A cautionary tale for professors on social media? Academic's tweets cause firestorm

Peers say tweets are uncontroversial

A black sociologist's Twitter comments about race attracted a media firestorm this week, raising questions again about how professors should conduct themselves online.

Saida Grundy, incoming assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Boston University (BU), had tweeted comments like "Why is white America [sic] so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?" and "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."

The blog SoCawledge collected several of Grundy's tweets and called attention to them.

Media backlash—and counter-backlash

Grundy's tweets touched off an intense debate. Some alumni vowed never to donate. Angry threads linked by hashtags appeared on Twitter. An innocuous Facebook post by BU about spring landscaping turned into a comment battleground.

Meanwhile, some of Grundy's fellow sociologists defended her. Her statements were "fairly uncontroversial" within the field, says Matthew Hughey, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. "Her tweet in and of itself was grounded in empirical social scientific findings over the last half century."

BU spokesperson Colin Riley defended Grundy shortly after SoCawledge's post. He cited her right to free speech and pointed out that her comments were made from a personal account—but said the university does not support the content of her statements.

In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Riley said "Here's what we've said: while individuals have the right to hold and express personal opinions, BU does not condone racism or bigotry in any form. We're offended by such statements."

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Flaherty compared Grundy's case to that of Steven Salaita, whose faculty job offer was rescinded after public discovery of his controversial comments on social media.

Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, says that the tweets he has seen "certainly constitute protected speech under the First Amendment."

And Grundy's position should not keep her from teaching, says John Wilson, co-editor of the American Association of University Professors' "Academe" blog. He points out that many professors' personal views conflict with those of their students without affecting their teaching. "You can't assume that controversial professors are bad teachers," he says. "Quite the opposite is usually true."

When academics forget to code-switch

Hughey says professors should not stop being "radical," but says academics from "marginalized" perspectives should be careful when presenting their work—always leading with empirical data.

Flaherty proposes that the case may be an illustration of what can go wrong when academics leave their discipline "bubble" and make public statements. Stripped of context as they are, tweets are easy to misunderstand.

"A lot can go wrong when you use 'inside' language 'outside,' because we rely so much on social ties and context to make meaning of words," says Tressie McMillan Cottom, incoming assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

But Shannon Gibney, professor of English at Minneapolis Technical and Community College, says that Grundy's race has a lot to do with how her tweets were received. If a white female had made the same tweets, she says, "I am quite sure there would be little to no outrage."

In a statement Tuesday, Grundy apologized for speaking "indelicately" about race in America. "I deprived [the issue] of the nuance and complexity that such subjects always deserve."

Robert A. Brown, president of BU, released a statement Tuesday acknowledging that "there is a broader context to Dr. Grundy's tweets" and that "she has the right to… challenge the rest of us to think differently about race relations" (Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed, 5/14; Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed, 5/12; Svrluga, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 5/12; Marcelo, AP/Yahoo! News, 5/12).

The takeaway: An incoming professor's controversial tweets about race touched off waves of outrage and support—and the lesson may be that academics should tread very cautiously when speaking in public venues because the audience may not always have appropriate context.

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