Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
It began on Twitter. On November 7, Professor Eric Rasmusen, a man who is part of the faculty at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, tweeted: “geniuses are overwhelmingly male because they combine outlier high IQ with moderately low Agreeableness and moderately low Conscientiousness.” The tweet was a quote from an article titled “Are Women Destroying Academia? Probably.” The piece, from an obscure website, argues that women are more “conformist, empathetic and sympathetic,” which in turn makes them “unsuited” for academia.
Nor are women the only group that Rasmusen considers lesser beings; in the past he has reportedly expressed both racist and homophobic views. As much as it rankles to parrot his bigotry, for the record, examples of his hateful statements include his arguing, according to the University provost, that black students are unqualified for attendance at elite institutions and according to the Indiana Daily Student, gay men must be excluded from academia because they cannot help but abuse students.
It is Eric Rasmusen who is unsuited for academia. The administrators of Indiana University, however, don’t think so. After the Rasmusen controversy exploded on social media, Provost Lauren Robel issued a strongly worded statement decrying Rasmusen’s actions and stating its nondiscrimination policy, but asserting that the First Amendment precludes the university from firing him. The school will allow students to opt out of Rasmusen’s courses (currently required for business majors) and will monitor his grading, but everything else, according to the statement, will be left just the way it was.
Indiana University’s position reveals an unwillingness to stand up for women, racial minorities and LGBTQI students who are now even more vulnerable to the all powerful “tenured” professors who may never be fired.
As a graduate student at Indiana University, I along with several other students I knew experienced sexual harassment, bullying and inappropriate behavior from faculty members, some inside the classroom and some beyond it. None of us reported anything. Our decisions not to come forward were in some part due to the invasive and onerous requirements of filing a complaint but had far more to do with our awareness of the near-guarantee that (as in Rasmusen’s case) nothing would be done. Rasmusen has not been accused of anything like what we experienced, but I do understand firsthand how intimidating the prospect of reporting misconduct in a university setting can be. If on top of what we had already endured, my colleagues and I also knew that the faculty members in question held racist and misogynist views, we likely would have been even more determined to stay silent.
No matter how powerfully condemnatory the language of its statement against Rasmusen, Indiana University’s latest actions (or lack of action) will very likely silence even more students who face harassment or bullying. In defending Rasmusen’s continued appointment, the university administration is sending a clear message about its prioritizing of the rights of white and male professors. As sociology major and IU sophomore Maya Rose John told me, in the wake of the university’s decision, “I feel like IU is condoning having bigoted educators, which makes me feel like they don’t value me as a woman or my education.” Many more students, graduate instructors and even faculty likely feel just the same way. Rasmusen, for his part, has not apologized, but attacked the university that has committed to keeping him on its faculty.
Keeping Rasmussen on the faculty also smacks of moral hypocrisy. In recent days, campuses all around the country have faced a spate of anti-Semitic and racist incidents that have stunned and frightened students. A noose was found hanging in a residence hall at Auburn University, a swastika was scratched into a door and racist stickers and posters have appeared on light poles and bus stop signs at Iowa State University and burning crosses from a KKK rally were featured on social media at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire. At Syracuse University, reports of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti have occurred in recent days. Additional incidents which are still being investigated have involved students verbally assaulting an African American student, a note left with anti-Native American writing and graffiti against Asian Americans in the art building.
In all of these incidents, the university administrations have issued strong denunciations, urging students to practice tolerance and respect. Prescriptions such as these are good, but they beg the question of whether university authorities can expect their students to be tolerant and respectful when tenured faculty members are held to a lower standard and permitted to say whatever they like.
In Indiana University’s case, keeping on a faculty member whose views are in such obvious contravention of moral decency and respect renders the university’s expectation of good moral behavior from students void and moot. If the larger moral purpose of an institution of higher learning is to model educated and civil behavior and to teach students to be responsible and moral citizens, then standing by a professor who espouses and makes racist and sexist beliefs seems anathema. Simply put, permitting faculty to have positions considered immoral for students foments a toxic double standard. This in turn shatters the moral foundation of a university education as the means to mold moral and responsible adults.