George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor of politics at Drexel University and an outspoken political activist, has tweeted his way into some hot water. Over the past three years, Ciccariello-Maher, a proponent of the “decolonial turn” in humanities research and a long-time critic of American foreign policy, has regularly posted off-color remarks on social media that encapsulate the same leftist opinions that informed his academic work. Last December, he tweeted that all he wanted for the holidays was “white genocide,” a nod to the problems caused by white supremacy throughout the developed world. And last month, he noted that seeing someone give his airplane seat to a uniformed soldier made him want to “vomit.” The latter comment engendered hostile remarks from many in the Drexel University community and prompted the school’s provost to initiate an investigation, which is still ongoing, into Ciccariello-Maher’s social-media activity.
The most obvious point to make here—and many commentators have already made it—is that Ciccariello-Maher’s free speech is at risk of being chilled by university administrators. But such free-speech concerns are raised constantly in public discourse, as employees without Ciccariello-Maher’s tenure protections are frequently ousted from positions after they have said controversial, unkind, or stupid things. More salient is the issue of how this kind of university investigation, informed by Drexel’s ostensibly speech-protective academic-freedom policy—“the teacher is entitled to full freedom in research,” it reads, although “s/he should be careful not to introduce into his/her teaching controversial matters”—shapes Ciccariello-Maher’s public outreach on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Such outreach is critical, as it helps academics at every stage in their careers gain notice for their work and improve their professional prospects. But in the course of attracting attention to themselves, academics are also attracting attention to their employers. These tensions can sometimes boil over, particularly when a scholar’s activist stance leads to public criticism of the academic institution where they are employed.