President Joanne Berger-Sweeney’s Statements Concerning Professor Johnny Williams

Update, July 14: Trinity Dean of Faculty Releases Report After Review of Recent Social Media Activity

​July 14, 2017

To the Trinity College Community,

Freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression in pursuit of the truth are essential, not only to the health of the academy but also to the advancement of civilization. Our understanding of academic freedom in America today is rooted largely in a joint statement from 1940 by the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges that asserted the fundamental importance of academic freedom for the common good and the advancement of truth. The heart of the concept, of course, is much older and goes much deeper — to the very founding principles of democratic governance.

Academic freedom is not absolute, however. The events of recent weeks have compelled us to ask important questions about the limits of such freedom and the responsibilities of faculty members, who hold special positions in our academic communities.

Dean of the Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs Tim Cresswell’s review of the recent social media activity of Professor Johnny Williams is now complete. We appreciate everyone’s patience in providing us with the time to complete this important review. Dean Cresswell’s report and recommendations are available here. I have reviewed them with the Board of Trustees and now affirm Dean Cresswell’s conclusion that Professor Williams’s actions and words were protected by academic freedom and did not violate Trinity College policies. A related statement from the Board of Trustees also is available online.

Dean Cresswell’s review included consideration of policies on academic freedom, nondiscrimination, and professional ethics as outlined in Trinity College’s Faculty Manual, as well as policies concerning employee rights and responsibilities and statements on discrimination and harassment that are contained in our Employee Handbook. Dean Cresswell also consulted with external legal and policy experts before providing his recommendations.

By mutual agreement, Professor Williams will be on leave throughout the fall semester to provide some time and distance from this recent controversy and to allow him to continue his scholarship on race, racism, and academic freedom. The threats of violence against him, his family, and our campus have shaken us all, and we want to do what we can to ensure the continued well-being of our community. Professor Williams will return to his teaching duties on campus in January 2018.

Let me be clear: While I support Professor Williams’s right to express his opinions, as I have previously stated, I do not condone the hashtag he chose to use. This was interpreted by some to be a call to let people die, though Professor Williams stated publicly that was not his intent. Nevertheless, the words used in that hashtag not only offend me personally, they also contradict our fundamental institutional values and run counter to our efforts to bridge divides and to promote understanding, both among members of our College community and between us and members of communities beyond our own.

Some have said that Professor Williams caused the harm that has been inflicted upon him, his family, and our College — that he should have known better. But while Professor Williams may have meant for his words to be provocative, much of the most intense public reaction to his social media posts was fueled by misleading and incorrect reports about what he actually said. In particular, the initial report by Campus Reform led to distortions and an ensuing harassment that has become troublingly common for people of color and those who speak out on issues of race and racism. Such harassment, intended to intimidate, is appalling and, indeed, a threat to freedom of expression and to robust debate aimed at discovering truth and knowledge. These attacks against free speech have happened at numerous other colleges and universities. In a country more deeply divided than ever, especially on issues of race, we must be able to speak openly without fear of intimidation or violence.

How do we move beyond this controversy? How do we heal as a community and support one another? Since arriving at Trinity three years ago, I have worked to create spaces for open, respectful dialogues across deep differences. Once again, I will ask all members of the Trinity College community faculty, students, staff, alumni, parents, and friends for their help in continuing this work. Let us use this painful incident to enter into discussions about the destructive forces of racism and hate, as well as our responsibilities to one another, as a community of learners. Beginning in late summer, we will initiate programming both on and off campus that fosters civil discourse and cements Trinity as a community of learning that values differences and promotes understanding. The best place to encourage lifelong learning and engagement across deep divides is right here at Trinity College.

I don’t have all the answers, but I know our shared belief in the importance of our educational mission will guide us as we work together on solutions. And I am confident in our strength and resilience as a community. Our work contributes to the public good, and there is much work to do together.

Sincerely,

Joanne Berger-Sweeney

President and Trinity College Professor of Neuroscience



June 26, 2017

To the Members of the Trinity Community,

As a follow-up to my note from last week, I write to inform you that Professor Johnny Williams has been placed on leave, effectively immediately. We’ve determined that a leave is in the best interest of both Professor Williams and the college. The review by the Dean of the Faculty of the events concerning Professor Williams will continue.

Meanwhile, I want to take care to note that the principles that underlie this particular set of events go far beyond the actions of any one person. These involve principles that concern how we think about academic freedom and freedom of speech, as well as the responsibilities that come with those fundamental values. It’s true, too, that as scholars and citizens, and as individuals and as a community of higher learning, our roles in and relationship to social media and the public sphere are complicated. We must be able to engage in conversations about these difficult and complex issues, and Trinity College and other places like it are precisely where such conversations should occur. I, for one, welcome them.

Sincerely,

Joanne Berger-Sweeney

President and Trinity College Professor of Neuroscience


 

June 21, 2017

Dear Members of the Trinity Community,

As many of you are aware, a set of social media posts by one of our faculty members has resulted in a loud and public rebuke and landed Trinity College in a national spotlight, both in the media and across various social media platforms. I understand the concerns many have expressed, and I’m especially grateful for the inquiries we’ve received from members of our community who’ve asked whether what they’re reading and hearing is accurate. To be clear, both personally and on behalf of the College that I represent, I do not condone hate speech or calls to incite violence.

I’ve spoken with Johnny Williams, who has been a sociology professor at Trinity since 1996. I wanted to hear directly from him about the messages he posted and what has transpired since. It is important to clarify a few details. On June 16, a writer who goes by the name “Son of Baldwin”—and who is not Johnny Williams—wrote a piece for Medium.com that cited another writer’s perspective on the shooting that occurred at the Congressional baseball practice in Virginia last week. The Medium piece went on to explore broader issues concerning race and the relationship between “victims of bigotry” and “bigots.” The piece culminated with a call to show indifference to the lives of bigots. That call was reprehensible, and any such suggestion is abhorrent and wholly contrary to Trinity’s values.

While Professor Williams did not write that article, he did share it on his personal social media accounts this week, and he did so with the use of a hashtag that connected directly to the inflammatory conclusion of that article. Professor Williams, who teaches about race and racism, shared the article on his personal Twitter account using that hashtag; he also shared it on his personal Facebook page.

The Dean of the Faculty will review this matter and advise me on whether college procedures or policies were broken. I told Professor Williams that in my opinion his use of the hashtag was reprehensible and, at the very least, in poor judgment. No matter its intent, it goes against our fundamental values as an institution, and I believe its effect is to close minds rather than open them.

I want to underscore that what we seek is to build a diverse college community that is welcoming to all viewpoints and backgrounds and that engages in civil discourse on even the most vexing issues. That requires that we continue to uphold our fundamental belief in academic freedom and support our community members’ constitutional right to free speech. But our aspirations for the community we want to be also demand we take particular care with the words we use and the contexts in which we use them.

This incident has caused distress on our campus and beyond; threats of violence have been directed to Professor Williams and to our campus community, neither of which is an acceptable response.

I denounce hate speech in all its forms, I will explore all options to resolve this matter, and I will be back in touch with our community members with our decisions.

Sincerely,

Joanne Berger-Sweeney

President and Trinity College Professor of Neuroscience