Melissa Click, the University of Missouri communications professor whom videos show obstructed the press and assaulted a student during last fall’s social justice protests, has finally been fired.
Click was acting as de facto communications director for the radical group “Concerned Student 1950” that, like many groups across the nation, was accusing, with no evidence, their campus administration with “systemic racism.” Click inflamed an emotionally charged situation on November 9 when word came that the president and chancellor had resigned for allegedly allowing racist symbols and slurs on and off-campus.
When student journalist Tim Tai, on assignment for ESPN, waded into the campus encampment with his camera, he was blocked by Click and others, including her husband, religion professor Richard Callahan, and Greek life administrator Janna Bassler, who identified herself as “Concerned Student of 1950.” Click, identifying herself as “communications faculty,” responded to Tai’s repeated claim to First Amendment rights by stating, “I get that argument all the time, but you need to go.” Thanks to Mark Schierbecker, another student filming the confrontation, Click’s angry face as she called for some “muscle” from the mob went viral.
Applications and donations plummeted. On February 24, 2016, after release and a lengthy investigation of an earlier video of Click’s confrontation with police during homecoming, the Board of Curators fired Click. They did so because no one on campus would start the process. Concerned Student 1950 accused the board of submitting to threats from lawmakers to cut the budget.
Lifelong Sinecures Foster Abuse of Authority
Thousands of professors, however, work without fear and do not feel bound to any job description by their employers: taxpayers and tuition payers. Compared to most working Americans, they enjoy incredible job security, comfortable compensations, and easy working conditions. In exchange, they abuse their authority by imposing their political views on students.
They may not physically intimidate students, but they ridicule dissenting students in class, give politically loaded assignments, and punish with grades. Their scholarship follows politically tangential lines like Click’s, which involves studies of Lady Gaga and the pornographic novel “Fifty Shades of Gray.” (For several years, many courses in sociology and freshman composition have been dedicated to Lady Gaga.)
Click’s colleagues, including Callahan, Bassler (who enjoyed a month off during administrative leave), and Schierbecker’s German professor, who gave his students permission to leave class to attend the protest, are still employed. In contrast, my semester-to-semester contracts at state schools stipulated that I would fulfill a certain number of “contact hours” with students.
Trying to save her job, Click made two “apologies.” In the first, on November 10, 2015, Click did not admit to violating students’ First Amendment rights, but only regret for her “language and strategies” and for the way her actions “shifted attention away from the students’ campaign for justice.”
In fact, she began by offering “both apology and context,” calling her actions “mistakes” during a “historic day at MU—full of emotion and confusion.” Another apology the following day mentioned only Click’s impact on the School of Journalism and the Chancellor’s Student Publications Committee, where she had advised the student newspaper.
We Don’t Pay You to Violate Our Rights
More than 100 members of the Missouri Assembly saw through these self-serving deflections and on December 18 sent a letter to the chancellor demanding that Click be fired. Acknowledging the possibility of “some value” in “pop culture studies,” the legislators also conveyed their constituents’ concerns about Click’s “research” and expressed their disgust that Click “spent her paid time off from teaching [for research] to assault students, harass citizens of Missouri, and work in contravention of our Constitution.”
This action spurred 116 of Click’s colleagues to sign a letter in her defense. Several (Elisa Glick, English and Women’s and Gender Studies; Srirupa Prasad, Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies; Rebecca Martinez, Women’s and Gender Studies; Karen Piper, Christopher Okonkwo, April Langley, and Clenora Hudson-Weems, English; and Callahan) were featured in the 2009 book, “One-Party Classroom,” in which David Horowitz and Jacob Laksin evaluated twelve of the nation’s most politicized institutions.
The signatories, bewailing the “ad hominem attacks on, and harassment of, Click personally” in the form of emails (actually quite mild), vouched for Click’s “outstanding record of teaching and research.” They echoed her own rationalizations by asserting that her actions “constitute at most a regrettable mistake, one that came, moreover, at the end of several weeks during which Click served alongside other faculty and staff as an ally to students who were protesting what they saw as their exclusion from and isolation at the University.”
The letter brings up troubling questions. Who were these “other faculty and staff” who served as students’ “allies,” and why should faculty be “allying” with one group of students? What about the power differential between professors and students (as with sexual relationships)? Is there no concern about such professors’ objectivity in grading students?
Let’s Apply Some More Double Standards
Amazingly the faculty claimed that Click was “wronged by the media” and called on the university to defend her “first amendment rights of protest and her freedom to act as a private citizen.” Ben Trachtenberg, associate law professor and chair of the Columbia campus’s Faculty Council on University Policy, even said Click’s actions were like “a lot of little scuffles and shoving” that don’t lead to the involvement of the criminal justice system.
Joining in was the American Association of University Professors. President Rudy Fichtenbaum called lawmakers’ demands for Click’s termination “a real overreach.” He told the Washington Post that Click deserved due process, a hearing by a committee of faculty. Invoking academic freedom protected by tenure against “outside interference with the running of the university,” he asserted lawmakers have no right to question Click’s use of her research time or bring up their constituents’ concerns about her research.
“Legislators are not experts in that field,” Fichtenbaum declared; “they don’t know anything about that kind of research. Nor do I,” he said, adding, “I’m an economist. I wouldn’t presume to judge her research.”
