Canaries in the Coal Mine? Saida Grundy, Zandria Robinson, and Why Calls for their Firing are a Problem for Everyone

It’s been a rough summer for academics. Just in the last few months, two black women sociologists have become the subjects of national news stories when comments they wrote on twitter drew the ire of conservatives who branded them racists and demanded that the institutions where they worked fire them. First Saida Grundy, then Zandria Robinson drew media attention when conservative websites critiqued their twitter comments on the confederate flag, white college men, and other subjects related to issues of race and inequality. In Grundy’s case, she issued a statement saying that she wished she’d chosen her words more carefully, and the furor essentially died down. In Robinson’s case, after public speculation that the university fired her, she wrote a lengthy blog post desribing the details of her long association with her former employer and ultimate decision to leave for another university.

These aren’t the only cases where race and academia have been in the news this summer (here are links to widely reported instances of racial conflict at Kennesaw State University and also at Duke). The cases at Kennesaw and Duke involved white hostility to people of color. Notably, though, what is distinctive about Grundy and Robinson are that both are young black female assistant professors in sociology who faced conservative outrage, were labeled racists (and worse), and subjected to calls for their firing—based on statements they posted on twitter. Additionally, in both cases, the universities offered at best lukewarm defenses of their new hires. Boston University’s president weighed in with concerns about Grundy’s word choices, while University of Memphis simply tweeted that Robinson was no longer employed by the university. Tressie McMillan Cottom has written extensively and very eloquently about the often clumsy ways universities navigate new expectations for social media engagement, and how scholars who study topics that demand nuance and precision find themselves in a bind when they attempt to engage these complicated ideas in 140 characters or less. However, I wonder if some of this is less a story about universities as institutions adapting awkwardly to changing times, and more of a story that illuminates how worker protections in all industries are slowly and steadily eroding in ways that tend to affect vulnerable employees disproportionately, but should make us all alarmed.


It used to be that workers in many fields could count on staying with one employer for the duration of their careers. Not only that, many enjoyed guaranteed retirement benefits. However, sociologists who study work have documented how workers have shifted from being a key asset of a company to simply a cost to be minimized, their needs (health care, sick leave, etc) externalities to be outsourced or shoved off onto the worker herself. It used to be that collective bargaining helped protect these rights for workers. But sociologist Jake Rosenfeld has shown how the decline of unionization has had many adverse consequences, among them wage stagnation and worsening racial income inequality. Private sector union membership is especially low, and right-to-work legislation and recent court decisions stand to weaken unions and the protections they offer even further.


In academia, we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy work conditions that are relatively rare, but should actually be commonplace among workers—autonomy, flexible hours, and worker protection in the form of tenure. However, as many observers have lamented, this has begun to change along with the corporatization of the university. As more institutions adopt a market-based model where students are consumers, teaching is pushed off onto poorly paid adjunct professors, and administrative bloat runs rampant, the conditions that tenure track faculty have enjoyed—and that have allowed us to do our best work—are becoming increasingly weaker. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has moved to weaken tenure at state colleges and universities (with predictably bad results as noted faculty leave the flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison campus for less hostile climates). In this type of environment, it’s not really a wonder that faculty are at risk not for their scholarship, or their teaching, but because they made public statements that generated outcry and controversy.


Obviously there’s a racial and gendered dynamic to this as well. The professoriate has historically been overwhelmingly white and male, and still remains that way in many disciplines and among the top ranks of faculty in virtually all departments save for African American and Women’s Studies. It doesn’t escape me that as the professoriate becomes more racially and gender diverse, two black women would be the ones most visibly at risk of termination (in Grundy’s case, before her job even really started). As intersections of race, gender, and class limited their occupational options, black women have long been among the most vulnerable of workers and did not enjoy most, if any, of the protections I described above. They were overrepresented in jobs where they could be terminated with or without cause, denied government benefits and protections, and often subjected to base sexual harrasment. As Grundy and Robinson face internet mobs demanding their firing, possible financial insecurity, and racialized, gendered online attacks, I have to wonder, how much has really changed?


This is an issue that is clearly bigger than these two professors, and should concern all of us. Even if you find Grundy’s and Robinson’s remarks objectionable, do you want to work in an occupational environment where 140 characters can get you fired? Should we all live like Justine Sacco, where our jobs are so insecure that we can lose them without the chance to explain ourselves and offer context, even as we try to discuss sensitive matters? Is this a tenable position when public outcry that isn’t informed by dialogue or discussion is all that it takes for us to lose our livelihood?


