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Does a professor have the right to say ‘China virus’? At UDallas, the answer is no.

OPINION: Academic freedom is a thing of the past under the new critical race theory regime 

Countless academics have kept their eyes down and mouths shut as our colleagues have been attacked online or administratively over the things they’ve said or done.

Now, cancel culture has come to our campus, University of Dallas. But I will not be silent.

The University News, the student-run newspaper, published an article Thursday accusing history Professor William Atto of “misnaming COVID-19” on his syllabus.

The print edition of the article suggested he faced some sort of disciplinary action for it although an updated online version toned down such rhetoric.

The article was published more than three weeks after the professor was attacked on social media for his choice of words, and reports that “University practice is to refer to this virus as COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 in accord with medical and scientific literature.”

The print version, published Thursday, called it a “policy,” however, and alluded to “disciplinary actions.”

As chair of the History Department, it was news to me — and likely all faculty — that the university has a policy on referring to COVID. If it does in fact have such a policy, it certainly was not circulated before faculty drafted their syllabi in August.

As the chair of the History Department, I can also testify that no actual student ever approached Professor Atto with their concern. If they had, they might have discovered that this was a downright decent human being — a pro-life, Christian family man who has dedicated his life to teaching young people about history.

I can additionally confirm that no student, parent or alumni has approached me with their concern about one of the faculty members in my department. I have not been informed of any civil rights complaint — anonymous or otherwise — against Professor Atto. I haven’t received a single line of communication from social media warriors in my inbox.

The controversy leading up to the newspaper article started as we began our fall 2021 semester.

Atto dared use the term “China virus” on his syllabus, not in the section discussing the topic and substance of the course, American Civilization, but in the section explaining what accommodations would be made for students who needed to quarantine or miss class due to illness.

Atto distributed the syllabus on the first day of class, Wednesday, August 25. By the end of the day, Instagram had exploded with accusations of racism via a left-leaning UD alumni group’s account. To say that they were waiting for the least excuse to pounce is putting it mildly.

The social media trolls shrieked that, like Donald Trump, Atto put “a target on the backs of Asian Americans,” and claimed the recent increase in anti-Asian violence was due to Trump’s use of the phrase “China virus.”

They missed the mark. Like any historian, Atto understands history is complex, and it is not easy to place the oppressors and the oppressed in easily labeled identity politics categories.

Where were these Instagram trolls for the past 20 years as Atto taught on the history of the savage Japanese “Rape of Nanking”? The Maoist Communist regime’s brutality against its Chinese population? America’s exclusionary acts against Chinese immigrants? Or the volunteer “Flying Tigers” who helped China’s struggle against the Japanese invasion in WWII?

But the administration, apparently fearing a civil rights complaint, told Atto on Aug. 26, less than 24 hours after the social media firestorm began, to change his syllabus.

Fearing for his job — and career — he immediately acquiesced. He redacted his syllabus by midday, emailing students that the language had been brought in line with what he was told was “UD policy.”

Case closed? Of course not.

For this sin of candid communication with his students at our university, the University News decided to out Atto and put him on public trial instead of it simply being a ruckus hidden in the bowels of Instagram.

In order to effectively dismantle one of the few last bastions of a faithfully Catholic liberal arts education, the constant drumbeat of “Is UD Racist?” as a newspaper campaign and on social media is needed: it fuels the stream of more diversity surveys, hiring more diversity officers, spending more money and providing more hand-wringing fodder for diversity, diversity, diversity.

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement and its support for the LGBTQ gender ideology, the University News has run an article on the issue of diversity and inclusivity in almost every issue.

Diversity officials in human resources already oversee faculty hiring, and we have various diversity committees and clubs in place to deal with the specter of our “racist campus culture.” The media frenzy creates “the issue,” then the bureaucracy creates “the solution.” Mission accomplished.

The University News article does not aim at reporting. Disguised as a dry-as-dust objective “news” article, the piece is filled with innuendo intended to have a chilling effect on campus speech. It is an effort to take the Instagram attack on Atto to a new level, to legitimize and codify it.

For the sake of full disclosure, I am no mere bystander. I predict I am the next target. The mob thought the syllabus was a photocopy of my own, according to some Instagram comments. After all, Professor Hanssen is a known racist. Evidence? She once appeared on Fox News!

My prudent faculty friends tell me that when they come to get me, I should take my stand firmly on the book of Genesis: “Male and Female He created them.” Don’t risk your career over a quibble about naming the virus.

But perhaps every bit of truth matters. “China virus” is not a bad hill to die on if it simply asserts the right to control one’s own language. The abuse of language is the abuse of power. If the Dallas Morning News (the mainstream media) and Instagram (social media) control our every word, can we at least understand when some ordinary Joe, some downright decent salt-of-the-earth guy, shouts “Freedom!”

“What is Justice?” “What is Courage?” “What is Prudence?” Is the University of Dallas a liberal arts school that poses these questions in an abstract, theoretical way? Priding itself on reading Plato on Justice and Aristotle on Courage? Or is it a place that gives students a living model of the virtues they verbally espouse?

It’s time for this Catholic university to take a stand.

University of Dallas History Department Chair Susan Hanssen received her graduate degree in history from Rice University in Houston. She received her undergraduate degree in history from Boston University (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa). During the summer of 2008 she was adjunct professor for the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation at Georgetown University. She was the 2010-11 Garwood Fellow at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

IMAGE: Kiefer Pix / Shutterstock

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