Skidmore College professor David Peterson watched at the start of the school year as one-by-one students dropped his courses. One class section zeroed out entirely.
In a typical year, the metal-working professor might have 45 students across multiple sections, he said in a recent interview; with COVID-19 restrictions in place this year, he expected to teach about 30 students total.
But as the first day neared, a group of student activists targeted Peterson, calling for his ouster and organizing a boycott of his class, alleging a history of “harmful and exclusionary behavior” and pointing to his presence at a “Back-the-Blue” rally in Saratoga Springs.
“It happened within about a 48-hour period as soon as the whole social media campaign kicked off,” Peterson said of students dropping his class. His roster is down to eight permanent students this semester, he said.
On the other side of that social media campaign, student activists called for Peterson’s removal — as well as his wife’s removal, though she hasn’t worked at Skidmore for two years — as part of a broader effort to rouse the Skidmore College community into a broader reckoning over the on campus experiences of students from marginalized communities.
The student activists — working through Pass the Mic, a student organization that runs a campus radio show and serves as a platform for activism — rallied students on campus the first day back to class and outlined a list of nearly 20 policy demands, including a “zero tolerance policy for racism,” “mandatory anti-racist training for all,” disclosure of the college’s donations and investments and an acknowledgment that Skidmore is built on stolen Indigenous lands, finishing their protest at the college president’s home. One of the demands included the call for removing Peterson. The students also organized the boycott and bombarded school administrators with a form letter accusing Peterson of creating “a studio space that is not inclusive through his consistent mistreatment and disregard for non-cis white male students.” Among the form letters sent to college officials, Peterson said, were a smaller number of more specific allegations; college officials investigated those allegations but ultimately found he had not violated any college policy, Peterson said.
The story flared across media — including in conservative outlets that seized on what they pointed to as the latest example of so-called “cancel culture” run amok on liberal college campuses — an encapsulation of the complexities of campus politics, where students emboldened by a national racial justice movement press tactical maneuvers seen by many as at odds with core principles of academic freedom.
“Philosophically, I cannot stress this enough, if individuals decide to organize for the removal of a particular faculty member because of a perceived or real connection to what might be seen as adversarial viewpoints… then two years from now, I might be next,” said Winston Grady-Willis, a professor and director of Skidmore’s Black Studies program. Grady-Willis said the same core values that protect Peterson’s right to attend — or even speak at — a Back-the-Blue rally empower the student activists to issue their list of demands.
“A culture of academic freedom not only protects professors like David Peterson, it also makes room for students activists to make the demands they make,” he said. “Academic freedom is the broad umbrella that allows all of us to take positions, engage in political activity.”
In the weeks since the late-July Back-the-Blue rally — where racial justice activists were forcibly removed from city streets by police, further exacerbating tensions surrounding the event — Peterson has said he and his wife attended the event in a spirit of civic curiosity and only for about 20 minutes, hours before the confrontation between police and protesters.
He said the boycott against his class and demands for his firing have caused strain in his life and sapped much of his passion for the classes he has long taught. He said none of the students involved in the protests against him had reached out directly — until someone writing an editorial for the student paper did — and he questioned whether the students had reflected on how they’ve impacted his life.
“I am concerned, I’m mostly disappointed that this is the way in which people voice displeasure, surprise, whatever it might be,” Peterson said. “All of this was not in response to a stand I took.”
But the student activists, who on social media have said they’ve faced online harassment in recent weeks, in a statement to the Daily Gazette on Thursday continued to assert Peterson has been abusive toward students and said they “are not surprised that our actions are being completely misrepresented” in the media and the broader Saratoga community.
“This was never about ‘Back the Blue.’ This was about students coming forward having experienced years of abuse from (Peterson) in the classroom,” Pass the Mic students said in the statement. “His presence at the protest sparked fresh conversation among students regarding years of mistreatment and discrimination that he put students through.”
The students, though, also sought to refocus the conversation onto their other demands, and the work they argue is essential to making Skidmore a positive place for all students, highlighting social media channels where they post public statements, fundraising campaigns and the in-depth discussions that are part of the radio show.
“We encourage all who wish to form opinions about us, to actually engage with our content on a deeper level, before coming to conclusions about our actions,” the students wrote in the statement. “Our platform is, at its core, about uplifting BIPOC students and other marginalized folks. Across the country, there are Black people dying, women in detainment camps being force-sterilized, students feeling unsafe in Saratoga — which has happened for years prior to this moment — and so many other things that need our attention.”