If the answer is yes, then this has particularly chilling consequences for how we navigate and participate in institutional structures going forward. Demographics, social behaviors, and social norms are shifting rapidly in this country, and perhaps nowhere more so than the subjects on which Grundy and Robinson tweeted—issues related to race, gender, power, and inequality. Academics—sociologists in particular–can and should be in the forefront of discussing how these changes have implications for social interaction in a variety of settings. But when we don’t have the worker protections that used to allow us to make controversial statements, how can we feel confident offering research-based analyses that are so necessary and important in interpreting a changing society? When universities focus more on attracting wealthier students and donors by improving amenities than on establishing and maintaining protections for their faculty, does that help provide the intellectual safety these important discussions require? Or do universities ultimately just undermine the very intellectual communities that they’ve spent decades building—intellectual communities that can be at the forefront of adjusting to the changing times in which we live? Like other employees in an increasingly neoliberal environment, academics are facing growing job insecurity and precariousness that stands to weaken and minimize the ways our jobs should allow us to contribute to understanding a changing society. If, as I suspect, Grundy and Robinson are just early indicators of what’s to come for all of us, then we should all be very concerned.

  1. I’ve been in college as a continuing education student for several years now, and I can tell you – the atmosphere is still incredibly liberal, and the tolerance for more conservative views is almost zero. I know classmates who have curbed their opinions, kept their mouths shut, went against their own true feelings, just out of fear of getting a poor grade or worse. The atmosphere in some of these classes is so thick with emotion you could cut the air with a knife. I don’t cut any slack for the professors who toss around their bitter and hostile baggage. It’s obvious that the ones who have are doing so as a result of their personal experiences and have a chip on their shoulders for the rest of the world to deal with. Or, as Grundy had said “It’s a white thing, y’all!” because that’s how she prefers it.

    The problem with what you write is not that there are no valid points in it. It’s rather than you MISS the point. You keep talking about the university’s “intellectual” discussions on current social issues, and that administration who do not back the professors who make controversial comments on social media are inhibiting those. First of all, I would think the fact that the issue happened at all should open up discussion. Whether or not that will be intellectual depends on who is doing the talking.

    The glaring factor that stands out in what you write is that people who make statements like Grundy’s (I know nothing of the other woman and therefore cannot comment on her) is that you are saying it’s OKAY that she makes the comments and that it’s not okay that she suffer any consequences for doing so. How does this work? Does a university, one that promotes free thinking (or should) blindly stand behind a professor who takes to Twitter to talk about white men being a problem, or about not shopping at white businesses? This is Twitter, the rat’s nest of the social media world, where fairness and compassion come to DIE. What is it about Grundy or any other person with negative opinions about a particular group that NEEDS and must reveal those diatribes on social media, under his or her own recognizable name? This is the same professor who lambasted a rape victim (I saw the thread and read it) because she was fed up with her “white tears.” Maybe Grundy and others like her should learn how to keep their fingers from flying away and landing themselves in such hot water? Wouldn’t common sense dictate this? Especially since you know very well, just as I do, that any white professor who was foolish and racist enough to do what Grundy did would have been out on his or her caboose and rightly so before they could say “I will be your professor this year.” We all know it. We all see the double standard. And the fact that you write about it in defense is what’s scary, much more scary than the fact that universities have taken on corporate features.

    If you want to talk about racism, then talk about it with equality in mind. Equality doesn’t mean that whites get oppressed for 200 years and THEN we end racism so “we’re even.” That is the common spin and that’s revenge, which in case it confuses you, is tied to hate. It’s about equality. What is TRULY scary is the number of professors who do not understand equality, although they would swear up and down that they do. They also fail to understand, it seems, why the races can’t seem to get along. We have diversity in school. Blacks, whites, browns, yellows. That’s what education is supposed to be about, that’s where student loans came from, and that’s even why colleges DO take on more corporate, business like features that you mentioned earlier, because business IS booming! You mention that it hasn’t escaped your notice that it was two black female professors who caught heat for their comments. I can’t even tell you how ridiculous this statement is. They received blowback (at least Grundy, again, I don’t know the other woman) because of HER OWN FOOLISH ACTIONS. It’s not complicated.

    When you come up with an idea that truly brings the races together, THAT is news. Continued decline and polarization is just doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

  2. Adia Harvey Wingfield said:

    Jack, thanks for your comments. I’ll reply to your paragraphs in turn below.

    One: I’m sorry you find your college environment so intolerant. I think it’s very important for students to feel as though they can share their divergent viewpoints and responses to course readings freely. In my experience, active discussion about the material from a variety of perspectives makes courses more lively and engaging.

    Two: I didn’t miss the point. Rather, I am making a point–that I believe workers shouldn’t be faced with automatic termination as a result of public outcry in response to comments on social media. This may not be the point that you want me to make, or that you think is most salient. But it is the argument that I am advancing in this post–and therefore, the point of my post.

    Three: I also didn’t say that Grundy or Robinson “should not suffer any consequences.” But I don’t think the consequences should be termination. Nor do I think Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone, or Jerry Hough should’ve been summarily fired. And they’re all white, by the way, with Sacco and Hough making comments that many found racist.

    Three: this post isn’t about racism. I’m not sure where you got the idea that I (or others) suggest that equality means “whites get oppressed for 200 years and THEN we end racism so ‘we’re even’.” Though if you can point me towards peer-reviewed books or articles where sociologists make this argument please share; I’d be interested in to know of them. This post is about my concern that worker protections have become so flimsy that creating controversy on social media can become a fire-able offense.

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