Protecting Activist Academics Against Public Harassment

Two women of colour sit at a desk reading a laptop

There have been an increased number of public attacks on underrepresented academics for their education and activism on social media. The term “activist academic” describes the longstanding tradition across nations where intellectuals engage in conscious protest in support of social justice and dissent against the status quo. Activism by academics asserts that the university has a social function beyond the provision of education and scholarly critique. Activist academics see that their role serves a social purpose to provide independent social criticism through volunteering, program interventions, public engagement outside academia, protests, and beyond. In some circles, the profile of activist academics has declined, particularly amongst White academics from majority groups. This led to the misperception that recent international protests by scientists were novel. This is misguided, as minority academics are often inextricably activist in their pedagogy, not-for-profit service work, and activities.

Sociology is centrally concerned with activism, especially in applied contexts. Our social justice focus is misconceived as bias or as an attack to those not used to having history, culture and politics viewed through a critical lens. Sociology is centrally concerned with social transformation. We do not merely observe the world; we aim to challenge existing power structures and to reduce inequity. Having said that, women academics in general are penalised for their work, and the outcomes are even worse for minority sociologists as they seek senior roles. The stakes for minority activist academics is therefore higher, as I will show below.

One of our first aims must be to collectively reconfigure what ‘counts’ as academic work while simultaneously challenging whether ‘counting’ is necessarily the best way to ensure the efficient use of public resources in any part of the education sector
Activist academics: what ‘counts’ as academic work? – Dr Sandra Grey

Threats to activist academics

Threats to activist academics is not new. Scholars have always been persecuted for their intellectual work, but the dangers are intensified when they are doubly targeted for their social identities. Whether it’s the Greek mathematician Hypatia, killed for her religion and philosophy during the Roman Empire, or Turkish academics arrested in recent months for signing a petition (along with other senior sociologists such as Professor İştar Gözaydın), academic work is often perilous in many nations. In liberal democratic nations like Australia and New Zealand, neoliberal economics have impacted on some academics’ willingness to participate in activism. Dr Sandra Grey, a White woman senior academic based at Victoria University of Wellington, writes:

In particular, persistent underfunding, increased workloads, the lack of political allies, elite coherence and a cultural environment which devalues intellectuals while simultaneously elevating instrumentalism and pragmatism have worked together to create marked tensions for academics wanting to ally themselves with activist causes.

Dr Grey took leave during 2011-2012 and 2014-2015 to serve as the National President of the Tertiary Education Union. She argues that the three key activities for activist academics are:

  • Day-to-day resistance and challenge;
  • critiquing and debating university policy; and
  • establishing active networks with activist organisations and/or political elite.

Changes in promotion and tenure negatively impact on activist academics. Yet people of colour, transgender people and other minority academics who occupy multiple marginalised positions have always engaged in protest of the status quo. Under economic pressure, race dynamics may make it easier for White academics to opt in and out of activism. For Indigenous people and other racial minorities, political reality makes activism a necessity for survival in the ivory tower and in everyday life.

Increasingly, minority activist academics in liberal democratic nations are being targeted by hate campaigns that include calls to have them fired, or an onslaught of death threats, for discussing issues of inequity or campaigning against discrimination. This includes Black American sociologists, who have been criticised by their institutions (A/Prof Saida Grundy) or put on forced leave (Professor Johnny Eric Williams), for teaching or publicly commenting on anti-racism. Similarly, women of colour as well as White women have faced public threats on their personal safety for speaking out on social justice issues on their campuses. Otherwise minority women of colour receive abusive responses for trying to make science more inclusive (for example, in the lead up to March for Science). White queer woman academic Roz Ward was suspended by La Trobe University for comments on her personal Facebook account discussing the colonial symbolism of the Australian flag. This was used as an opportunity to defund Safe Schools, the national anti-bullying program she developed, which enhanced the inclusion of LGBTQIA students.

It seems that “academic freedom” only applies to some, especially White academics making sexist, racist, and transphobic comments. In the case of people of colour, White women, and those who belong to multiple minority groups, the threats associated with speaking against discrimination are compounded along racial, gender and other lines.

