Washington Square News’ Q&A with self-declared deplorable NYU professor Michael Rectenwald was met with immediate backlash from the university community. A week later, the New York Post broke the news that the school had placed Rectenwald on paid administrative leave under the auspices of protecting him from further retaliation. Even though the Q&A itself contained relatively mild statements, the fact that he identified himself as the author of @antipcnyuprof’s inflammatory tweets led the university to take action. His displacement has again launched questions of academic censorship and intellectual freedom at universities. Why Rectenwald chose to go public is unknown, but it is clear that this incident underscores the complexity of these discussions.
College campuses have traditionally been associated with the free expression of ideas, and NYU should not be an exception. That said, several of Rectenwald’s tweets cross the line from provocative to malicious. Because he’s representing himself as an NYU professor, his online presence carries over to the classroom. It’s okay to be controversial — no one should be forced to be a beacon of civility online — but someone in his position ought to be aware of his influence. Even so, Rectenwald’s arguments were inconsistent with the actual policies of Liberal Studies, as pointed out in a Letter to the Editor written by a number of his colleagues.
Rectenwald’s conduct was inappropriate, but the school’s rash decision to put him on ice has potentially far-reaching consequences. When professors are forced on paid leave by the administration for voicing what may be contentious views, the impact on students can be severe. Aside from the purely academic consequences — Rectenwald’s students having to adjust to a new professor halfway through their semester — taking such an action alienates students who chose to attend NYU for its diversity of beliefs. NYU should not be setting a precedent of silencing dissenting voices based solely on the contents of their opinions.
The fallout from the Rectenwald situation — and the subsequent news attention — has only further complicated the already convoluted discussion occurring on campus about the status of free speech in a university system. However, this is not to say that all — or even most — of Rectenwald’s actions are defensible. His Twitter account includes tweets that espouse beliefs that are both unacceptable and unforgivable. Nonetheless, this specific incident in no way invalidates the ongoing discussion regarding censorship at NYU. The university has already fallen dangerously close to infringing upon the right to free speech — the canceled Yiannopoulos and Watson talks come to mind. Obviously, we do not need inflammatory figures like Rectenwald to stir up drama, per se, but our university thrives on the exchange of diverse viewpoints. The Rectenwald decision could set an unfortunate precedent for other professors who do not agree with the status quo. Even if these faculty members do not do anything as dramatic as Rectenwald, they may still be silenced, and that is the antithesis of everything the NYU community strives to be.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, October 31st print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]