campus culture wars

A Communist NYU Professor Says He Was Ousted for Mocking Political Correctness. Was He?

Photo: Jin Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Update: NYU has released emails that support its side of the dispute — see the note at the end of this article.

Over the last few days, anti-political-correctness conservatives have been clanging the alarm bells over what they say is an egregious act of liberal totalitarianism perpetrated by administrators at New York University. “Anti-SJW Professor Forced Out at New York University,” went the Breitbart headline. “NYU professor who blasted PC culture is booted from classroom,” said Fox News. There were similar contributions from Heat Street and a number of the other usual suspects.

The story centers on Michael Rectenwald, a 57-year-old untenured professor of liberal studies at NYU, who was, in fact, recently placed on paid leave for the rest of the semester. That much we know. Beyond that, though, things are fuzzy — lurking below the angry headlines and takes and tweets is a fair bit of ambiguity. What is clear, though, is that this is a rather zany example of the increasingly loud and insufferable campus culture wars playing out around the country.

Let’s start at the beginning. Since early September, Rectenwald has been tweeting from the account @antipcnyuprof, or Deplorable NYU Prof. Initially tweeting pseudonymously, Rectenwald used the account to rail against what he sees as over-the-top illiberal p.c. norms on campus, and he has done so in a rather, well, over-the-top way:

Nailed them. He also engaged in what appeared to be some sort of simulated court proceeding with a possibly imaginary SJW interlocutor:

In addition, Rectenwald promised that those who helped him build up an online following would be rewarded when he cracked open NYU’s seemingly innocuous artsy, druggy shell to reveal the foul viscous yolk of SJW corruption within:

In a moment of less-than-stellar judgment given the widespread perception that NYU has a worse-than-average suicide problem, Rechtenwald even suggested, jokingly, that it would be funny if a Trump victory led to some students killing themselves:

Overall, Rectenwald used his account, in proud social-media fashion, less to make substantive or reasonable, falsifiable arguments about campus activist and p.c. culture and more to do his best impression of a Breitbart commenter. He adopted a worldview in which the modern college campus has descended into a liberal-totalitarian state of nature, in which free speech is under such intense attack that these campuses might as well be controlled by ISIS, in which students don’t learn anything but how to report microaggression incidents to bias response teams composed of androgynous-looking critical-theory “scholars.” Not surprisingly, by doing so, Rectenwald was able to pick up some Twitter followers and likes and retweets from the alt-right and others invested in fighting against p.c. culture online (though his profile never got all that huge — he’s at about 2,800 now). He was their man on the inside.

Rectenwald wasn’t deep undercover or anything. As Inside Higher Ed points out in its helpful write-up, it wouldn’t have been too difficult for a sleuth to make the connection between Deplorable NYU Prof and Rectenwald given that there were overlap tweets between the former and Rectenwald’s primary Twitter account. But Rectenwald, after having kicked up a bit of a fuss with his account and his promises of bombshell disclosures, outed himself anyway, granting an October 24 interview to Diamond Naga Siu of the student paper Washington Square News.

In that interview, Rectenwald echoed many of his claims about the insanity of campus politics and the totalitarianism of the campus left, though here and there he struck a more nuanced chord — he said he understood the need for certain types of safe spaces, for example. He also served up plenty of new material for his growing ranks of critics. “A cis, white, straight male like myself is guilty of something,” he told Siu. “I don’t know what. But I’m fucking sure I’m guilty of it. And I am very low on the ethical totem pole, you know?” Again with the imaginary trials! Overall, Rectenwald said, “Identity politics on campus have made an infirmary of the whole, damn campus. Let’s face it: every room is like a hospital ward. What are we supposed to do?”

There’s also a telling point in the interview that suggests that Rectenwald, who described himself to Siu as a “left communist,” doesn’t entirely know how the internet works or what he has gotten himself into by inserting himself into the hyperkinetic social-media war where much of this “discussion” — if you can call it that — plays out. Asked why he adopted the label “deplorable,” which is what many Trump supporters call themselves online, Rectenwald responded, “I got roped into all this when some Trump supporter retweeted something. I think Twitter is dangerous. That’s why I’m hiding this character in the alt-right, because otherwise, the social justice warriors are going to come onto me like flies, and they can be so extreme.” Makes sense?

A seemingly ironclad law of the current campus culture wars is that for every dumb act of played-out conservative provocation in which an anti-p.c. warrior claims that oversensitive liberals get triggered too easily, there is a response from progressives that … well, basically fits that stereotype. So it was here. Two days after that interview went up, Washington Square News published a letter to the editor written by a dozen “Members of the Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group” at NYU, ranging from NYU undergraduates to administrators to faculty members situated in Rectenwald’s department. Jumping off of Rectenwald’s claim that he feels he is “guilty of something” by virtue of his majority white-dude status, the authors proceeded to say that, no, he isn’t guilty of that, but he is guilty of a series of logical fallacies ranging from ad hominem claims to straw-man logic. Rectenwald, the authors argued, “presumes on the basis of his flawed logic to be right.” It’s a common affliction of wrong people everywhere.