Academic freedom

Associate Professor Zandria Robinson, a Black woman sociologist, faced intense criticism in 2015 for tweeting about the confederate flag. Rumours circulated that she had been fired as a result, but in reality, she had already made the decision to leave before the controversy. Nevertheless, she says of the incident:

This is clearly an attack on academic freedom and moreover part of a larger coordinated attack against young women of colour, who are amongst the most vulnerable everywhere, the academy included. Whether it’s a Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction or random, innocuous tweets, black women are harassed and strung up to be made examples of in our society. Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, our institutions often allow this; they cannot protect us from attacks in our own departments or universities, so expecting them to defend us unequivocally from outside hate groups is naïve. Inside attacks push Black women out of the academy just like those from the outside…. It’s time for institutions to be courageous and do the things that our society has repeatedly failed to do: protect Black women and the freedom of people of colour to be critical of injustice.

People of colour, White women, and people with disabilities are underrepresented in science (as well as in sociology and other fields), while racial minority women navigate multiple disadvantages. Given this context of discrimination, academics who discuss the negative impact of colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism or other forms of inequality are exercising academic freedom in support of common good for all.

Stylised image of people listening to a talk. Writing reads: People of colour, White women, gender & sexual minorities, disabled people, & others in multiple underrepresented groups experience discrimination. Academics who discuss the negative impact of inequality are exercising academic freedom in support of common good for all.
Academic freedom for common good

National and state laws of free speech will vary, with some contexts providing no protection of academic freedom (or other human rights), whereas other nations like Australia will legislate against discrimination, but hate speech laws will still be contested. Protesting public talks, publications and materials by people from majority groups who promote discrimination, harassment and hate speech is one recourse to negate inequity. Demonstrations and public discussion of bigotry, however, is not denying academic freedom: it is making academics accountable for the status and influence they enjoy. The former—denouncing inequity and hate speech—promotes awareness of structural discrimination. The latter—fuelling harassment—sustains the status quo that makes discrimination possible.

Professor Tressie McMillan Cottom, a Black woman sociologist, has shown how dual academic forces lead to poor management of public harassment following from social media blow-ups. On the one hand, academic institutions are conservative and have poor frameworks for understanding and responding to social media. On the other hand, these same institutions promote, invest in, and encourage public scholarship. Some forms of public engagement are associated with greater prestige. Nevertheless, she encourages institutions to consider whether they truly understand the value of social media to public scholarship. If so, does policy adequately cover the “blurring” between professional and personal lines resulting from public scholarship? Professor McMillan Cottom challenges institutions to reflect on whether they are the first line of defence for staff under threat from public abuse. If not, why might this be the case? Are polices, protocols and support mechanisms satisfactory? What legal, mental health counselling and other resources are available to staff?

Academics at a workshop. Text above image reads: Research organisations often lack comprehensive review of their policies and practices when it comes to responses to public harassment
Responses to public harassment of academics

Many institutions would have difficulty answering these questions effectively unless they had a clear case where their policies had been tested. Research organisations lack comprehensive review of their policies and practices when it comes to responses to public harassment. This is clear in the uneven way in which academics are treated by their institutions, especially if they are people of colour and/or queer speaking out against issues of discrimination.

Academic freedom means that institutions must support activist academics who use their voice to promote inclusion and social progress. This means always, not just when it’s convenient. Promoting social justice should be a top priority for institutions, and everyone else who is serious about academic freedom and democracy. Dr Grey argues:

One of our first aims must be to collectively reconfigure what ‘counts’ as academic work while simultaneously challenging whether ‘counting’ is necessarily the best way to ensure the efficient use of public resources in any part of the education sector. In a funding system dominated by counting peer-reviewed publications and student completions, any public-sphere activity will continue to take a back seat to the more easily measureable outputs.

So how to best promote academic freedom whilst protecting the safety of activist academics?

Way forward

Having worked on equity and diversity policy and program development for many years, I understand keenly the sociological patterns of how institutions struggle to adequately preempt issues of public harassment of faculty and students. I have published an institutional checklist to address the gaps that I see across research organisations and the higher education sector.  This includes:

  1. Two women brainstorming with post-it notes on the wall, the title of this article is above themMeasures of prevention
  2. Setting and administrating policies
  3. Accessible dissemination of information
  4. Education of rights and responsibilities
  5. Provision of support during public harassment
  6. Co-designing a safety plan with the affected staff member
  7. Training liaisons
  8. Investigating threats
  9. Putting in place additional security and resources
  10. Generating an evidence-based approach
  11. Reviewing the impact
  12. Institutional reflection
  13. Assisting decision-making.

You can see the full framework under my free resources: Sociology of Public Harassment Prevention Policies.