The university’s ‘support’ for law enforcement runs hypocritical and short-sighted
I first heard about a UC Davis professor who thinks cops should be killed late in Fall Quarter. There were murmurings in the newsroom about his in-class discussions, and rumors of how the professor had given an interview that advocated for violence against law enforcement. It bothered me, but I assumed that what I heard was typical hearsay and likely exaggerated. I wasn’t shown anything concrete; there were no words to read, no sound-bites to parse over. The story seemed too extreme to be believed, because only the intellectually dishonest would even broach such blanketed and violent sentiments — certainly not a highly-regarded professor at a top public university. But I kept the rumors at the back of my mind.
The killing of Natalie Corona changed everything. Corona, an up-and-coming Davis police officer who was gunned down last month, was the type of person who makes labelling all law enforcement as “bad” a simple exercise in fallacy. By all accounts, she was a kind and considerate person who cared deeply about the community she served. She was pictured giving a bag of must-haves to a former resident of Paradise over the holidays. She reportedly gave a man she arrested a few dollars so he could buy a meal when he was released. Corona embodied the moral imperatives enshrined in our campus Principles of Community, the idea that “a climate of equity and justice demonstrated by respect for one another” is not only important, but necessary.
Indeed, the community’s reaction to the shooting exemplified an opposition to unfettered violence against law enforcement. There were Facebook posts condemning hate and Twitter directives against lax gun laws. There was a candlelight vigil that drew thousands, and a series of memorials erected at the site of the shooting and along the front steps of the police headquarters. There was a memorial service at the UC Davis Pavilion that brought police officers from all over the country. The memory of Corona seemed to counteract the violence inherent to her profession, a crude dance of kill or be killed that rarely leaves any true winners. These acts of remembrance were an ode to good deeds and community service; violence was rebuked.
The shooting reminded me of the rumors about the cop-threatening professor last quarter. I wasn’t trying to connect the two — the shooting and the professor’s comments about killing cops — but the shooting provided the backdrop for my investigation. In a community that’s just witnessed an ambush-style cop killing, the downsides were next to none; we ought to know what our professors think and say on the public record.
I browsed Twitter, always the first stop in a general inquiry, and enlisted a colleague’s help to search for the professor’s elusive interview online. This is what we found:
“I am thankful that every living cop will one day be dead, some by their own hand, some by others, too many of old age #letsnotmakemore” — tweeted on Nov. 27, 2014.
“I mean, it’s easier to shoot cops when their backs are turned, no?” — tweeted on Dec. 27, 2014.
“People think that cops need to be reformed. They need to be killed.” — published in an interview on Jan. 31, 2016.
These statements were made by Joshua Clover, a professor of English and comparative literature at UC Davis and the focus of our online search. He’s well-known throughout literary circles, his poetry examining latent struggles against capitalism and his latest book explaining the act of rioting from a decidedly Marxist point of view. His work has been featured in The Nation and The New York Times. Clover is also one of three co-founders of Commune Editions, a publisher specializing in anarchist and communist poetry, and a contributing editor for Commune Magazine, a quarterly magazine “found wherever enemies of the current order gather.” He was part of a group of protestors slapped with conspiracy and obstruction of movement charges during a U.S. Bank sit-in on campus in 2012 loosely tied to the Occupy movement.
I emailed Clover to schedule a meeting and learn why he’d made these statements about police, and whether he was aware of their life-threatening implications. I wanted to know whether his views had changed given the shooting of Natalie Corona, and if he’d walk them back or at least offer a smidgeon of context to them. This was the first step to uncovering the standards to which our university holds its professors.
Yet Clover offered little clarity, or remorse. “I think we can all agree that the most effective way to end any violence against officers is the complete and immediate abolition of the police,” he wrote me. His response suggested that he had no regrets about his remarks and would preserve them, as repugnant as they might appear to outsiders. His views would stand, even in the aftermath of Corona’s murder. Clover added that I “direct any further questions to the family of Michael Brown,” a reference to the fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, that fed the Black Lives Matter movement. I couldn’t do anything else — soon after I contacted him, Clover set his Twitter account to private and refused to comment any further. That road was closed. (Note: As of the date of publication, his Twitter is once again public.)
But there were other avenues. I reached out to Gina Bloom, the interim chair of the English Department, about what she thought about Clover’s threats. She said that Clover is a “valued member of our department and the university community; a strong and popular teacher; and a well published scholar and poet whose work has been lauded across the world.” The chair ultimately refused to speak with me further because of my “flimsy evidence” and “inflammatory connections.” I contacted a few of Clover’s colleagues, hoping to gather insight about his views on law enforcement, but received no response.
