The Liberal Lockdown in Academia: the Case of Fawzia Afzal-Khan

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Let’s suppose, following a significant amount of time and effort being expended on preparation for an important project which your employer told you they were overjoyed to see you working on, one day out of the blue, they pulled the rug out from under you and threw it all to the wind with an explanation that flies in the face of how you thought they viewed your professionalism. And what’s more, imagine that it was all because of an employee who was hired by your predecessor, and that your employers were encouraged to get rid of you from your leadership position by an alt-right internet troll with delusions of grandeur about being some sort of journalist.

Franz Kafka would probably be embarrassed to show his face in public had he ever chosen to propose such a crazy situation. And yet that is the rather pathetic state of affairs that has been unjustly dropped into the lap of longtime Counterpuncher and academic Dr. Fawzia Afzal-Khan of Montclair State University in New Jersey. A Pakistani-born Muslim scholar of high standing, she was very suddenly “decreed” to be dismissed from her position as Director of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies by the university’s President, Dr. Susan Cole.

The alleged cause is as bizarre as it is laughable. On July 28, an adjunct in the department named Kevin Allred tweeted “Trump is a f—ing joke. This is all a sham. I wish someone would just shoot him outright.”

Leaving aside the obvious critique one might have of those words, let’s remember first of all that the people in the United States are now witnessing the creation of a future presidential library whose papers will be almost totally composed of Tweets that traffic in the absolute worst kind of conspiracism, bigotry, and general chauvinism that used to define the fringes of the right wing in American politics. And then let’s remember secondly that, regardless of whether one likes the speech, the First Amendment is supposed to protect your right to say it.

Yet very quickly a careerist at The Daily Caller (the blog founded by Tucker Carlson and Neil Patel),  a guy named James Merse, took up Allred’s Tweet as a cause celebré. As such, he wrote a theatrical and hyper-inflated letter to Dr. Cole and multiple deans at MSU, on which he copied Prof Afzal-Khan, that was transparently and obviously loaded with a combination of veiled threats about unleashing his right wing minions on the campus a la the case of Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkley last winter, and faux-outrage. “For cryin’ out loud Dr. Cole…the guy wanted the POTUS dead. You don’t have to love the man, but if our educators are preaching this poison to students, a college degree means NOTHING.” This is of course coming from the same side of the aisle that had no issues with the undeniable poison espoused by the Tea Party and militia movement during the Obama years.

As a result, Allred did not have his adjunct contract renewed, which itself is a chilling moment for those who value academic freedom and the First Amendment. Another adjunct, Elaine Molinaro, has also been informed she will not be teaching this fall.

But the compounding of this issue caused by the dismissal of Dr. Afzal-Khan from her directorship bespeaks something much more dire.

Before moving forward, perhaps it bears merit to recall the right wing thrusts against academia in the past 9 months. In December the website Professor Watchlist, modeled on the David Horowitz modus operandi, went public with a fresh batch of prominent academics it sees as being too left, including multiple scholars of color. Many of us also recall the Tweet of George Ciccariello-Maher, calling for #WhiteGenocide on Christmas, which led to him being reprimanded by Drexel. Next, at Trinity College in Connecticut, Dr. Johnny Eric Williams was first subjected to threats that led to the campus being shut down over his Facebook posts regarding killer cops, and then he was put on leave by the administration, a move condemned by the American Association of University Professors. Deep in the heart of the Lone Star State at the end of July, Dr. Tommy Curry of Texas A&M, whose status as a Black philosopher, itself a rarity for that field, is only matched by the depth of his theorizing– was subjected to a reign of terror that caused him ultimately to relocate from the community near campus due to the alt-right’s spinning a quote of his mined from an old interview on radio about the right of Black folks to self-defense, into a seeming plea to kill Whitey. Quite obviously there is a partisan war being waged against Black/Brown scholars who teach a pedagogy of social justice, thus creating “awoke” student-citizens,  rather than helping corporate administrators of universities produce automatons for the business world.

