If historians of the future want to grasp the poisonous character of public debate in the first two years of the Trump administration, they could do worse than to study the saga of English professor Randa Jarrar of Fresno State University.
For readers who don't follow the online political outrage machine: Jarrar took to Twitter shortly after the death of former first lady Barbara Bush to denounce her and the Bush family in vicious and vulgar terms. "Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist," she said in one tweet. "I'm happy the witch is dead," she said in another. Her tweets quickly went viral — the original ones as well as follow-ups in which she bragged about her six-figure salary and invulnerability as a tenured professor, taunted the president of her university (Joseph Castro), and posted a phone number that was ostensibly her own but turned out to be the number of a crisis hotline that was soon overwhelmed with calls from people irate about her provocations and clamoring for her to be fired. Within 24 hours, Castro had announced that Jarrar would be investigated, and indicated that she could well lose her job after all.
In addition to serving as a splendid example of the way social media is tearing at the fabric of the nation's public life, the Jarrar case vividly illustrates the issues and controversies at play in ongoing debates about free speech and its limits, both on campus and in the workplace more generally.
Some insist Jarrar should be fired for her statements. Many others across the political spectrum have risen up to defend her academic freedom. The reality, though, is murky — with the angry polarization of our political moment, the instantaneous capacity of social media to publicize outrageous opinions and mobilize opposition to them, and the intense economic pressures of the marketplace all combining to produce a revealing and troubling mess.
The first thing to notice about the controversy is that the behavior that sparked it is actually quite rare. Roughly 320 million people live in the United States, a country with more than 5,000 colleges and universities. They employ something on the order of 1.5 million professors and instructors. In any community that large, there will be a few attention-hungry jerks — especially when social media places at everyone's fingertips a digital bullhorn loud enough to be heard instantly around the world. That at a politically polarized moment there appears to have been just one such jerk provoked by the death of Barbara Bush should probably be taken as a sign that we have relatively few of them in our midst.
Not that this will stop right-wing muckrakers online and on cable news and talk radio from treating Jarrar as exemplary — as just the latest confirmation that the nation's universities are hotbeds of far-left political agitation. In reality the clash between Jarrar and her political antagonists is a textbook example of how the ideological extremes feed off of and strengthen each other symbiotically.
Yet the controversy also raises important issues — though not precisely the ones emphasized by most of those weighing in on it.
Many on the left, center left, and center right have risen up in Jarrar's defense, insisting that a tenured professor shouldn't be fired for airing noxious opinions at even the most inopportune time. That's encouraging — and certainly a sign that widespread worries about declining support for free speech and the protections of academic tenure may be misplaced.
But the fact is that in this case the issue of academic freedom isn't that clear-cut. Jarrar hasn't run into trouble for her academic research or for what she said in the classroom. That's the speech that's supposed to be protected by tenure. Instead, she took to the most public forum imaginable to express political views seemingly intended to antagonize the largest possible audience.
Adding to the complexity of the situation, the job of Jarrar's boss (university president Joseph Castro) is, in part, to defend the interests, reputation, and prestige of the institution. At a private university, this would involve keeping members of the board of trustees, alumni, and other donors and potential donors happy, while also making the school an appealing place for parents to send their children to college. At a public institution like Fresno State, the job is even more fraught, with a significant portion of the university's funding coming from state government, where governors and legislators are often looking for excuses to save money by cutting already tight budgets.
Universities exist in the same capitalist ecosystem in which all American businesses and non-profit organizations struggle to survive, scrambling to compete for students as well as for public and private largesse, with everyone involved thinking of their relationships on the model of producers and consumers of goods and services. In such a context, an employee like Randa Jarrar can make it much more difficult for an institution to thrive, as funding, donations, and students flee from the site of an ugly controversy that was sparked by a gratuitous act of insult and provocation.
Is there any employer in any industry in the United States that would not treat an outburst like Jarrar's as a fireable offense? The answer, I think, is no. If anything, norms against employees engaging in offensive speech have become stricter in recent years, with many insisting that public statements that demonize any person or group be punished swiftly and severely, the better to send a stern message about the importance of treating bigotry and hatred of any kind as intolerable.
Those saying that Jarrar should keep her job therefore seem to be defending the view that professors should have employment protections, even outside of the classroom and their specialized areas of academic research, that pretty much no one else in the country enjoys.
No wonder, then, that some on the left (like political theorist Corey Robin) have responded to the story by following the logic in the opposite direction — to suggest that instead of questioning whether the unique free speech and employment protections Jarrar enjoys as an academic worker should be curtailed in this case, we should instead be working to ensure that these protections are extended to all workers. Think of it as something like tenure for everyone, protecting all political speech regardless of profession, regardless of how offensive that speech might be.
This would require nothing short of a revolution in how Americans think about the economic dimensions of our lives. Instead of bending over backward to attract and satisfy the needs and wants of consumers, employers would be powerless to stop employees from insulting and otherwise antagonizing potential customers who would of course be free to take their business elsewhere. This would, in turn, greatly increase the stakes in hiring workers, which could restrain job creation, just as it has in both France (where it is extremely difficult to fire employees and the unemployment rate has been stuck above 9 percent for much of the past decade) and in … the American university, where landing a tenure-track job and managing to win tenure is fast becoming as rare as winning the lottery.
It's hard for me to imagine such a situation prevailing in the United States. But ours is a time marked by political surprises.