A University of Virginia (UVA) lecturer has taken a leave of absence after making a comment online that prompted a protest and statements from UVA officials denouncing his remarks.
Douglas Muir, an adjunct lecturer for the university’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, commented on a Facebook post advertising an event titled “Rooting Out Injustice: Poverty, Race and the Role of Legal Aid,” which featured Alicia Garza, cofounder of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
“Black lives matter is the biggest rasist [sic] organization since the clan,” Muir wrote in October. “Are you kidding me. Disgusting!!!”
BLM was formed after Florida neighborhood watch participant George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, a black man. The movement’s website describes itself as “a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.”
The UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Darden Graduate School of Business, the two colleges Muir works for, quickly distanced themselves from his comments by issuing statements, as did the University of Virginia provost.
“While free speech and open discussion are fundamental principles of our nation and the University, Mr. Muir’s comment was entirely inappropriate,” the School of Engineering’s statement said. “UVA Engineering does not condone actions that undermine our values, dedication to diversity and educational mission.”
The UVA provost said in a statement, “[Muir’s] statement is inconsistent with the University of Virginia’s values and with its commitment to the principles of academic freedom.”
Charlottesville Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy called for people to boycott the restaurant Muir owns in town, writing on his Instagram account, “If that is how he really, truly feels, then that’s a place that doesn’t deserve to have the business of the people in the city of Charlottesville.”
UVA announced in October Muir would be taking a leave of absence. Muir issued a statement of apology, saying in part, “Whatever my initial intention was from the post has been overshadowed by those who are rightly offended by it and others who want to use my words to further divide this community. It was never my intent for my words to cause so much turmoil.”
Violating Academic Freedom?
Jay Schalin, director of policy analysis at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, says generally a faculty member’s academic freedom protects “extra-mural” statements such as Muir’s, including statements made off-campus.
“Only when they are so irrational or venal that they demonstrate the unfitness of the teacher to teach or they clearly hurt the school’s reputation is punishment even considered,” Schalin said. “While some in the academic community may find Muir’s comments distasteful, his contention the Black Lives Matters is racist is a very common opinion—maybe a majority opinion—in the United States. Furthermore, there is considerable evidence to support his comments. They are not the sort of wild, unsupported conjecture that clearly indicates lack of fitness.”
UVA ‘Joined the Hecklers’
John Rosenberg, a historian who writes about discrimination and how it’s reported in the news at the Discriminations.us blog, says UVA’s unwillingness to support Muir is cowardly.
“I think the saddest thing of this affair is the incredibly pusillanimous statements from UVA’s provost and deans of two of its major schools giving lip service to academic freedom as they limit it to speech that’s ‘appropriate’ and ‘consistent with university values,'” Rosenberg said. “Rather than protect faculty speech from a heckler’s veto, they joined the hecklers. I think you’d have to look far and wide to find leaders of a major university spouting such craven nonsense.”
Jane S. Shaw ([email protected]) writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.