Dr. Afzal-Khan had not hired Allred and had no connection/awareness of his Twitter or Facebook accounts. She had previously been the Director of the program, and her re-election by her peers and subsequent appointment demonstrated the administration’s faith in her leadership. In a letter to Provost Willard Gingerich, she wrote “From our conversation, I can only surmise (despite your protestations to the contrary)–that the ONLY reason for my dismissal is, that I am being held responsible for the situation which has transpired around the case of Mr Kevin Allred’s offer of employment in the GSWS Program and its subsequent retraction. As you yourself admitted in the conversation, I had nothing to do with any of this (he was hired by my predecessor Prof. Julie Farnum), so it is very curious indeed—as I pointed out to you—that I was informed of my dismissal by my Dean immediately after the Kevin Allred story broke in the media—during a meeting on Thursday Aug 3rd at which [Associate] Provost Ken Sumner was also present, and where I was informed in no uncertain terms by the Dean that following the press coverage of Allred’s firing by the Admin, President Cole had ‘started issuing decrees’ and one of those ‘decrees’ (the Dean’s words)—was that I be made to step down as Director of GSWS.”

So why pick on Dr. Afzal-Khan, you might ask?

There are plenty of ways to think about this but here is one that seems quite obvious. Her scholarship is that of a Muslim feminist whose very existence and demeanor in public flies straight in the face of anti-Muslim prejudices about a faith being repressive towards women. In the realm of geopolitics, it is easier to get Americans to support a war on Iran if they are indoctrinated for years with ideas about how mullahs in Tehran indoctrinate misogyny en masse from the cradle to the grave. Never mind that Saudi Arabia makes Iran look like a bohemian enclave in comparison, or that the right wingers who espouse this “liberation of Muslim women from oppression” are themselves deeply antagonistic to a woman’s autonomy and right to abortion back home in the USA. Such simplistic and Manichean visions of diplomacy make for great fodder on both Fox News and MSNBC. Dr. Afzal-Khan’s nuanced and mature scholastic efforts have the ability to elicit the same fear and loathing within hypocritical liberals seen decades ago when people like Alan Dershowitz would rail against the Oriental menace from the perspective of the enlightened West.

The idea of Trump being a harbinger of something new and far more dangerous holds a good deal of merit, particularly following the murderous rampages in the college town of Charlottesville several weeks ago, which he followed up with the reprehensibly unconstitutional “pardoning” of the racist, anti-immigrant sheriff of Phoenix, Joe Arpaio. Thanks to his pandering to white racists and Islamphobes, the various immigration agencies across America have become emboldened to engage in a greater level of brutality and meanness. The alt-right has metastasized into a frightening and dangerous force. Yet it must be said that these developments enable alleged liberals to also behave awfully towards the Left. What Donald Trump and his government will do in the coming years will merely capitalize on the Obama legacy, be it with regards to whistleblower prosecution, free speech encumbrance, or surveillance. The attacks on Dr. Afzal-Khan come from a historically Democratic state and demonstrate that any successful attack must have bipartisan support.

In such an environment, genuine solidarity is going to be necessary. While there is something to be said for the matter of right wing entry into the anti-imperialism movement (case and point: Caitlin Johnstone and the other weirdos rambling about the Deep State), we need to also recognize that the ranks have recently been filled up by phony baloney liberals who carry on as if they believe in social justice exactly until the chips are down, at which point they waffle precisely when they are needed.  The exhibit presented in a form letter being circulated by Provost Gingerich to those who enquire about Dr. Afzal-Khan’s current plight is precisely what I mean by this (see Appendix).

As we move into the Labor Day weekend, there have been calls from the labor movement to begin to re-assert the meaning of the day by focusing on unions, case and point being the celebration now being planned for Providence. It is in this spirit I would encourage fellow Counterpunchers and readers to stand in solidarity with Dr. Afzal-Khan. An injury to one is an injury to all and we must particularly understand that an intersectional feminist lens demonstrates this is an attack which, if allowed to stand, will allow for future assaults on Muslim women of color who do not have the privileges of tenure at an East Coast liberal arts college.