My biggest question for Clover was how his support for killing cops meshed with the outpouring of grief following Corona’s death in the greater Davis community. His wish that cops die at the hands of “others” was a threat, but its extent remained murky. Without the ability to speak with him, it remained an open question whether Clover would follow his own directions and commit violence against law enforcement if given the opportunity. Understanding his point of view was essential to unpacking what’s allowed to be said by university faculty. Where did his views fall under the often-vague umbrella term “academic freedom?”
I contacted the administration a few days after the shooting for a response to Clover’s past threats, namely his assertion that cops “need to be killed.” Dana Topousis, the university’s chief marketing and communications officer, sent me an emailed statement indicating that Clover’s comment was reprehensible, but didn’t warrant further action:
“The UC Davis administration condemns the statement of Professor Clover to which you refer. It does not reflect our institutional values, and we find it unconscionable that anyone would condone much less appear to advocate murder. A young police officer has been killed serving the City of Davis. We mourn her loss and express our gratitude to all who risk their lives protecting us. We support law enforcement, and the UC Davis Police Department and Chief Joe Farrow have been and remain critical partners to our community.”
The administration’s stance was satisfactory, if not completely convincing, but it left too many unanswered questions about academic freedom and whether Clover was somehow protected. After a weeklong game of email tag, I managed to score a meeting with Provost Ralph Hexter, the chancellor’s number two, and Topousis. I wanted to discuss Clover’s quotes in more detail and see whether top university officials would offer condemnations beyond a simple statement. Were Professor Clover’s statements a fireable offense?
I entered the fifth floor of Mrak Hall, the chief administrative center on campus, after riding the elevator to the fourth floor — the highest someone without a security bypass can go — and passing the security checkpoint on the fifth-floor staircase, where a staticky voice and a camera verified my appointment. I sat in the lobby; it was a room that can only be compared to the richly-furnished, mahogany-panelled library of Wayne Manor in the Batman films, minus the books. The scenery proved detaching, as if the simple act of decorating this antechamber had subsumed the student-focused academic tradition and replaced it with corporate gravitas. The ivory tower was embodied in this very room, solidifying the preternatural disconnect between the administration and the rest of campus.
I entered the provost’s office, trying not to let the gravity of the moment (and the pristine views from the window) distract me from what I’d come here to learn. From the outset, however, the mood was cordial. It was telling that senior administration officials had agreed to meet with me, while the department of English had refused. The university’s gain seemed obvious: quash the story before it was released and make sure UC Davis’ reputation was salvaged; distance itself from Clover’s comments and reaffirm the values enshrined in our Principles of Community; refuse to allow a platform for advocating murder.
Yet the answers I got were substantially different. I asked if Clover’s published quotes violated the standards of academic freedom set by the University of California and UC Davis, and the short answer was no:
“The basis for academic freedom is to make sure that the university is a place where unpopular and different views are heard,” Hexter said. “I think that teaching controversial subjects is always a challenge, and you have to maintain a space as a faculty member so that views you might very much disagree with can be expressed by the students, be respected and be challenged, but according to bases in fact and logic.”
The provost explained that professors in the humanities, like Clover, are given more leeway when advancing controversial subject matter than professors in other disciplines; for example, a science professor who makes frequent political comments might face disciplinary action if a student complains. And while he found Clover’s tweets and published interview “odious,” the provost insisted that Clover be protected from sanctions on the basis of free speech and freedom of expression. “Our practice has not been to discipline people for things that they say outside the university,” he told me.
I was curious about the logical implications of this, should any other group be targeted by a professor in a threatening manner. Would threats of violence against racial or ethnic groups be given the same protections?
“I think that, depending on exactly what was said and in what context, there could be a basis for a sanction on [a statement like Clover’s that’s directed at a racial group] because of Title IX,” the provost said. “If there’s a Title IX argument to be made, then that is certainly something we take very seriously … [Such a statement] would be a violation of university policy, and we probably wouldn’t go at it as an academic freedom issue. But Title IX guarantees that students in their learning environment and employees in their work environment have to be in an environment that allows them to thrive and succeed.”
The university’s defense of Clover confirmed that only groups outlined in Title IX — and Title VI, as the provost later clarified — are protected from threatening statements. Invectives against people based on national origin, race, sex and a slew of other categories are not afforded the same leniency as a blanket threat against police officers, at least at UC Davis. The simple presence of a threat doesn’t require action according to these principles — only the subject of the threat matters, and if that subject isn’t protected by the provisions of Title IX or other statutes, the case may as well be closed.
