As a professor of modern Chinese history, my Facebook feed is mostly populated with news from China. Recently, many of these reports feature challenges to the freedom of speech. Just a week ago Beijing shut down 10 feminist internet forums and the University of Hong Kong cut off its student union, following China’s People’s Daily calling it a “tumor” to be removed and citing its criticism of election reforms. On April 30 alone, nine leaders of Hong Kong’s 2014 protests had their appeals rejected and a number of activists pled guilty for taking part in last year’s vigil on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square. I am used to seeing photographs of student activists and university professors, people I admire for speaking the truth and acting on their convictions, wearing handcuffs as they are loaded into vans.
So on April 27, I was doubly surprised to learn of the case of Daniel Pollack-Pelzner ’01, a tenured English professor at Linfield University in Oregon, which seems to come from another place and another time. The news unfolded first on Twitter and Facebook and then on Oregon news outlets, the academic media and most recently the pages of the New York Times. The facts of the case are as follows: One month ago, Pollack-Pelzner posted a statement on Twitter reporting on the mishandling of sexual misconduct cases involving several members of the university’s trustees as well as anti-Semitic statements made by the university president, Miles K. Davis. In the most serious sexual misconduct case, trustee David Jubb faces eight counts of sex abuse — including one felony charge — for an assault on a student trustee. Antisemitic comments by President Davis have been independently corroborated by two psychology professors. The faculty took a vote of no confidence in the university leadership, which responded by firing Pollack-Pelzner.
The scandal and its aftermath have provoked a firestorm of outrage on the internet. More than a thousand faculty from around the world have signed a letter of protest, and the American Association of University Professors launched a letter writing campaign. Linfield students and alumni have also responded in force, though the university’s response has been to shut down comments on its own social media accounts, to wash away student chalking and to forbid resident advisors from making posters. This repertoire is a playbook from China’s #MeToo movement in 2018, when student accusations of rape were shut down: Government censors deleted the #MeToo hashtag and removed letters; Peking University threatened not to allow the student to graduate; and university administrators forced the victim to delete relevant materials from her phone and computer.
But this is America and this is 2021. In this era of political awakening, when the most prominent universities are facing a reckoning for their patriarchal systems and cases of sexual harassment, can a whistleblower be fired? I write in these pages in part because Pollack-Pelzner is one of us: a Directed Studies student, a history major, a professor. I knew Pollack-Pelzner only in the context of one history seminar with professor John Gaddis, but in the short time we were classmates, I was deeply impressed by his thinking and writing, and by his generosity of spirit. You all know someone who is like him, the kind of person you think is destined to become a college professor because he/she/they has intellectual vitality and human empathy in equal and outsized share. But I also say that he is “one of us” in that he is a fellow member in this system of American education, and I am acutely aware that we in our democracy can do things that others cannot. We have institutions, such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Association of University Professors, which have called on Linfield’s President Davis to resign, have asserted Pollack-Pelzner’s right to freedom of speech and have condemned his firing. We have the right to write protest letters and the freedom to organize a letter writing campaign. None of these things — including having Google Documents — can be taken for granted.
In the days since Pollack-Pelzner was fired, it has become clear that he is also the best of us. It has been two decades, but classmate after classmate has expressed support for Daniel. It seems that almost everyone knew him, and they describe him in the same words that his colleagues at Linfield do, “a sensitive and kind soul with a moral compass,” “an exemplary human being,” “one of the most brilliant and humane teacher-scholars I know.” On social media, his former students call him their role model; Madeleine Finley Glenn writes, “he sowed the seeds of social justice and advocacy into our curriculum and encouraged us to question how we may change our future using what we have learned from our past.” Beyond his teaching, his scholarship and his public writing, Pollack-Pelzner was the best of us because he used his position as a faculty member — and indeed, a faculty trustee — for speaking out against abuse, misconduct and prejudice. For all of us who became professors not merely for love of our subjects but because we believed that making a difference on campus was our way to live a worthy life, an institutional attack on someone who defended his students and shielded his colleagues is a betrayal of trust.
For in this era of Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner is all of us. He is any one of us who has dared to be an upstander instead of a bystander. I write this for the Yale community because I believe our shared values go beyond New Haven, and Pollack-Pelzner’s example shows how we carry these common ethics into the lives that we live after we leave these gates. If Linfield University’s administration reflects an America of another time, how the larger community responds is a measure of who we are and who we want to be.
Editor’s note: The original version of this piece had the phrase “fellow traveler” instead of “fellow person.”