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Oberlin College president defends professor's rights after social media uproar


OBERLIN — Oberlin College’s administration is standing behind an associate professor whose personal social media posts are being characterized as anti-Semitic and prompted some to call for her dismissal.

In a letter to the Oberlin community in which President Marvin Krislov expounds on the mission of liberal arts education, Krislov does not name Joy Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, but it is clear in the writing he is responding to online news sources that have published screenshots from Karega’s personal Facebook page and vilified her in blog posts, comments and tweets directed at Oberlin College.

Karega has since changed the privacy settings on her social media accounts to restrict access to her posts.

“Since the initial blog post, I have heard from many people,” Krislov wrote. “Their messages range from demands for the professor’s immediate dismissal to demands that her right to free expression be defended at all costs.”

Screenshots of the posts accompanying a news story on the Fox News website include attacks on Israel and Jews and posts attributed to Karega that blame Jews for the Sept. 11 attacks.

In his written statement, Krislov said the postings affected him on a very personal level.

“I am a practicing Jew, grandson of an Orthodox rabbi. Members of our family were murdered in the Holocaust,” he wrote. “As someone who has studied history, I cannot comprehend how any person could or would question its existence, its horrors and the evil which caused it. I feel the same way about anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Regardless of the reason for spreading these materials, they cause pain for many people — members of our community and beyond.”

Krislov’s personal feelings are coupled with his professional beliefs, he wrote.

“I am also the son of a tenured faculty member at a large research university. My father instilled in me a strong belief in academic freedom,” he wrote. “I believe, as the American Association of University Professors says, that academic freedom is ‘the indispensable quality of institutions of higher education’ because it encourages free inquiry, promotes the expansion of knowledge, and creates an environment in which learning and research can flourish.”

Searches for Karega’s name on Twitter deliver dozens of posts criticizing her and the college for not dismissing her. Karega acknowledged the feedback she has received in one of the few public posts available via her Facebook page.

The post was in promotion of speaker Robin Kelley, a history professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. Sponsored by Students for a Free Palestine, Africana Studies, ABUSUA, the event is set for 7 p.m. today in the Nancy Schrom Dye Lecture Hall. Karega said in the post that she is unbothered by the attacks.

“Trust, when I come up out of my Unbothered state of being, I’ll have a lot to say (analysis, no doubt) about the kinds of intimidation and silencing tactics that are rhetorically enacted in digital spaces, through email, through telephone communication, and propagandized editorial articles, masquerading as “journalism,” and how common it is for Black women, who are early in their career on the tenure track as part of the professoriate, to be prime targets for these kinds of activities and practices,” she wrote.

“And... I’m going to talk about why it is so important to resist these intimidation and silencing tactics and not coil under pressure. But for now, still unbothered.”

Karega received her doctorate from the University of Louisville in 2014 and according to Oberlin College’s website, began teaching courses at Oberlin in 2015. In December, students in the Black Student Union issued an extensive list of demands to the Oberlin College administration. One demand was to guarantee tenure to a number of professors, including Karega.

According to her profile on Oberlin’s website, Karega’s teaching and research interests include black political and protest literacies, translingual composition, rhetoric and composition historiography, social justice writing and writing pedagogy. Karega is working on a book project that draws upon archival research and oral history and historicizes the political literacy education of the Black Liberation Front International, a black student organization at Michigan State University from 1968 to 1975.

Krislov said that backing Karega’s right to freedom of speech went along with the college’s mission.

“Cultivating academic freedom can be difficult and at times painful for any college community. The principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech are not just principles to which we turn to face these challenges, but also the very practices that ensure we can develop meaningful responses to prejudice,” he wrote.

“This freedom enables Oberlin’s faculty and students to think deeply about and to engage in frank, open discussion of ideas that some may find deeply offensive. Those discussions — in classrooms, residence halls, libraries, and across our campus and town — take place every day here. They are a vital part of the important work of liberal arts education at Oberlin and in our country.”

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