The following is a response that has been sent to those who enquire about the matter regarding Dr. Afzal-Khan. Included here is here detailed response to the claims made by the Provost, slightly edited for grammatical clarity.

From: Willard P. Gingerich
Sent: Monday, August 28, 2017 9:01 AM
Subject: Re: Dismissal of Fawzia Afzal-Khan

Dear …..:

Thank you for inquiring about Dr. Fawzia Afzal-Khan.  Dr. Afzal-Khan is a respected senior Professor of English at Montclair State University who has received consistent support from the University.  Dr. Afzal-Khan’s accomplishments have been recognized by promotion to full professor, by recognition as a University Distinguished Scholar, by the grant of four sabbaticals, by the provision of financial support to enable her to take the benefit of a Fulbright fellowship, and by the grant of requests for extended leaves of absence from the University.

Dr. Afzal-Khan did serve in the past as the faculty Director of the program that is currently known as the Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Program, but she has not served in that role for the past two years.  She has been on leave, first on a Fulbright to Pakistan and then teaching in an NYU program in Abu Dhabi and she has returned to the University this year.  She wished to take up the Directorship of the Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Program again, but it was my judgment, given her lengthy absence, that it would be preferable for her to devote at least a portion of her time to her primary appointment in the Department of English.  Dr. Afzal-Khan has significant engagements in her creative work that take her away from the University, and adding to that the administrative work of directing a program outside her Department would leave little to no time for any engagement with the English Department.  The University has no wish to inhibit her contributions to the Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Program, and her approved assignment for the fall includes the teaching of two courses in that Program, as well as one course in the English Department, which, in my judgment is a reasonable balance.

Prof. Afzal-Khan had already indicated to me that she expects to request another leave of absence from the University in 2018-19 to return to a position in Abu Dhabi, and that fact further influenced my decision that it would not be preferable to appoint her to serve as Director of the Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Program, which she has been away from for two years, and which she is planning to leave again in one year.

In short, the University has always wished Dr. Afzal-Khan well in her career and has been consistent in its support for her. Although Dr. Afzal-Khan may not be pleased with her academic assignment this year, there is nothing at all unusual about it.  Dr. Afzal-Khan has not been harmed in any way; she is certainly free to continue to support the work of the Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Program.  I hope she will do that, and I also hope she will give some of her considerable energy to furthering the goals of the English Department as well.

Willard Gingerich
Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs
Montclair State University

In response, Dr. Afzal-Khan offers the following detailed rebuttal:

1) I completed two successful consecutive terms as Director of GSWS from 2009-11 and again from 2011-15. As I was wrapping up my second term, I persuaded another faculty member (Prof Julie Farnum of Anthropology)– to take up the reigns of leadership (she was the ONLY one who agreed to run for the position as no one else was willing to do it; such reluctance was unsurprising given the admin lack of support for this small but important gendered social justice program ). My stepping down after completing two consecutive terms was and IS the correct thing to do, allowing and encouraging someone else to assume a leadership position. So its a mark in my favor–not against!– that I have “not served in that position for the past two years” , but which is now being twisted into a reason to question my commitment to the program and hence used as a reason to fire me this time around.

I subsequently went on my hard-earned sabbatical leave from 2015-16 and returned to full time teaching last fall (2016). Then, I was invited for the spring of 2017 to serve as Visiting Professor of the Arts in NYU Abu Dhabi, and was granted leave without pay from MSU for this duration. While there, I was indeed offered a one-year extension, but the Provost of MSU, Dr Gingerich, made it clear he was NOT going to grant me any more leave and told me clearly I needed to return to MSU, which I obviously agreed to do. He also communicated to me that IF I were to apply a year or two later for another leave of absence to return to NYU AD or elsewhere for a visiting professorship, he’d need to revisit such a request at that time (if and when I made it)– and in no way could he predict what the outcome of such a request might be. So the fact that his letter above turns such a possibility into a fait accompli is a disingenuous move on his part at best. And in any case, such a scenario (which may or may not come to pass in the future), has no bearing on my ability and commitment to lead the Program at MSU, a job I was elected to do back in April by the GSWS faculty, at the university where I am tenured as a Full Professor, and where I am returning this fall.

