Monday, May 21, 2018

Professor Johnny Williams and the Administration Response

AMANDA HAUSMANN ’21

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

On Wednesday, June 21st, Trinity College’s administration closed the campus for the day due to safety concerns. In the days leading up to this decision, both Trinity and one of its professors of sociology, Johnny Eric Williams, received a number of threats. These threats were provoked by two contentious social media posts that Professor Williams created on his personal Twitter and Facebook accounts the preceding Sunday, June 18th. The true controversy in Williams’ posts stems from a hashtag, “#LetThemFuckingDie,” which makes reference to the title of a shared article written by Son of Baldwin. Yet, while Williams received severe threats attacking him and his family, prompting him to flee Connecticut temporarily, his posts gained national attention. Trinity’s response, particularly that of the College’s administration led by President Joanne Berger-Sweeney, came under fire as well.

Following the temporary closure of campus, Trinity’s administration decided to place Professor Williams on immediate temporary leave while an investigation was conducted to determine if any of the College’s policies had been broken. In the following weeks, Trinity and its administration stayed relatively quiet, only releasing a few statements about the issue. These statements by President Berger-Sweeney acknowledged Professor Williams’ rights to academic freedom; yet, the statements’ dominant connotation was disciplinary, calling Williams’ use of the provocative hashtag, “reprehensible,” and its suggestion, “abhorrent.” While it is obviously “abhorrent” to suggest that a group of people should die, that was never the intent of the hashtag nor of the title of the article it references. Williams’ posts were taken out of context by news sources and numerous individuals, particularly a conservative website Campus Reform, that focuses on news in higher education. The website argued that Williams was referring to the victims of the shooting at a Republican Congressional baseball game on June 14th. Williams was, in fact, responding to the injustice of police violence, in particular, the fatal shooting of a black mother from Seattle on June 18th.

As the nation argued over whether Williams was right or wrong, Trinity’s administration tried too hard to stay neutral, and in turn, ended up on the wrong side. Because so little was said, Joanne Berger Sweeney’s few remarks and the view that Professor Williams’s message was wrong, rang loud and far. As a Trinity student, I am astounded that the intelligent individuals that continually praise open-mindedness, push for diversity, and encourage controversial discussions about race and privilege, could so blatantly fall into the trap of misconstruing social activism for aggression. In the wake of these events, Professor Williams was not treated as the esteemed professor that he is. By his own school’s administration, Professor Williams was treated as a threat; a threat to the carefully constructed balance of keeping the covers of Trinity’s brochures looking diverse and progressive while prioritizing the appeasement of its majority white student body and donors. It is very easy to play the part of an open-minded and progressive, to talk and talk about change; however, when the time comes for real action and change, true intentions reveal themselves. Trinity’s administration’s reactions illuminate something much bigger and troubling about the entire college community: a fear of change. What is “reprehensible” is for an entire administration to recoil behind closed doors, far away from a hashtag.

Trinity’s administration did not respond well to what could have been a very important step in advancing social change in academia. Their responses now echo the rhetoric of, “You had some very fine people on both sides.” We must not allow others to make excuses for white supremacists and bigots who purposely misconstrue the words of social activists as statements of aggression. If we really are the progressive school that we say we are, then let’s reflect on our actions and remember that Professor Williams’ posts are important, because they reveal just how far a forward-thinking school has to go with regard to social justice.

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