Yet this economist feels qualified to defend a colleague on constitutional grounds. Nor did he question Click’s own wandering over to fields outside her own, namely to civil rights, criminal justice, and the law, presumably the concerns of the student group. Nor do her academic peers, in fields of literature, religion, and communications, when it comes to such issues.
Check Your Privilege, University Profs
When news of her firing came, supporters doubled down: at the faculty council meeting, no one supported her firing. In fact, faculty expressed concern about how the decision would impact “the ability of academics to participate in activism”! Fellow professors signed another letter of protest. The AAUP asked that her termination be rescinded, then threatened an investigation and “censure.”
What we have is a group of employees assuming the right to use company time in any way they want. Their outrage at outside scrutiny shows a level of privilege that no other profession enjoys. Attorneys, doctors, engineers, or manufacturers, all can be sued, but a professor who cheats students preparing for communications careers by teaching Lady Gaga cannot.
As Click and the earlier case of ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill showed, it is nigh impossible to fire a professor these days. Only the most egregious cases involving assault or plagiarism get that far.
I have seen this on the campuses where I have taught. One I have described before was a February 4, 2012, “teach-in” at the Georgia State University College of Education, designed to indoctrinate education students and teachers about using materials from the Zinn Education Project to protest Arizona’s legislation banning curricular materials that promoted overthrowing the U.S. government and immigration laws. At the end of the day, as participants made pledges to implement lessons learned, Georgia State University professor Jennifer Esposito promised to give “extra points” to students in her “Race, Class and Gender in Education” class for considering specific immigration bills in their policy projects and sending hand-written letters to legislators opposing immigration enforcement.
On March 19, 2012, I provided testimony about Esposito’s pledge to the Georgia Judiciary Non-Civil Committee. A member of the pro-illegal-alien crowd packing the room shouted out that I was “lying,” that she had been there. On March 30, 2012, I posted an incriminating video of Esposito. It shows Esposito promising to bribe her students to lobby legislators. Yet she is still an associate professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies, and an affiliate member in the Alonzo A. Crim Center for Urban Educational Excellence and the Institute for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
According to her profile, she has served as a program evaluator for Teacher Quality Grant projects. In 2013, the year after making the “pledge,” she was placed on the University Senate, and serves on several university-level committees, among them the University Senate Diversity Committee and the Educational Leadership Search Committee.
The “actions” taken against Esposito, in response to my testimony and the videotape, were meaningless. A letter on April 16, 2012, from the university president to the committee chair stated the university attorney had found that “when the professor actually made the offer of extra credit to students on February 23, 2012, she informed them that she would assign extra credit to students who wrote letters either in support of or opposition to the legislators.”
The president and provost had instructed “all deans and vice presidents of their obligations regarding political activities so this information could be shared with their respective areas”; the dean—the same person sponsoring and emceeing the “teach-in”—“spoke with [Esposito] about the matter and provided her with a memo reminding her of her responsibilities under the policies of the Board of Regents as well as state and federal law regarding political activities.”
Ruin Society and Young People’s Prospects, Get Promoted
On May 7, 2012, I received a letter from the Georgia Board of Regents assuring me they “condemn the use of University System facilities and resources by any employee to further the employee’s personal political agenda. Such use is a violation of our students’ trust as well as a violation of Board of Regents policies governing political activities.” In the intervening four years Esposito has continued in the path blessed by the dean in neglecting real teaching for spurious scholarship advancing a political agenda.
The last time I know of when a college president simply fired a professor was in 1963. Albert Manley, the first African-American president of the black women’s college Spelman, fired Howard Zinn. The reason he gave was “insubordination.” Zinn had been using his post since 1956 to radicalize students, in defiance of his superiors and parents, by encouraging students to ignore campus rules regarding chapel attendance, dress codes, and curfews, and by taking them to pro-Soviet protests and events. In a 1960 essay for The Nation, Zinn contemptuously called Spelman a “finishing school” and bragged he had transformed it into a “finishing school for protest.” The AAUP is still smarting from Albert Manley’s “autocratic” actions, according to a blog post.
Zinn obviously was not doing his job of teaching history. He was disrupting the campus’s normal operations and putting young black female students in harm’s way. Unfortunately, after his firing Zinn taught at Boston University until he retired in 1988. He also wrote the bestselling “A People’s History of the United States,” which has been adopted at all grade levels despite the common bipartisan assessment displayed by the title of David Greenberg’s 2013 New Republic article: “Agit-Prof, Howard Zinn’s influential mutilations of American history.”
In 2013, when then-governor Mitch Daniels questioned the use of Zinn’s history for a summer institute for Indiana high school teachers, the Indiana AAUP Conference charged him with censorship. In response, professors held a Zinn read-in at Purdue and started a Zinn memorial graduate scholarship fund.
It’s time to break the stranglehold and demand accountability from professors—especially at publicly funded institutions. We need to bring back the idea that professors, like everyone else, have job descriptions and that they answer to their employers. We could start a new movement on behalf of students who want to learn, the kinds of students studying in the library and being interrupted by protestors last fall. We could call it Concerned Student 1963.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the Federalist.