UW-Madison Afro-American Studies
Professors Speak Out
The Chilling of Free Speech
|Professors Benda Gayle Plummer (l-r), Christina Greene,
Christy Clark-Pujara and Michael
questioning their right to be on campus, creating an unhealthy environment for students of color especially as the level of micro-aggressions
due to race increased and eroded the campus climate and academic environment for these students, they became concerned about their right
to protest these speakers who are destructive of the academic environment in which they must exist for at least four years.
Representatives of UW-Madison’s ethnic studies department and programs and the English department sent an open letter to UW Chancellor
Rebecca Blank expressing their concerns that the new policy and its vague guidelines will have on students of color and other
underrepresented students on campus.
“I believe it started with a graduate student who came to talk to me as the chair of the department about an incident that had happened in the
Chemistry Department where a TA was removed because of some white supremacist activity that he had been engaged in, in the past,” said
Dr. Christina Greene, chair of the Afro-American Studies Department. “That’s how it started. The student was feeling unsafe and vulnerable and
wanted our department to respond in some way. She wasn’t quite sure how to go about that, but she thought we should know. She wasn’t
specific, but she wanted something to happen.”
Due to the history of the formation of the guidelines, some felt that it was developed specifically to “protect” conservative speakers at the
perceived “liberal” institution. No one was certain what this entailed.
“I think there are some concerns on the part of students of color because I think it can be interpreted as limiting their ability to protest against
racist provocateurs,” said Dr. Brenda Gayle Plummer, an Afro-Am professor. “This added to our concerns as faculty members that we should
have something to say about how all of this goes down.”
The policy and the guidelines left many wondering what the true intent of the policy was about.
“My issue is that it was an unnecessary step,” emphasized Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara, an Afro-Am professor. “Guidelines already exist in terms
of protesting that are outlined in Chapter 17 of the Book of Code and Conduct. Why was there a need for this extra layer of what seems to be a
kind of scare tactic? If you speak out at certain events, it could lead to your expulsion when they have a constitutional right to protest. Yes,
speech is protected. But you aren’t protected from the consequence of that speech, which can be protest.”
Dr. Michael Thornton was blunt in his assessment of the motivations behind the policy.
“Very briefly, I think this is another attempt by the Republican Party to further control the information that is available to other people,” Thornton
said. “And it is also an attempt to shut down any kind of protest of things that the Republicans may support.”
For Clark-Pujara, this policy fixes a problem that doesn’t exist.
“The climate survey that just came out was heartbreaking in terms of how students of color on this campus feel,” said Clark-Pujara. “And
policies like this — which the university didn’t create, but is charged with implementing — further causes the feeling of alienation among
students of color. And I think that should be of concern. Conservative students say that they feel comfortable on this campus. Students who
identify as conservatives feel comfortable on this campus. They don’t feel intimidated in their classes. That’s not a bunch of professors saying
that. That’s students who identify that way saying that. On the flip side, students of color feel that they do not belong and they are weary to call
university police. This is a policy that is addressing a problem that doesn’t exist. When that happens, that’s an agenda. And we need to have a
response to that agenda at the university.”
Part of that agenda may be to subject students of color and other underrepresented groups to baseless attacks under the guise of freedom of
“I think another thing to consider is the way that various provocateurs come to campuses without any real intellectual agenda, without
anything productive to contribute and are there primarily for disruptive purposes,” Plummer said. “It’s quite possible for a conservative group
to invite to invite a speaker who can educate people about the principles of conservatism. But what we are seeing on a number of campuses
and recently the University of Connecticut, for example, are people who are just there basically absorbing university resources where the
money is needed to protect them and to secure campuses, draining those resources and contributing nothing of intellectual value to the life of
the university community. And so, I think there needs to be some awareness that not every Nazi crackpot who comes here deserves a forum.”
These faculty members understand that this is a policy that was imposed on UW-Madison. What concerns them is how the university will
respond to the policy in light of its practical impact on students of color, especially when another alt-right or white supremacist speaker comes
“We’re not even debating whether or not the Board of Regents should have done this,” Greene said. “We don’t think they should have. The
university’s hands are tied, in effect. How are they going to deal with this to protect our students and to protect those basic rights of freedom of
speech and dissent? I don’t know if this is officially true, but my understanding is that the faculty senate didn’t take this up either and they felt —
I heard this anecdotally — it was useless to even speak out or say anything about it. But again, as Michael said, I think it is important to push
back and speak. You have to. For the faculty senate to sit back and wash their hands of it, I think that was a mistake. That was all the more
reason that faculty in units needed to come forward and say, ‘Look, this is not acceptable and we need some clarity on how student rights are
going to be protected.”
Students weren’t aware of the policy either.
“When I found out that this policy change was happening before one of my lectures and I asked my students if anyone knew about it, maybe 1-2
out of a lecture of 100 students raised their hands,” Clark-Pujara said. “It made me think about what the effort was to seek student input that
has a profound impact on them.”
The professors are also concerned with how the guidelines are being rolled out.
“While the university didn’t willingly take on this mantle, it didn’t push back much on it,” Thornton said. “That’s a real concern. That concern is
doubled by the fact that it puts it in the hands of the dean of students and the police department, which is the worst place to put this. The
university moved too quickly and didn’t have a high-powered discussion about it. The implications of this kind of policy are very clear and the
chancellor hasn’t made a public stand on it. That just encourages the legislature to push these kinds of things because they know they can get
away with it. She needs to make a public stand on this.”
And the guidelines need more input.
“The faculty has to be involved in any kind of committee or liaison with the dean of students and the police department because they don’t
know the students and we do,” Plummer emphasized. “It’s unclear to me whether or not they see themselves as advocates for students. I don’
t think they do. I think they see themselves as advocates for the administration specifically. What I fear in the way that it is being set up right
now is that there really is no point of view that is directed towards advocacy for students or sympathy for their position. And I think that is a
real danger and a real problem.”
The ultimate response of UW-Madison to this policy could impact its ability to enroll and retain students of color. A lot is on the line.
By Jonathan Gramling
Editor’s Note – After the interview for this story occurred in response to a letter
that members of the university’s ethnic studies department and programs and the
English department sent to UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank about the new speech
guidelines. Blank responded to the letter. Both the letter and response can be
found in the December 11th issue of The Hues at www.capitalcityhues.com.
Back in the fall of 2016, a speech by a conservative speaker at UW-Madison was
disrupted for 20 minutes by counter-protestors. Conservative Wisconsin state
lawmakers, already feeling that UW-Madison was a “hotbed of liberalism”
prodded the UW System Board of Regents to develop and pass a policy in October
2017 that essentially stated that students who repeatedly disrupt the speeches of
others should be suspended or expelled from school.
In response to the Board of Regents policy, UW-Madison’s Division of Student Life
issued “University Response Guidelines: Protests and Demonstrations.” As
students of color and other underrepresented students at UW-Madison have been
the object of some conservative speakers coming to campus with some even