Op Ed

UWM Must Take Student Protests Seriously

No, Betsy Schoeller shouldn’t be fired. But broader student concerns must be addressed.

By - Jul 13th, 2020 05:52 pm
"Peaceful Protest Against Professor Betsy Schoeller." Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

“Peaceful Protest Against Professor Betsy Schoeller.” Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Last week, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students organized a Peaceful Protest Against Professor Betsy Schoeller. On a warm summer evening, the event drew about 250 people, most of them young, many of them people of color.  Most wore masks and stood in small clusters around Spaights Plaza, a gathering place in the center of campus. Participants made signs and chalked the campus with slogans such as “Justice for Vanessa” and “Fire Betsy.”

The outcry around Dr. Schoeller’s remarks, detailed below, is indication of a growing chasm between self-righteous calls for “civility” and “free speech” and the resistant voices of protest, by mostly young people and people of color. There’s a way in which this conflict can be simplified: between a professor who spoke in ways that seemed to denigrate the murder of Private Specialist Vanessa Guillen, and the students who took offense at her words. This version of the conflict tends to lean on Dr. Shoeller’s rights to academic freedom and free speech. At worst, it tends to characterize students as the same reactive “snowflakes” Schoeller satirized – or didn’t , depending on your reading of it–  in her post.

A recent letter published in Harper’s Magazine pits the forces of “democratic inclusion” against a “culture of intolerance,” cautioning against the ‘moral attitudes and political commitments” that may diminish “open debate.” It’s quite an act of hubris to scold an entire movement for the act of protest; it claims the higher ground and dismisses the many expressions of resistance because of their tone and comportment. But access to the rights of free speech is and has always been uneven:  some people have to raise their voices to be heard; others have platforms in magazines like Harper’s.

This scolding misses the point entirely. In the case of the protests against Dr. Schoeller, for example, constructing the issue as a conflict between supposedly uncivil protesters and Dr. Schoeller’s rights winds up obscuring the name of Vanessa Guillen: a young woman of color, murdered by white supremacist, militarist rape culture. At UWM, the “access campus” of the UW System, many of our students are veterans and people of color; many are also survivors of sexual assault. Many have financial access to a university education only as a result of their military service. The circumstances of Vanessa Guillen’s life are familiar to them. Their stakes in her death and its representation are high.

On July 3, Dr. Schoeller, a Senior Lecturer at UWM, posted a comment on a “Veteran Humor” Facebook thread about the murder of Private Specialist Vanessa Guillen. She wrote:

You guys are kidding, right? Sexual harassment is the price of admission for women into the good ole boy club. If you’re gonna cry like a snowflake about it, you’re gonna pay the price.

A firestorm ensued. Emily Cruz, a UWM student, started a petition calling for Dr. Schoeller’s “termination,” which quickly garnered over 150,000 signatures (at this writing). In the petition Cruz explained:

As a woman, and a student at UWM I feel unsafe knowing that we have professors who think the sexual assault of women serving in the military is justified. UW-Milwaukee claims to care about the safety of their students, therefore we demand and are holding UWM accountable to take action against Professor Betsy Schoeller.

Subsequently, Dr. Schoeller published a statement in which she apologized and attempted to clarify, explaining that her initial post intended to criticize the “culture of sexual harassment and misogyny” in the military.

The UWM administration responded to the controversy by expressing sorrow about Guillen’s death and emphasizing the professor’s right to free speech:

There are legal reasons why UWM cannot fire Ms. Schoeller for her social media postings, as some have demanded. The rights granted by the First Amendment are absolute. UWM cannot regulate the private speech of its employees.

Though incendiary to many, Dr. Schoeller’s speech is, in fact, protected, The AAUP’s Statement on Extramural Utterances protects the free speech rights of faculty off campus. Provocative social media posts are not grounds for dismissal. “Virtual mobs” have often called for the dismissal of progressive faculty, particularly around questions of race and justice, as in the cases of Steven Salaita, Johnny Williams, George Ciccariello-Maher, and Joy Williams.

The UWM administration did the right thing by defending Dr. Shoeller. But by emphasizing what she said and her right to say it, their position and that of others defending her right to free speech elide the long history of inattention and neglect that UWM students like Cruz highlight.

The protest at UWM commenced by honoring Vanessa Guillen with a silence of nine minutes. Referencing as it does the agonizing death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police, these nine minutes also invoke the loss of many lives of young people of color.

After the rally on-campus, protesters marched through the neighborhood around UWM. One of the chants was “I can’t breathe.” Emanating from protests against the murders of Eric Garner and George Floyd, this phrase has become an iconic part of contemporary Black Lives protests. It indicts a white supremacist regime that murders Black people and other people of color, that literally cannot stand to allow them to breathe.

In context of the protest at UWM, the phrase “I can’t breathe” also describes the generational suffocation taking place on campuses across the country. Austerity regimes decimate colleges and universities, resulting in soaring tuition costs and life-crippling levels of student debt. At the same time that pubic policies lay waste to higher education, draconian regimes of immigration restriction target immigrant students. The recently announced federal policy denying visas to international students is part of a long-term war on students, foreign-born and students of color in particular.

At UWM, a two-year campaign for a Sanctuary Campus brought students and faculty together to ask the administration to adopt policies to create affirmative policies to shelter undocumented students. A student group, Young People’s Resistance Committee, developed a resolution asking the administration to affirm and enhance the campus’ guiding values on behalf of the many students, faculty and staff who are members of groups that have already been targeted for harassment and hate crimes and who fear they may be subject to repressive regulations, deportation, or forced registration: immigrants and international students, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ people, people of color. UWM’s AAUP chapter signed on and supported this resolution.

After a two-year campaign that included a task force empaneled by the administration to look into the proposed resolution, few of the aspects of the resolution were adopted. When students showed up at the Faculty Senate to protest this lack of action, campus police were dispatched to present a show of force at the senate meeting.

Perhaps if the administration had affirmed more of the demands of student activists, there would have been more channels active to deal with the hurt and outrage generated by Schoeller’s words, intended or otherwise. As it stands, one instructor is left to contend with a long history of untended grievance.

I don’t believe Dr. Shoeller should be dismissed from her teaching position because of her comments, however injudicious they were. But, at the same time, we ignore the demands of student protesters at our collective peril. As recent graduate and co-organizer of the UWM march, Margarita Garcia-Rojas commented:

I think the university really needs to take into account the concern of its students and how they feel. This is not people being sensitive, this is a lot of trauma that people are processing. So, UWM and the higher-ups should take that into account.

The morning after the protests, all the signs posted around campus, all the elaborate chalk art, were gone. It appears the university was attentive, after all: not to the eloquent demands articulated by its students and their allies, but to the disturbance caused by their very presence on campus.

Rachel Ida Buff is Professor of History and Director of the Culture and Communities Program at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and a member of AAUP.

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Categories: Education, Op-Ed

One thought on “Op Ed: UWM Must Take Student Protests Seriously”

  1. weitenma83 says:

    “Vanessa Guillen: a young woman of color, murdered by white supremacist, militarist rape culture.” Every picture of the murderer I have seen is of a black man. The military may have a male dominated, militarist rape culture, but I’m not sure white supremacy applies here. Dr. Shoeller would have been better served by relating her own sexual harassment/assault experiences from 20+ years in the military.

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