‘What was my passion is, for now at any rate, just an income source’
David Peterson, an art professor at Skidmore College, found himself the target of false accusations of racism, sexism and transphobia.
His crime? He and his wife briefly observed a pro-police rally in July. His appearance there, caught on film by counter-protesters, led to a factually devoid op-ed in the student paper and an investigation by the private college in New York.
The activists targeted Peterson’s wife and a music lecturer, too. The Skidmore News op-ed, for example, said the Petersons were present while students were tear-gassed (actually shot at with pepper bullets) by police, when they were not present (they had left before this occurred).
Peterson said he felt abandoned by his own university.
Today, he still faces an angry contingent of student activists who have successfully led a boycott of his fall classes, prompting enrollment to plummet in them. His critics have also turned him into a campus pariah and effectively taken away his zest for teaching.
He said in a recent essay in Persuasion:
Despite receiving a few personal expressions of support from Skidmore officials, Andrea and I felt wholly abandoned by the college and extremely anxious about our future. It was clear that the college would not fire me, but it was equally clear that my reputation was taking a pounding, and that the program I had worked so hard to build over the past 31 years was in jeopardy.
Unfortunately, a targeting by the cancel culture mob is an all too common problem.
What my detractors failed to achieve through the administrative inquest, they partly accomplished through a boycott. My once robust enrollments fell to distressingly low numbers during the first few days, with one of the classes bottoming out at zero.
Activists posted a handbill on the door of my studio classroom: “STOP: By entering this class you are crossing a campus-wide picket line and breaking the boycott against Professor David Peterson. David Peterson is notorious for the blatant sexism he treats his female students with, his outwardly transphobic treatment of trans students, and his general disregard for all students who are not white cis men…This is not a safe environment for marginalized students. By continuing to take this course you are enabling bigotted [sic] behavior on this campus.”
Leaving nothing to chance, a small contingent of student activists picketed my studio on the first day of classes, confronting the few remaining students with the fliers that denounced me as sexist and transphobic (this last claim having replaced “racist” for some reason). Peer pressure has always been a sharp tool of coercion, so I won’t fault those who opted out of my classes; I hope they wish to return in future. What I cannot guarantee is how much enthusiasm I will have when the future arrives. What was my passion is, for now at any rate, just an income source.
The art professor warned of the consequences of what happened to him. It’s led to a hesitancy to address sensitive subjects over fear of reprisal.
Even when discussing topics as seemingly apolitical as aesthetics, I tread carefully, lest I raise an issue that is disquieting to someone or is perceived to be advocating masculine or western values. Inadvertent use of the wrong pronoun can land you in hot water. Every conversation is now fraught, and the language of the “woke” is an ever-moving minefield.
The students in my classes once benefited from robust critiques, full of passionate assertions and their zealous (even ridiculous) arguments. Now, there is a reluctance to speak at all, and a clamor to agree. If students dare to present a dissenting opinion, they will preface it with an apology and much vacillation. It is wearying.
The deeply held convictions of my students today are chiefly those that have been authorized by someone else. The ivory tower has become an echo chamber.
IMAGE: Skidmore College