Comparing two recent cases reveals a lot about the current state of higher education.
Case 1 is Melissa Click, untenured assistant professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Missouri and author of works such as “The Romanticization of Abstinence: Fan Response to Sexual Restraint in the Twilight Series” (2009) and “Fifty Shades of Postfeminism: Contextualizing Readers’ Reflections on the Erotic Romance Series” (forthcoming). In November 2015 Click was captured on video threatening physical violence against two University of Missouri students for filming a student protest in a public space. Click’s faculty colleagues issued a statement defending her actions, noting that she had apologized to the two students and that her actions “constitute at most a regrettable mistake, one that came, moreover, at the end of several weeks during which Click served alongside other faculty and staff as an ally to students who were protesting what they saw as their exclusion from and isolation at the University.” The university took no disciplinary action. Nearly three months later, a local prosecutor charged Click with misdemeanor third-degree assault, after which the University suspended her (with pay) and announced it would conduct an internal investigation of the incident.
Case 2 is Tim Hunt, a biochemist who spent most of his career at Cambridge University and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his work on protein molecules that control cell division. In 2015, offering an informal toast at a scientific conference in Korea, Hunt made a joke about segregating men and women in the laboratory. There is no transcript or audio or video recording of the event, but Hunt is alleged to have said: “It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry. . . . Now, seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.” A conference participant, science journalist Connie St. Louis (whose general reliability has been sharply questioned), tweeted her own selective summary of the joke. Like the video of Click’s assault, the tweet went viral. Hunt apologized for the remarks, calling them “light-hearted” and “ironic,” noting that the audience burst into laughter following the joke and applauded after the toast. Other participants allege that the remarks were clearly self-deprecating. Like Click, Hunt was probably tired, having flown to Asia from the UK for the event. Nonetheless, Hunt was immediately pressured to resign his honorary professorship at University College London and from the European Research Council, his remarks were denounced by the British Royal Society. These disciplinary actions were based solely on St. Louis’s tweet, which quoted a small part of what Hunt presumably said and implied that the audience was shocked by the remarks, and the social media reaction that followed.
The lesson from these two cases? In academia, assault is excusable, potentially offensive jokes are not.