Karega Fired After Split Faculty Recommendations

Oliver Bok, Editor in Chief

The Board of Trustees fired former Rhetoric and Composition Professor Joy Karega Tuesday after nine months of bitter argument and national media attention.

Karega’s Facebook posts, which were the crux of the conflict, included claims that Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies fund the Islamic State and that Israel orchestrated the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris last year. Karega also shared an image of a member of the Rothschild family, which is Jewish, that said the family owns the media, government and oil.

According to an email sent to the College community Tuesday, the board voted to fire Karega for “failing to meet the academic standards that Oberlin requires of its faculty and failing to demonstrate intellectual honesty.”

In the email, the board referred to the Statement of Professional Ethics of the American Association of University Professors in its decision.

“[The statement] requires faculty members to ‘accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending and transmitting knowledge’ and to ‘practice intellectual honesty,’” the email from the Board reads. “Contrary to this obligation, Dr. Karega attacked her colleagues when they challenged inconsistencies in her description of the connection between her postings and her scholarship. She disclaimed all responsibility for her misconduct. And she continues to blame Oberlin and its faculty committees for undertaking a shared governance review process.”

According to the board, the majority of the General Faculty Council decided that Karega’s posts “could not be justified as part of her scholarship and had ‘irreparably impaired [her] ability to perform her duties as a scholar, a teacher, and a member of the community.’”

Karega said that the announcement of her dismissal came as no surprise and that board members and faculty “prejudged” her before the review process even began.

“The intention on day one was my dismissal,” Karega said. “I’ve been very cognizant of that. There are people within the community and outside the community who, for them, that was the goal.”

In light of what she views as the College’s “discriminatory and biased approach,” Karega said she intends to file a suit against the College and a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Board.

The Professional Conduct Review Committee — a permanent faculty committee that deals with faculty governance cases — recommended a reprimand in June, not suspension or a dismissal, according to Karega. This statement was confirmed by an excerpt from the PCRC report obtained by the Review.

“It’s a situation where if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” Karega said. “You didn’t get what you wanted from the actual people who conducted the hearing, so let’s take it to the General Faculty Council who, of course, signed the letter and had already judged me and said, ‘Get rid of her’.”

Karega also claimed that a majority of GFC did not vote for her dismissal. An excerpt from the GFC report obtained by the Review and verified by someone with access to the report showed that three out of six members of the committee recommended Karega’s dismissal, one recommended a suspension and two recommended a reprimand.

The GFC recommendations went to President Krislov, who in turn made a recommendation to the board.

Karega also objected to the fact that the board’s decision was partially based on the fact that she had “attacked her colleagues.”

“The level of collegiality went out the window when it came to me,” Karega said. “I was put on trial outside of the formal governance process.”

To Karega, the College has treated her differently than other professors accused of bias because she is a Black woman.

“My problem is that from the beginning of the controversy to the end there have been different standards and different processes applied to me,” Karega said. “I’ve been discriminated against. You can see a clear pattern as to why those differences have happened, and those differences are very much so related to gender, race, religion and politics.”

However, Politics and East Asian Studies Professor Marc Blecher rejected any suggestion of bias in the governance process as baseless.

“There’s no evidence whatsoever that my faculty colleagues, the administration or the board deployed any double standard, especially one based on race or gender,” Blecher wrote in an email to the Review. “The faculty chose those who served on the committees that deliberated on Professor Karega’s case because we know them to be extremely judicious and to have high levels of probity. They are also people who understand racism in all its forms, including its implicit operations, and who are on guard against it in themselves and others.”

To Melissa Landa, president of the Oberlin chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness, the Board made the correct decision after careful consideration.

“Nine months ago, Professor Karega’s anti-Semitic postings on social media resulted in national and international outrage,” Landa wrote in an email to the Review. “This was an internal matter and we believe it was handled fairly. Oberlin College is making it clear that bigotry of any kind has no place on its campus.”

Emeritus German Professor Sidney Rosenfeld, who wrote a letter to the editor criticizing the College’s failure to fire Karega last spring, also praised the decision.

“In voting decisively to dismiss Dr. Karega, the trustees helped restore the probity, intellectual values and dignity of Oberlin College,” Rosenfeld wrote in an email to the Review.

However, some faculty members have expressed concern that the board incorrectly influenced the governance process.

“It sounded to me like the faculty committee was charged with dismissing Professor Karega, and that’s what happened,” English and Africana Studies Professor Gillian Johns said. “But for me, that’s not faculty governance in spirit. That’s the Board of Trustees requiring a certain outcome that the board made sure happen.”

The board’s use of the AAUP standards to justify its decision attracted criticism from John K. Wilson, a co-editor of the AAUP’s Academe blog and a researcher on academic freedom.

“[The document is] an ideal for faculty, not a disciplinary rule for which anyone can be fired if they are deemed to make a lapse of self-discipline,” Wilson was quoted saying in Inside Higher Ed.

To Student Senator and Rhetoric and Composition minor Kameron Dunbar, in the interest of fairness, the College will have to form clear policies about social media postings.

“I think we’re going to have to evaluate what those standards are and how are they fairly, judiciously applied to everyone,” he said.

Dunbar took a class with Karega and said she never used anti-Semitic language in his experiences with her.

The faculty members on GFC for this case were Music Theory Professor Brian Alegant, English Professor Jennifer Bryan, East Asian Studies and History Professor Suzanne Gay, Religion Professor A.G. Miller, Politics Professor Chris Howell and Musicology Professor Steven Plank.

The faculty members on the PCRC for this case were Chemistry Professor Catherine Oertel, Chemistry Professor Manish Mehta, Music Theory Professor Arnie Cox, Geology Professor Karla Hubbard and Music Theory Professor Rebecca Leydon.

Both President Marvin Krislov and General Counsel Sandhya Subramanian, on behalf of the board, declined to comment for this article.