“If you say something against a protected class, and it would impact the individuals on campus, that opens it up to a different line of consideration,” Hexter said. “Being a law enforcement officer, or hoping to be, is not a protected class.”
Our modern idea of academic freedom was enshrined in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, a set of guidelines authored by the American Association of University Professors. The Statement sets the standards from which many institutions, including UC Davis, derive their visions of academic freedom. It gives professors “full freedom” in matters of research and outlines the tenureship process. Its most subjective clause uses the rights of professors as private citizens to show some limitations: “When [professors] speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations.”
The University of California’s Faculty Code of Conduct gives a similar vision, and it serves as one of the guiding principles by which the UC Davis Academic Senate oversees cases of faculty misconduct. It makes clear that only speech “constitut[ing] a clear and present danger that violence or abuse against persons or property” warrants sanctions. When I spoke to the administration, the provost said that speech merely exhibiting violence — even away from the university setting — was not the same as speech calling for specific acts of violence against specific people. And while Clover’s comments were crude, they could not be pinned to a case of “clear and present danger.” It was on this basis that the administration refused to speak with Clover about his threats against police, leaving him in good standing with the university. The administration assumed his words weren’t actionable, and left it at that.
Yet, as Brian Soucek — a professor of law and the chair of the Academic Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility — told me, professorial speech isn’t always given free rein.
“The further you get from your area of expertise or your research, and the further you get out in the world — because sometimes I just speak as a restaurant-goer who’s writing a Yelp review, or a normal person who has a Facebook account — when I’m doing that, the argument gets much more tenuous about academic freedom,” Soucek said.
Indeed, when a professor’s position is used to encourage murder, the line between civilization and barbarity is shattered, and the social contract between teachers and learners is broken. The intellectual dishonesty in such comments is patently obvious, which is why the administration’s defense-within-a-condemnation was so odd. By giving odes to violence a voice, the university is disrupting the ideals it preached in the wake of Corona’s murder — it promotes dignity while protecting professors who exhort its deadly opposite.
The university cannot square its message of supporting law enforcement with a defense of Clover’s online comments. Soon after Corona’s death, Chancellor Gary May stressed how the administration is “truly grateful for the dedication of those in our community who protect us at any cost.” The hypocrisy is readily apparent, signifying the peculiar way our university deals with threatening speech that doesn’t fit the narratives of class-, race- or gender-based injustice.
The administration’s sanctimony rings even more hollow when viewed against the moral fabric of our local Principles of Community. Each section of them offers evidence for our shared devotion to a safe academic environment, with one section reading: “We affirm our commitment to non-violent exchange and the highest standards of conduct and decency toward all. Within this context we reject violence in all forms.”
Clover’s public comments about killing cops renounce these principles of “decency toward all” and a “commitment to non-violent exchange.” If the university wants to hold standards befitting an intellectually-stimulating institution, it would be wise to more forcefully deny speech that harkens to barbarism and bloodshed, instead of allowing it to thrive under the auspices of unfettered freedom.
Clover’s refusal to apologize simply adds fuel to the university’s folly. If the university is “truly grateful for the dedication of those in our community who protect us at any cost,” its defense of Clover doesn’t show it. His blend of violent rhetoric was never fully rebuffed, despite my attempts. He was never truly confronted about his advocacy for murder.
There have been similar comments made by professors at other public universities, but the conversations between the administrations and the offenders have run an altogether different course. Michael Isaacson, a professor at John Jay College in New York, was dismissed from teaching after tweeting that it was a “privilege to teach future dead cops.” (John Jay College places an emphasis on law enforcement and criminal justice.) There are other cases of professors crossing the line that don’t have to do with police: a professor at the University of Delaware, for example, was let go after calling Otto Warmbier, an American student imprisoned in North Korea who died upon release, a “clueless white male” who “got exactly what he deserved” in a now-deleted Facebook post. There’s precedent for disciplining professors for online behavior because private speech, while often protected by the First Amendment, often runs beyond the scope of academic freedom protections.
Many of these incidents have similar storylines: they were born through social media platforms that reward short, pithy phrases over substantial, evidence-based approaches to scholarly inquiry. Social media posts have the power to reach new and engaging audiences, but they also have a tendency to create room for intellectual dishonesty — hardly befitting of the “highest standards of conduct and decency” that our university has tried to cultivate.
Clover’s references to ambush-style cop killings speak volumes in a community that’s just witnessed one. It doesn’t matter that his comments came years ago; there can be no statute of limitations on violent speech when the offender in question refuses to apologize or make amends. When professors advocate murder, we all lose.
Written by: Nick Irvin — firstname.lastname@example.org
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