2) While I was wrapping up my term abroad and getting ready to return stateside, on a separate, unrelated front, Prof Farnum, who was reaching the end of year #2 of her first 3-year elected term as Director of GSWS, announced she was stepping down from the directorship of the GSWS program. Even though I was still overseas, I was in constant touch with some of the other key faculty of the Program, and we scrambled to find another suitable candidate for the office. We were able to persuade one such person to step up and run for the position which she did, and was subsequently elected. However, even before all of us could congratulate her, she wrote to inform us she was stepping down! Why? She’d asked for several reasonable resources to be assigned to the Program to help her run it (the Program has been in a constant state of attrition in term of resource cuts ever since I took over, despite which I had run it with great success, more than doubling enrollments, but knowing first hand how challenging the job of Director had become). Just as my past requests for adequate help had been consistently turned down over the six years I ran it, so too this newly-elected Director’s requests were rebuffed. She decided that she could not take on the job. All this was communicated to me by her Department chair. At this point, the GSWS program was obviously in crisis, and someone had to step up to lead it. I wrote to my Dean to ask if he had anyone in mind who might be willing to take on the position and barring that, if he needed me to serve again.  He emailed me back that he’d work with whoever was elected and that the Program was indeed in need of strong leadership. It was when no one else could be persuaded to lead the program that I agreed to run for the position again and was thus re-elected for a third, non-consecutive term, at the end of April 2017. Having spent 6 years prior, to developing the Program and leading it into new and important directions and recruiting and mentoring some amazing activist students who are smart, committed social justice warriors, I was and remain, obviously very committed to the Program and what it represents (especially in these difficult times), and thus was not willing to see it be whittled away by administrative negligence and lack of support.

3) Upon returning to the US in May, I immediately set up meetings with my Dean as well as the Provost, to start lobbying for an increase in desperately-needed resources. I was told politely by both that they were glad I was back at the helm, but that i’d have to make do with whatever few resources were there, since budgets had already been allocated. Despite my pleading and providing evidence of (yet again) the successful growth of the Program that was now facing problems due to increasing cutbacks, they told me they would reconsider my ongoing requests for a full time Instructional Specialist line next year. Since I’d left the post of director, they’d also taken away our part-time (20 hour a week) Program Assistant and I was now told I could try to “share” the Sociology Department secretary as they were not going to restore even the part time help we used to have.

4) Being who I am, I put my nose to the grindstone, and started working with the Sociology secretary and the web-page design person and the Freshmen orientation program folks to do what needed to be done over the summer months to get the Program ready for the new [Academic Year] starting September. I showed up at summer meetings and open-houses, including meetings called by the Dean’s office, in my capacity as newly-elected Director of the GSWS Program. I did all this work without any summer pay, as, in the eyes of the Admin,  a Director’s position merits no recompense over the summer (unlike summer chairs of departments). Somehow, Programs like ours are just supposed to magically run on their own without any support. I answered student queries over the summer, I set up meetings with several of them, and with new adjuncts hired by my predecessor (which included Kevin Allred and Elaine Molinaro, both of whom have been fired since Allred posted that inappropriate tweet and the full force of right wing media furor broke on MSU’s head).

