SDSU dean's comments spark debate over academic free speech
Speaker 1: (00:00)
In December Monica, Casper, who is Dean of the college of arts and letters at SDSU took to Twitter and made comments about conservatives. Her tweet was met with swift backlash and even threats to the campus. Now they are part of a larger conversation about academic free speech. Gary Robbins has been covering this for the San Diego union Tribu and joins us now, Gary. Welcome.
Speaker 2: (00:23)
Hi, it's good to be with you.
Speaker 1: (00:25)
All right. So what did Monica Casper say in her tweet that provoked so much backlash?
Speaker 2: (00:31)
Well, let me read it verbatim. It says just so we're clear on the rights agenda racism. Good abortion, bad money. Good women, bad capitalism. Good sustainability, bad stupidity, good science, bad power, good equality, bad white people. Good. Non-white people. Bad stench. Indeed.
Speaker 1: (00:55)
How do Dean Casper's words fit into a bigger national dialogue about academic free speech?
Speaker 2: (01:02)
Well, they fit in, in a very strong way because, uh, these kinds of comments are being all over made at campuses all over the United States. And they're co causing a lot of angst. Now, as you really emphasize that, um, some of the comments are against people who are liberal. Some are against people who are conservative. It's not just one side or the other. This is going back and forth. Um, just recently Robert Rice, the former labor secretary in the Clinton administration made a comment, uh, while teaching at UC Berkeley, he got on, um, a Senator Christian cinema after she voted against the filibuster. He went on Twitter and suggested that she be physically struck by other, um, members of the democratic party. Um, he took the tweet, so there's a lot of really raw language out there and it gets picked up and amplified very, very quickly.
Speaker 1: (01:49)
And you spoke to an SDSU literature, professor, Peter Herman, about the issue of academic free speech as well. Uh, what did he have to say?
Speaker 2: (01:58)
He said that it's an example of intolerance on American campuses. He says when people see something like that, it tends to confirm in their mind that professors are in fact liberal and that they think like this, but he also said, um, some of the other tweets that you see online do the opposite. You see conservatives making remarks about liberals that are just as biting and in the end, what you have is total polarization instead of any type of effort for both sides to understand each other.
Speaker 1: (02:24)
Did Dean Casper express any regrets about the tweet and the impact it's had? She
Speaker 2: (02:29)
Did. Uh, she sent an email to some of the faculty saying that she felt very badly that the tweet had blown up like that and brought a lot of negative publicity to the university, including threats against the university and that it put her in a bad light because she's the Dean of one of the just, um, colleges at your CA at the university. Um, she did in some sense, blame the media on, on this, but she, she did express a sense of remorse that something like that took off,
Speaker 1: (02:56)
How did the university respond to what Dean Casper said?
Speaker 2: (03:00)
Well, in an unusual way, president de LA to about a month after she made this remark, went on Twitter herself and said the following, I will always stand by the right to free speech, but I do not condone or agree with what she said. I do not support actions that seek to divide us, uh, or to undermine civic scores for any reason at SDSU. We welcome everyone. We benefit from learning from one another. When we participate in civic engagement, across the spectrum of social and political discourse, even when we disagree with one another, this makes our university great. That was really unusual because it's very rare for, uh, a university president to publicly all out and criticize a Dean. Um, so that's part of what, uh, caught people's attention. It wasn't just the college fix writing about it. Um, we wrote about it other publications because it was just so unusual.
Speaker 1: (03:52)
Dean Casper is not the first SDSU academic for whom academic free speech has thrust them into the spotlight. What impact have these various instances of speech had on these professors?
Speaker 2: (04:05)
You know, that's a great question because sometimes it's unclear last year in April, a, a lecturer at San Diego state named Bob Jordan used a racial stereotype in an online class to make a, a point within about cinema. And it really offended a lot. Lot of people, uh, someone took a video from the online class, put it on Twitter and it blew up right away. Um, and you know, he got incredible, uh, criticism. Now the university stood by his right to free speech, but they put someone else in the class to finish, uh, class. And far as I can tell, he hasn't, um, taught at the university. The university says he's been working on a university project, but its I'm really clear what his status is. Uh, I talked to Dr. Jordan last year or professor Jordan last year and he said that the university told him not to say anything.
Speaker 2: (04:52)
The university said the opposite. So it's not always clear what happens. I also talked to Jonathan Robert, him, the political science professor at San Diego state who in 2017 made a really controversial remark about Senator John McCain when McCain made an announcement that he was, that he had cancer. Robert went on and said that, um, McCain was a war criminal and hadn't done as much as he could to help, uh, people in public health. Um, you know, Robert got a lot of heat for that. A lot of people thought it was really an contemporary thing to say. Um, he, I talked to Robert, um, about a week ago and he said, you know, I learned that whatever you say online can really blow up. And I guess I really wasn't aware of how bad it could be, but he did tell me that it has not stopped him from speaking freely on campus. And he spoke very fluently to me when we, uh, did an interview. Hmm.
Speaker 1: (05:47)
I've been speaking with Gary Robbins reporter for the San Diego union Tribune. Gary, thank you so much for joining us.
Speaker 2: (05:53)
In December, Monica Casper who is dean of the College of Arts and Letters at San Diego State University, tweeted about conservatives.
Casper's twitter profile has since been deleted. The San Diego Union-Tribune reports her tweet as saying: “Just so we’re clear on the Right’s agenda: racism good, abortion bad, money good, women bad, capitalism good, sustainability bad, stupidity good, science bad, power good, equality bad, white people good, nonwhite people bad. Stench, indeed.”
Casper's words were met with swift backlash including threats. Now they are part of a larger conversation about academic free speech.
SDSU President Adela de la Torre commented publicly about Casper's tweet in January saying in part, "I will always stand by the right to free speech. But I do not condone or agree with what she said."
Other academic colleagues have defended Casper's right to speech.
Gary Robbins has been reporting on the controversy for the San Diego Union-Tribune. In a recent article he explored the larger conversation about academic free speech, its consequences and necessity.
"It's an example that there are a lot more people looking at who is saying what on twitter," Robbins said.
Robbins joined Midday Edition to discuss the fallout from Casper's comments and what it means for academic speech on hot button issues.
KPBS is affiliated with San Diego State University.