Students question administration's response to professor's Facebook post

Connecticut College professor David Kim, right, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Religious Studies Department Chair, Associate Professor in American Studies, hugs a student at an open forum concerning a professor's Facebook posting which was regarded as anti-Palestinian, Wednesday, March 25, 2015. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Connecticut College professor David Kim, right, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Religious Studies Department Chair, Associate Professor in American Studies, hugs a student at an open forum concerning a professor's Facebook posting which was regarded as anti-Palestinian, Wednesday, March 25, 2015. (Tim Martin/The Day)

New London — Everything came to a halt on the Connecticut College campus Wednesday afternoon as President Katherine Bergeron canceled all other events and called for a campus-wide forum to address a tenured professor’s Facebook post comparing Gazan Palestinians to “a rabid pit bull chained in a cage, regularly making mass efforts to escape.”

"Gaza is in the cage because of its repeated efforts to destroy Israel and Jews," Andrew Pessin, a professor in the college's philosophy department, published to his personal Facebook page in August. Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version of the first sentence. "The blockade is not the cause of the current conflict. It is the result of the conflict and cannot retroactively become its cause ... Anyone who fails to recognize that clear and obvious fact is demanding the release of a rabid pit bull."

The Facebook post ignited discussions among students and faculty about intolerance, institutional racism and free speech. Hundreds of students, alumni and faculty members filled the college's Palmer Auditorium on Wednesday as Bergeron sought to bring the college community together.

"I was taken aback as much by its central image as by its vehemence," Bergeron said of the Facebook post. "At the very least, the intervention seemed to show poor judgment. It was not in keeping with the level of discourse I have come to expect from the Connecticut College community and, in particular, from its faculty."

Bergeron did not denounce Pessin or the contents of his Facebook post, but offered an impassioned defense of the First Amendment.

"Freedom of speech is absolutely essential to the integrity of a college like ours that operates according to fiercely held values of academic freedom and shared governance," Bergeron said. "No institution should abridge the right of students, faculty and staff to express their views freely and openly."

She also defended students who spoke out against Pessin's comments and commended them for their courage.

"Just as everyone has a right to speak, everyone has the right to speak against; to confront speech that they consider destructive or inappropriate," she said.

Bergeron announced that she has ordered a review of the college's social media policies and an update of the college's protocol for handling bias incidents. She also announced that she will appoint an interim Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion, an administration position for which the college is currently conducting a personnel search.

Pessin's Facebook post, which was published at a time of renewed violent conflict between Israel and Palestine, apparently went unnoticed until February, when a student emailed Pessin to tell him she was offended by its contents. Pessin said he apologized to the student and deleted the post that day.

Pessin has taught at Connecticut College since 2005, and his specializations include philosophy of religion, metaphysics and philosophy of mind, according to his biography on the college website. Pessin is a fully tenured professor with the college and is currently out on leave, Director of Public Relations Deborah MacDonnell said.

Pessin was not immediately available to speak with The Day on Wednesday.

For many students on campus, Pessin's post and the subsequent fallout sparked a broader conversation about free speech, racism on campus and how the college administration handled the situation.

The outrage over Pessin's post and the administration's response grew on campus, even while many students left for a two-week spring break, as students and alumni wrote letters to the editor published by the student-run College Voice earlier this month.

An online petition started last week by the editor in chief of the College Voice calling for a public statement from the college administration declaring that it does not condone Pessin's "racism and dehumanization" had garnered 360 signatures by Wednesday evening.

Pessin, too, wrote a letter to the editor in which he apologizes for his post and his previous "defensive" apologies.

"I am truly sorry for the hurt and offense that I have caused via my Facebook post of last summer, to individuals on this campus and now beyond," he wrote in the College Voice on March 8. "I see now — particularly after a moving conversation with a group of bright, brave, and sincerely wounded Conn students — just how damaging and hurtful the language of that post was."

Most of the more than 40 students who spoke at Wednesday's forum were critical of Bergeron and the college administration's handling of students' concerns.

After Bergeron's 12-minute speech, in which she did not once refer directly to Pessin, Conn College alumna Liza Talusan facilitated a discussion by prompting the audience to consider what "inclusive excellence" means and what it looks like on the Conn campus.

"I am profoundly disappointed in this event so far," senior Michael Fratt said, drawing applause and loud cheers from the crowd. "This is supposed to be an opportunity for everyone here to heal. But how can we heal if the object of our anger has not even been acknowledged in the slightest? ... As a group of students, we feel betrayed by the administration, we feel coerced and used at times, and, plain and simple, we can't heal, we won't heal from this."

After almost two hours of student and faculty comments and a direct challenge from a student, Bergeron rose again to address the campus.

"I stand in solidarity with you. It is very important for us to hear the things you're saying collectively so we do know how to move forward. It is a structural problem," she said. "I feel like this kind of forum is the starting point of the change that we will have at Connecticut College, and it is change that will happen because of all of you."

c.young@theday.com

Twitter: @ColinAYoung

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