In life, timing is everything.
Steven Salaita's timing stinks. Saida Grundy's is impeccable.
Who is Saida Grundy? She's the Steven Salaita of Boston University, a black woman and incoming faculty member who roiled the Boston area with a series of tweets in which she discussed how much she dislikes white people, particularly a subset of white people.
"Why is white america so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?" Grundy tweeted earlier this year.
In February, she tweeted about the week that begins with Martin Luther King Day, "Every week I commit myself to not spending a dime in white-owned businesses. And every year (I) find it nearly impossible."
Despite the incendiary nature of her comments, Grundy, who received her doctorate in 2014 from the University of Michigan, will join the BU faculty on July 1 and teach sociology and black studies. Meanwhile, Salaita is trying to sue his way on to the UI faculty.
What's the difference between the two?
Salaita's incendiary tweets became public before he was officially hired by the UI while Grundy's became news after the fact.
Colin Riley, a BU spokesman, said Grundy was "hired in March," a decision that called for her to begin work this summer.
The Grundy controversy at BU mirrors, to some extent, what happened at the UI after Salatia's tweets sparked controversy here last summer.
The former Virginia Tech English professor was scheduled to join the UI's American Indian Studies faculty in fall 2014. But his obscenity-laden tweets attacking Israel and anyone who supports Israel became public before his contract was, as required, formally approved by UI trustees. Chancellor Phyllis Wise subsequently withdrew the job offer, a move that prompted criticism from Salaita supporters on campus.
At first, however, the UI rushed to Salaita's defense, campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler characterizing his tweets as free speech respected by the UI. That position, however, did not last long.
Wise, after consulting with UI President Robert Easter and trustees, withdrew Salaita's contract offer because she said his public comments were beneath what the UI expects from its faculty members.
BU also initially rushed to Grundy's defense on free speech grounds. However, the university also changed its tune after public reaction proved negative. BU first stated it didn't approve of racially provocative comments. That was followed up by a timid letter of reproach released under the name of BU President Robert Brown.
In his letter, Brown said BU "does not condone racism or bigotry in any form" and is "disappointed and concerned" by racial, sexual or ethic stereotypes.
"I believe Dr. Grundy's remarks fit this characterization," Brown wrote.
Grundy responded with a statement characterized by some as an apology for her strong views about whites.
"I regret that my personal passion about issues surrounding these events led me to speak about them indelicately. I deprived them of the nuance and complexity that such subjects always deserve," Grundy stated.
As a member of the BU faculty, Grundy would be harder to depose than a prospective UI faculty member like Salaita.
But UI Professor Michael LeRoy said his research shows that professors who rely on free speech or academic freedom protections to insulate themselves from the consequences of ill-conceived statements or actions can be mistaken.
"There is a growing disconnect between academe and courts. Many professors view academic speech as an unbounded concept. Courts, more often than not, uphold institutional sanctions against faculty members whose speech creates harm for a campus. Courts tend to believe that the employment relationship creates certain limits on faculty speech," said LeRoy, who teaches in the College of Law and the School of Labor and Employment Relations.
LeRoy said he has found "209 lawsuits by faculty members alleging that universities or colleges violated their First Amendment rights" and that "schools won 73 percent of their cases."
LeRoy said his review found that schools have been held free to open "parallel course sections for students who were offended" by a professor's speech, to reassign duties to a teacher involved in a speech controversy and to direct a teacher to refrain from certain conduct in the classroom.
In a case resembling the facts in the Salaita controversy, a Maryland court held that Johns Hopkins University lawfully withdrew offers to two professors for its medical school.
LeRoy said the two "made comments and took actions that were so internally divisive" that JHU withdrew its offers.
"It goes to the point ... that university boards are the final authorities to approve academic hiring. A Maryland appeals court ruled that no university officer (e.g., department chair or dean who extends the offer) can bind the school to a promise that usurps the board's ultimate role," he said.