Letter to the Editor: Liberal Studies Rejects @antipcnyuprof’s Faulty Claims


In “Q&A with Deplorable NYU Professor,” Liberal Studies Clinical Assistant Professor Michael Rectenwald states the following in response to a request to talk about his thoughts on diversity: “A cis, white, straight male like myself is guilty of something. I don’t know what. But I’m fucking sure I’m guilty of it. And I am very fucking low on the ethical totem pole, you know?” After reading the interview and Professor Rectenwald’s @antipcnyuprof tweets, we would have to say we do know. We regretfully agree that Professor Rectenwald is guilty of something, though not by reason of his race, gender or sexuality. And though we have never seen an “ethical totem pole,” on the basis of his interview comments and tweets that denigrate NYU students, faculty and administrators, we imagine that Professor Rectenwald might be rather low on it.

First, he indulges in ad hominem fallacies. He seeks to discredit many of us who are committed to social justice by calling us insane and suggesting that some of our concerns are crazy. “My contention,” he says, “is that this particular social-justice-warrior-left is producing the alt-right by virtue of its insanity. … Frankly, I’m not really anti-pc. My contention is that trigger warning, safe spaces and bias hotline reporting is not politically correct. It is insane.”

“Identity politics on campus,” he goes on to say, “have made an infirmary of the whole, damn campus. Let’s face it: every room is like a hospital ward. What are we supposed to do? I can’t deal with it—it’s insane.” And later still: “the crazier and crazier that this left gets, this version of the left, the more the more the alt-right is going to be laughing their asses off plus getting more pissed.” Professor Rectenwald’s rhetoric repeatedly suggests that mental illness invalidates the ideas and feelings of those who live with it. We categorically reject such rhetoric and its stigmatizing effects. We reject, too, Professor Rectenwald’s efforts to gaslight those who would disagree with him and to silence responses to his incendiary rhetoric by dismissing claims before they are reasonably made. If Professor Rectenwald is not, as he notes in the interview, against diversity, then why doesn’t he use language that substantiates his professed point of view? Diversity, in any case, is too often reduced to numbers — neither effective nor dynamic without strategies such as equity and inclusion, values Professor Rectenwald’s language works against.

Professor Rectenwald’s rhetoric also exhibits several straw man fallacies. He misrepresents the conditions under which he teaches and the campus culture generally, argues against his own misrepresentations and then presumes on the basis of his flawed logic to be right. We’ll address just one of his straw man fallacies here. Professor Rectenwald implies that trigger warnings are soon to be required to appear on all Liberal Studies syllabi. He strongly disagrees with such plans and warns that they will inevitably lead to administrators’ control of faculty syllabi. The problem with Professor Rectenwald’s contention is that Liberal Studies, the program in which Professor Rectenwald teaches, has no proposal for trigger warnings in the works. Liberal Studies faculty governance structures preclude any imposition of policies without strong faculty consent. Furthermore, it was easily established at the first meeting of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group that we — a group of 14 Liberal Studies students, faculty and administrative staff — are not interested in trigger warnings: we are interested in addressing historic, continuing inequities and in helping ensure that Liberal Studies is a community in which no one is marginalized by reason of their identity, whether tacitly assumed by others or actively claimed. We seek to create a dynamic community that values full participation. Such efforts are not the “destruction of academic integrity” Professor Rectenwald suggests, but rather what make possible our program’s approach to global studies — the examination of sites where cultures, politics, economies, histories, ecologies and values converge and sometimes conflict.

A quick glance at Professor Rectenwald’s Twitter page shows not only further flaws in his thinking — circular arguments, appeals to consequences and hasty generalizations — but also statements that are callous at best. One of his tweets goes so far as to casually support students killing themselves in response to Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Another warns of “explosive” proof that faculty colleagues are “frauds” who were hired on the basis of their identities rather than on the basis of their merit. We fully support Professor Rectenwald’s right to speak his mind and we welcome civil discourse on the issues that concern him. But as long as he airs his views with so little appeal to evidence and civility, we must find him guilty of illogic and incivility in a community that predicates its work in great part on rational thought and the civil exchange of ideas. The cause of Professor Rectenwald’s guilt is certainly not, in our view, his identity as a cis, white, straight male. The cause of his guilt is the content and structure of his thinking.

Signed by the following members of the Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group:

Suzanne Maria Menghraj
Clinical Assistant Professor, Liberal Studies
Co-Chair, Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group

Asha Kuziwa
Senior, Global Liberal Studies
Co-Chair, Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group

Sean Eve
Clinical Assistant Professor, Liberal Studies

Felipe Gomes
Sophomore, Global Liberal Studies
Global Liberal Studies Committee Chair, Liberal Studies Student Council

Beth Haymaker
Director of Global Programs, Liberal Studies

Marsha Ho
Senior, Global Liberal Studies
President, Liberal Studies Student Council

Tiger Kneller
Sophomore, Core Program
Vice President, Liberal Studies Student Council

Hannah Pingelton
Student Affairs Administrator, Liberal Studies

Dr. Robert Squillace
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Liberal Studies

Marion Thain
Clinical Assistant Professor, Liberal Studies
Associate Director of Digital Humanities for the Faculty of Arts and Science

Dr. Elayne Tobin
Clinical Assistant Professor, Liberal Studies
Co-chair, Liberal Studies Steering Committee

Jonathon White
Associate Dean of Students, Liberal Studies