The University of Southern California (USC) Professor John Strauss’ Nov. 9 confrontation with students protesting Israel’s invasion of the Gaza strip resulted in USC Provost Andrew Guzman initially banning him from campus. Strauss’s interactions with the students were brief, concluding with his declaration that “Hamas are murderers. That’s all they are. Everyone should be killed, and I hope that all are killed.”
They should be, though captured would suffice.
Strauss is a tenured Professor of Economics, a specialist in development economics, and Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Economic Development and Cultural Change. He is an internationalist who rejects large-scale ambush massacres, gang rapes, and hostage takings as tools of statecraft.
The protesters used smartphones to record their exchange with Strauss, who is Jewish. Strauss’s anti-Hamas remarks angered the protesters, so they worked to cancel him.
First, they posted snips of Strauss’s comments edited to suppress Strauss’s reference to Hamas. Postings were frequently accompanied by misleading captions implying that Strauss was calling for the deaths of Palestinians generally, or even the protesters. Subsequent postings provided by Jewish counter-protesters exposed these manipulations.
Second, protesting students complained to USC’s Office of Equity, Equal Opportunity (EEO), and Title IX (TIX) that Strauss’s public position was somehow a form of harassment directed at them.
USC’s administrative response was swift. On Nov. 10, Strauss was told he was on administrative leave under section 8D of the USC Faculty Handbook, barred from campus, and told he could not continue instruction in his fall semester undergraduate course. He could deliver his doctoral course, but only remotely.
Over the next three weeks, the administration walked back its response. An official statement to USC’s student newspaper reports that Strauss is not technically on administrative leave even though required to teach remotely. The Los Angeles Times viewed a letter to Strauss from USC Provost Andrew Guzman stating that the university was barring Strauss from campus during their investigation of the protesters’ complaints to the EEO and TIX office. The administration subsequently allowed Strauss to proceed with delivering his undergraduate course remotely. He was allowed to return to campus as of Dec 2.
The U.S. Department of Education required USC to strengthen its Title IX responses to harassment complaints following the prosecution of former USC student health center gynecologist George Tyndall, but the student complaints about Strauss made to USC’s EEO and TIX office are a coordinated abuse of process by students who merely do not like Strauss’s point of view. USC’s leadership should know better than to enable this strategy. The administration could have allowed Strauss to do his work in person while the school reviewed and dismissed these meritless complaints. Banning Strauss from campus handed control of the situation to the students attacking him, violated Strauss’s academic freedom, and subverted USC’s teaching and research missions and reputation. Why did USC do it?
Queried by faculty leaders on Nov. 15 during USC’s Academic Senate meeting, USC’s Provost and President declined to discuss any specifics of Prof. Strauss’ case. Instead, President Folt asserted that—despite the video record—various material aspects of the matter were not public and emphasized the importance of taking any steps necessary to maintain physical safety on campus, implying that this was the rationale for banning Strauss.
Many progressives declare that statements with which they disagree are violence directed against them. Except for incitement, actual threats, fighting words, and a few other examples of unprotected speech; language, and ideas carry no risk of harm that a university should be trying to manage. Still, many students claim a right to feel safe.
No one has a right to feel anything in particular, but the premise that words are violent and thus unsafe tempts progressive university leaders like USC President Carol Folt to use these sentiments as rationales for hobbling faculty members with whom they disagree. Banishing Strauss for the sake of safety without first placing him on administrative leave creates a new mechanism by which USC can punish faculty members.
In Strauss’ case, it is unclear whose safety was at stake. Was it his or the students he responded to at the pro-Palestinian protest or the students filing weaponized EEO and Title IX complaints against him? Was it the safety of the USC campus community at large? The answer is “none of the above” because Folt’s safety rationale is specious.
USC’s Academic Senate reports that less than a third of USC’s full-time faculty are tenured or probationary tenure-track personnel. The rest are teaching or research faculty on short-term contracts. USC’s complement of part-time teachers is as large as this full-time, nontenure track group, which leaves only a fifth of USC’s total faculty with the academic freedom protections afforded by the tenure system. Still, USC asserts all faculty members have substantive standing in faculty governance, a contrived claim allowing the administration to position all faculty members as managers, and thus ineligible to unionize under current case law.
Strauss is the kind of academic voice that progressive university administrators and student mobs fear most—a traditional, tenured, knowledgeable, principled faculty member with a spine. Temporarily restricting Strauss from campus was, more than anything else, an opportunity for President Folt to operationalize a fresh mechanism for bringing USC’s dwindling complement of tenured faculty further to heel. USC punished Strauss as a lesson to others like him.
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