Of course, in the campus culture wars, you can’t just disagree with someone spouting tired anti-p.c. applause lines — you have to also explain that by expressing their wrong opinion, they are hurting vulnerable people. It’s an unfortunately common progressive tic, and it manifested itself in the letter (emphasis mine): “Professor Rectenwald’s rhetoric repeatedly suggests that mental illness invalidates the ideas and feelings of those who live with it. We categorically reject such rhetoric and its stigmatizing effects. We reject, too, Professor Rectenwald’s efforts to gaslight those who would disagree with him and to silence responses to his incendiary rhetoric by dismissing claims before they are reasonably made.”

Gaslighting is a term used to describe when the perpetrator in an abusive relationship tries to convince his or her victim that their complaints are invalid and stem from psychological problems or full-blown insanity rather than legitimate grievances. The authors appear to have been referencing the fact that Rectenwald has called (what he see as) p.c. excess “insane” and so on — a common English usage — and that he has claimed campus oversensitivity is making students psychologically fragile, which is an argument that was presented in essay-length form in The Atlantic (and is one I happen to disagree with, for what it’s worth). By making these arguments publicly, the letter’s logic goes, Rechtenwald could be causing students who disagree with him to question their own sanity in a potentially psychologically devastating way. (If that is true, then maybe there’s something to Rechtenwald’s otherwise hysterical-sounding arguments about student fragility after all.) As for the charge that Rechtenwald is “silenc[ing] responses to his incendiary rhetoric by dismissing claims before they are reasonably made,” it is unclear how acting in a dismissive manner causes anyone to be “silenced,” and the authors of the letter, who by dint of their identity as anti-Rechtenwald letter signatories certainly weren’t silenced, didn’t explain their reasoning. Or maybe their explanation was cut to make room so they could list more of the logical fallacies that Rechtenwald committed.

Speaking of silencing and dismissal and gaslighting: According to Inside Higher Ed, the same day the letter appeared, Rectenwald was called into a “meeting with his dean and a staff member from human relations.” There, Rectenwald told the New York Post, “They claimed they were worried about me and a couple people had expressed concern about my mental health. They suggested my voicing these opinions was a cry for help. Then they said I should leave and get help.” NYU steadfastly denied this to Inside Higher Ed: “We are puzzled by Rectenwald’s statements,” John Beckman, a university spokesperson, said. “[His] leave is voluntary; it was not demanded by the university and is unconnected to his social media postings. He requested the leave, and we look forward to having him back when he is ready.”

Whatever caused Rectenwald’s departure, Beckman’s statement will certainly make it hard for NYU not to allow him to return to campus, if he wishes to do so. But in the meantime, there are so many questions: Will Rectenwald continue to promote his Deplorable NYU Prof online persona? Will far-right Breitbart fans continue to hoist him up as a courageous free-speech crusader despite his communist sympathies? Just how many NYU students will he gaslight, and how many logical fallacies will he commit, between now and when he next steps foot in a classroom and/or imaginary courtroom?

Only time will tell. Daily Intelligencer has reached out to him for comment and will update this post if he responds.

Update, 11/3: NYU has released a three-email correspondence between Rectenwald and Fred Schwarzbach, dean of his department. In the emails, Schwarzbach expresses dismay and confusion at how Rectenwald has portrayed the circumstances of his leave to various media outlets. His first email begins, “I must tell you that I was surprised by public accounts you have given for your leave, in which you have either claimed you were forced to take leave or have left the implication that that was the case.”

Schwarzbach indicates to Rectenwald that Rectenwald was the one who requested leave. If he doesn’t, in fact, want leave, Schwarzbach writes to him, “please indicate so in writing to me immediately and we will make all the necessary arrangements to allow you to resume your classes and other duties immediately.”

Rectenwald’s response contains a sentence that would appear to support the university’s account: “I do intend to remain on leave and need it for the reasons discussed.” He also accuses what appears to be a colleague — the name is redacted by NYU — of having “been busy representing my putative mental health to various forums on Facebook and this is absolutely none of her business and in fact actionable legally. I would advise her to stop.” At the very least, setting aside the other ambiguities here, it appears to be the case that Rectenwald was offered a chance to return to the classroom and turned it down.

Did NYU Oust a Communist Professor for Being Anti-P.C.?