‘Nothing to hide’
Peterson denied any bias in his classroom — a Skidmore art studio he has worked in for over 30 years.
“None, whatsoever,” he said when asked if he had ever received complaints from students that he was biased or treated some students differently than others.
“There’s never been any question raised, I’ve never had a single student say to me they felt they were treated unfairly because of race or gender or sexual identity,” he said. “Any suggestion there was some history of a hostile environment in my studio, that came after the social media campaign was instigated.”
Peterson said he participated in Skidmore’s investigative process — which he said centered on the handful of non-form complaints lodged against him in recent weeks — but that he worried insufficient protections exist for faculty who might be targeted by student campaigns in the future or that younger, non-tenured faculty might preemptively demur from potentially controversial positions.
“I have nothing to hide, which is why I didn’t fight and challenge the college’s decision to undertake this process, I didn’t feel I had anything to hide from,” Peterson said.
Peterson said students over the years have complained that his course is difficult, and he explained that his approach to metal working does not focus on art as a form of personal expression or feelings but rather as a source of traditional practices and approaches that can be put to an aesthetic use.
“I often receive critical assessments from students, generally speaking of the same sort, that my class is quite difficult. It’s a challenging course to be in and some students, I think, wish I had made the class a more affirmative experience for them,” he said. “My interests are very intrinsic in the material of metal and what you do with it, much of it is engineering… If what you want to do is explore something about feelings or a particular social cause, you will have to find a way to bring that in through my course expectations.”
An ‘absolute’ right
In a response to questions, Skidmore College officials — who earlier this semester announced a new racial justice initiative — would not comment on the specifics of Peterson’s case. However, officials did highlight an August statement from new President Marc Conner asserting his “unequivocal support” for the first amendment rights of all Skidmore students and staff.
“The right to assemble and the right to freedom of expression is absolute at Skidmore,” the college said in the statement.
Robert Boyers, a literature professor at Skidmore whose 2019 book “The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies” explored similar conflicts arising on campuses across the country, said he thought the student activists went too far in personalizing their efforts against Peterson.
“There is the human damage which is done to a person who feels that he is being unjustly accused and condemned without a real hearing by a mob of people in this case not well informed about what actually occurred,” Boyers said.
Boyers said he feared the student activists’ tactics could “create a climate in which many professors are afraid of saying the wrong thing, being seen in the wrong place, being associated with the wrong group.”
“The notion that Peterson should be abused, attacked, assaulted and have students warned away from his classes, that’s just dreadful and it really does suggest there are people in the community who really don’t understand the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly,” Boyers said. “It’s perfectly legitimate for students to argue against a Back-the-Blue rally because of what it signifies, but to attempt to ex-communicate someone who joins such a rally is a different thing all together.”
“I think that’s a very bad lesson for students to have,” Boyers said.
Grady-Willis, the Black Studies professor, said a national “racial reckoning on the one hand and the inter-related reality of COVID-19 on the other” had “catapulted and catalyzed students to where they feel they are left with no choice but to speak truth to power.”
Grady-Willis said he has taught some of the student activists in his class, and he lauded their efforts; he offered his support for many of the students’ policy proposals and said they should be part of a bigger discussion on campus.
“These folks have brilliant minds, and I appreciate on principle their effort to speak truth to power, I think it’s very, very important,” he said.
He said colleges across the country undoubtedly struggle with issues of racism and need to do a better job representing and teaching all students. Some academics, he said, remain obstinate on the topic.
“There has been this focus on trying to finally have a conversation, a dialogue about what takes place in the classroom and the extent to which faculty are accountable for how they deal with issues of race, racism, how they interact with students of marginalized groups in the classroom,” Grady-Willis said. “When you have individuals in the face of the reality of these problems who will either say the problems don’t exist at all or trivialize them out of hand, that is when we have a fundamental problem.”
He pointed out that Black Studies did not become a formal program of study at Skidmore until last year.
“Black Studies has been around as a field for over a half century,” he said. “That speaks to a larger culture… in terms of the curriculum.”
Grady-Willis — who emphasized the importance of allowing students and faculty to participate in political activity — said he thinks the ouster call was also a strategic mistake, because it distracted from the activists’ core message.
“I believe it’s a mistake to attempt to remove individual faculty members,” he said. “The focus becomes individual faculty members persecuted by students instead of the larger discussion about the need to address the institutional racism.”