Donors have pulled back and incoming students have decided to go elsewhere in response to the firestorm that erupted from a professor’s racially-charged Facebook posts, Trinity College’s president said Monday.
Joanne Berger-Sweeney said 16 incoming students have withdrawn and past donors have chosen not to contribute to the school this year, resulting in about a $200,000 loss in donations. Both groups specifically cited the national uproar surrounding Professor Johnny Eric Williams’ posts, she said.
“We can and will recover from the financial cost of this incident; the work before us now is to heal as a community,” Berger-Sweeney wrote in a letter sent to the school community. The university is still on track to meet enrollment targets, she said, and overall donations are up 28 percent from the previous year.
Williams, a longtime Trinity sociology professor, remains on leave and is expected to resume teaching in January. The school cleared him in a report that was released July 14. An attorney for Williams did not return messages Monday.
Two posts by Williams were featured on the conservative online publication Campus Reform in June, including a provocative essay he shared that discussed the shooting of Republicans practicing for the congressional baseball game and urged a show of indifference to the lives of bigots. He posted it with the hashtag “Let Them [Expletive] Die.”
Williams has said he did not defend or support the article but shared it as a "teaching tool" for readers. He said his Facebook posts, which called for an end to the "white supremacy system," referred to the fatal police shooting of a black mother in Seattle on June 18.
The Campus Reform article spread across the web, and Williams soon found himself facing death threats. Trinity College was overwhelmed with emails and phone calls, and the campus was shut down for a day. Williams went into hiding and was placed on leave.
“Most of that response came from outside the Trinity community and has since moved on, and we quickly resumed our normal operations,” Berger-Sweeney said. “But certainly, the events have had an effect.”
In addition to the 16 students that withdrew, the college’s admissions department has had conversations with “many others” who had concerns. As for the departed donors, Berger-Sweeney said: “I certainly am disappointed by those decisions, but I respect them and hope that those individuals ultimately will see that there continue to be many good reasons to invest in Trinity.”
Trinity did not provide information about what, specifically, the students and donors had said to school officials. In a statement, the executive committee of the Trinity College chapter of the American Association of United Professors accused Berger-Sweeney and the university of not doing enough to defend Williams and acting to protect their financial interests over freedom of speech.
“President Berger-Sweeney’s statement confirms our suspicion that the administration's primary concern has been the bottom line, rather than the protection of scholarly inquiry and academic freedom,” the union said. “We remain troubled by the continued failure by the administration to actually defend Professor Williams from outside attack, or to acknowledge their own mishandling of the events.”
“Given that the administration continues to publicly admonish Professor Williams’ speech, and reduce this attack to a monetary crisis, we remain unconvinced that they will strongly defend our campus from such attacks in the future,” the statement continued. “In this statement, President Berger-Sweeney again fails to explain and defend the academic importance of controversial speech, to become a leader in defending academic freedom, and to unequivocally defend her faculty."
Reaction among Trinity alumni varied after Williams was placed on leave. Some wanted to see the university go further and fire him, while others were disappointed that Trinity didn’t move quickly enough to defend Williams.
The issue led to a broader debate involving free speech, academic freedom, race and politics.
One prominent alum, Tucker Carlson, addressed the issue on his nightly Fox News show.
“Trinity used to be a pretty good school … but then the left wrecked it,” said Carlson, a 1992 graduate who said Williams should have been fired.
Jamil Ragland, a 2013 graduate, felt Williams should not have been placed on leave to begin with. But he acknowledged Berger-Sweeney handled the situation amicably.
“Her task was to balance several interests from different constituencies in what was a difficult situation,” Ragland said. If she had fired Williams outright, he said, she would have alienated his supporters. And if Berger-Sweeney unequivocally defended him, she would have alienated his detractors.
Ragland doubted the incident would have a long-term impact on Trinity’s reputation, but said it would likely remain a topic of discussion on campus for the next few years. There was intense debate on the topic in online alumni forums Ragland is part of, he said.
Former Trinity College President Tom Gerety, who led the school from 1989 to 1994, said he had confidence in Berger-Sweeney.
“She's a terrific president and these are tough, complex issues,” he said in an email to The Courant. “I trust her to steer a wise and just course.”
Berger-Sweeney said when students return at the end of August she expects a broad discussion regarding “civilized discourse about issues that divide us.”
“It is my hope that we will engage the entire Trinity community, both on campus and off, in discussions of race and racism, academic freedom and freedom of speech, and the challenges of holding productive, respectful dialogue across deep differences."
Courant staff writer Dylan McGuinness contributed to this report.
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