5) During all these intervening months since my election back in April of 2017, the Provost did not once think to inform me that he didn’t wish me to continue as Director. Further, his assertion that I am now needed to teach in my home Department (English)–makes no sense since I DO and have always taught in it, even when I have served as Director of GSWS in the past. Indeed, my time has always been and is, split equally between teaching for GSWS and for English and of course, several of my English Department courses are cross-listed with GSWS. So i’ve NO idea what he is talking about there. Being a director does not absolve me from teaching; instead of teaching 3 courses a term, I have taught 2 courses a term during my tenure as Director of GSWS. I’ve split my teaching responsibilities between English and GSWS evenly for a very long time (predating my directorship),  and I have continued to serve on committees in my home Department, including, most recently the Visiting Writers Committee as well as our English Council that serves as an Advisory committee for the Department Chair. I love teaching, am a popular instructor, and encourage my students to ask difficult questions, to lobby for their rights and to try and change what is unjust. So none of my duties and commitments have been neglected in any way, shape or form, ever, as the Provost’s letter seems to impute. And what does he mean when he says my “creative work” takes me “away” from the university? I cant “go away” anywhere (except for approved academic conferences), when I’m contracted to teaching and working for the university during the [Academic Year]?!

The really important questions to ask are:

1) Why did the Provost and my dean–under directive from the President-decide to ask me to step down right after the Allred affair broke and just a few weeks prior to the Fall term starting?

2) If they had decided back in spring that I wasn’t to be Director (despite being elected as such)–why did they wait till the Allred affair broke in the media, to inform me I was being “dismissed.”? Why was I “led on” (words the Provost actually used in a conversation with me, referring to his own actions)–all these many months in the belief that I was the Director going forward into the 2017-18 [Academic Year]???

3) Why,  if I was not to be Director this [Academic Year], had the Provost and Dean both let me work with the Dean’s office staff all summer long (pro bono)-/ doing all the things I did as incoming director? (When I pointed this out to them repeatedly, they then informed me they would give me a one time only $5,000 payment for my efforts–which I’ve yet to receive, BTW).

4) If the Provost in his concern for my scholarly and creative future (which he sees as at odds with my responsibilities as Director, though he never expressed such reservations for the 6 years I ran the program before) –had decided I was not to be Director going forward –why had I been scheduled to teach two courses for the fall (instead of the usual three), right up until last week, then,  only after my recent dismissal, my English Department. chair told to assign me a third course at the last minute? This last minute change should make clear that my dismissal had nothing to do with any prior “concerns”  the Provost might have had about my ability to do a good job, or his desire that I “return to the English Department”–nor is this dismissal connected to his worry that at some future moment I might spend a term or a year elsewhere, since my teaching schedule had been planned since this past spring when I was elected as Director, to accommodate this job and its duties going forward.

5) Why did the Provost have a meeting with me in May to discuss with me, in an hour-long meeting,  my program  goals and needs as incoming director if he had decided to not allow me back into the position? And why did my Dean ask me to his office to tell me, right after the Allred incident happened at the end of July, that I had “done nothing wrong” but that the President had “decreed” my dismissal nonetheless? It is patently clear here that the Provost (and Dean) are creating a backstory where none exists.

The letter sent by the Provost is full of a lot of spin that simply does not hold up to scrutiny. Given the sequence of events, it appears incontrovertible that my dismissal is tied to the right-wing backlash against progressive academics of color on US campuses, as well as against Muslims across the country, which at MSU, is connected to the Allred incident that ended up scapegoating me since I was listed as Director of the Program in which he’d been hired though everyone knew I had not been responsible for the hire. I was, however, a Muslim woman of color with well-known progressive views and publications criticizing right wing reactionaries cited as backers and role models by Merse in his Islamophobic articles in the Daily Caller.

In short: I am fighting on principle here, in the spirit of resistance and in the hope that what the university administration is doing to me, in line with what regressive forces on the march in this country want, will not be repeated or visited on others. Being reinstated as Director of the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program at Montclair State University, is about righting a wrong, about not caving in to these racist, reactionary, xenophobic forces. It is most definitely, not an end in itself.


Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.