased grade the papers of young white men in her class when she stereotypes them to be the “problem population” in such a racist manner? If she is so comfortable being racist on a public forum for the world to see, how will she act behind the closed doors of her classroom?
Among those who weighed in Tuesday on issues beyond the substance of Grundy’s tweets was Tressie McMillan Cottom, who like Grundy is starting a career as an academic sociologist, in the case of Cottom at Virginia Commonwealth University. Cottom has a strong following among academics and writes regularly about issues of race and equality and a broad range of issues both in and out of academe.
What Cottom noted in the context of the Grundy furor was that many academics don’t understand what it means to be a public voice in the era of social media. “What I really wanted to point out is how yet again we have an example of how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals or public engagement,” she wrote. “In this age of affective economies of attention, weak ties can turn a mild grievance into something that feels like political action. Part of this moment should include publics calling on institutions to be explicit about what they owe those who venture into public waters. Because public scholarship means pissing people off. You think it does not or that it can be done without doing that. You are wrong.”
Cottom said that the speed and scale of social media overwhelm academics. “In academia, where 20 readers is a big deal, 200 angry emails can feel like a tsunami of public opinion (it isn’t). When three members of a committee can constitute a quorum, seeing 142 retweets of a negative opinion about your new assistant professor can feel like politics (it isn’t). … Basically, the scale of current media is so beyond anything academia can grasp that those with agendas get a leg up on pulling the levers of universities’ inherent [conservatism].”
If universities want their academics to speak out, Cottom said, everyone needs to be prepared. “If you want the reputational currency of public scholars you’d better have institutional processes and courage to go with it,” she said.