Monica Casper
Dean Monica Casper outside the Arts and Letters Building on the San Diego State University campus. Image from SDSU video

On Dec. 1. Monica Casper, dean of the College of Arts and Letters at San Diego State University, tweeted: “Just so we’re clear on the Right’s agenda — racism good, abortion bad, money good, women bad, capitalism good, sustainability bad, stupidity good, science bad, power good, equality bad, white people good, nonwhite people bad. Stench, indeed.”

And a day later, Casper followed up with this observation about the Supreme Court: “Two sexual predators, a white lady, and some racists walk into a courtroom…” Sure enough, the conservative media picked up the story.

First, on Dec. 21, The College Fix, a right-leaning online news site focusing on higher education, ran a story about how an “SDSU dean publicly criticizes ‘stench’ of conservative agenda.” The next day, Fox News ran a more extensive story on their national site which has garnered, as of this writing, over 8,000 comments. 

While SDSU did not respond to the first story, the university provided this statement to Fox defending Casper:

“It is important to know that faculty speech is protected by both the First Amendment and academic freedom principles, which are advanced by the American Association of University Professors,” the school said in a statement to Fox News. “At SDSU, we encourage all members of our community, including our faculty, to engage in open discourse, as it is our responsibility as a public institution to uphold and protect free speech. We know that open dialogue may introduce conversations about topics that are uncomfortable for some.”

The story has even gone international.

There is much to regret about Casper’s tweets. For someone in her position to bluntly state that everyone who leans “Right” is automatically a racist who thinks that all “nonwhite people” are “bad” is hardly engaging in “open discourse.”

Casper holds considerable power over her faculty’s professional lives. After reading her tweets, how can anyone who even slightly disagrees with her, or holds a more nuanced position on, say, abortion, hope for fair and objective treatment? And while one could easily charge Amy Coney Barrett with religious zealotry, dissing her as a “white lady” is, well, racist. What does her skin color have to do with her legal opinions?

But for those who have been following San Diego State’s recent lurch to the left, what’s most disturbing is the apparent bias of the university jumping to Casper’s defense when it refused to do the same for others.

In 2018, shortly after President Adela de la Torre arrived, someone sought to discredit a conservative economics professor by digging up and publishing satires that this person published when he was an undergraduate over twenty years ago.  Rather than defending this distinguished member of the faculty and denouncing the use of ancient juvenilia to discredit him, the university responded by condemning the professor: “The language and sentiments expressed in these posts are counter to the values of any institution which supports the principles of diversity and inclusion.”

President de la Torre then tweeted her “personal statement” on the matter:

To state the obvious, nobody in the administration called for “open dialogue,” and asked for forbearance for his raising topics that may be “uncomfortable for some.”  Nobody said, this is ridiculous, he wrote these things two decades ago, they have nothing to do with his present work.

Nor is this the only example. In 2020, a University Senate committee entertained a proposal to revoke emeritus status (an honor which grants retired professors the right to use the library and other university resources) if an individual’s conduct “causes harm to the university’s reputation.” Obviously, this was an attempt at disciplining faculty whose speech the powers that be did not like.

After much public scrutiny and articles in the San Diego Union Tribune and Inside Higher Ed, they decided to suspend, but not cancel, the idea. In fact, the Academic Senate for the CSU is now considering a proposal that would allow for revoking emeritus status “in cases of serious misconduct or just cause that contravenes basic university or public policy.”

Does this mean conviction for a violent felony? Or not agreeing with the “basic university” policy of including a “land acknowledgment” (a statement that the land SDSU sits on once belonged to the Kumeyaay people) in one’s syllabus? Even more recently, a single administrator at SDSU mandated that all faculty going up for review, tenure, or promotion must now submit a “diversity statement” describing how they are responsive to diversity in their teaching, research, and service.

In the past, nobody told anybody what to teach or the direction of their research. Now, the University is nudging everyone into ideological conformity. What assistant professor is going to risk their career by not saying what everyone knows is expected of them? Who is going to risk saying that capitalism has its benefits, that for some, abortion is morally problematic, that dividing people by skin color is just not a good idea? Who would be brave or foolish enough to think differently, especially after Casper has made her views entirely clear?

So it’s a bit rich that the university immediately jumps to Casper’s defense on the grounds of free speech and academic freedom. Because increasingly, at SDSU, speech is not free.

Peter C. Herman is professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He has published on Shakespeare, Milton and the literature of terrorism, and has published essays in Salon, Inside Higher Ed, as well as Times of San Diego. His most recent book is “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11” (Routledge, 2020).