Claremont Colleges, a consortium of California colleges (Pomona, Scripps, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd and Pitzer) hired a seasoned student-resource professional, Dr. Jonathan Higgins as the director of their Queer Resource Center.
Culled from the ranks of prospective applicants by his strong “activist background and experience empowering queer POC students”, according to LOGO TV, Higgins seemed a natural fit for the scores of LGBTQ students seeking to find a safe space on campus. Yet barely a month into his tenure, Claremont abruptly fired Higgins, they say, over his controversial Tweets.
Higgins’ dismissal comes at a time when we are contending with government-by-Tweet in Washington, and nowhere does scrutiny fall more intensely than upon a person’s 140-characters-or-less expression of opinion. That’s what caused this young man’s quick exit from a position of great importance to the LGBTQ collegiate community.
The errant Tweets that triggered concern among school administrators go back to April–before he was hired–when Higgins responded to the question, “Who are you automatically wary of/keep at a distance because of your past experiences?” His answer, “White gays and well meaning white women,” set off a firestorm in the academic community.
Compounding this outrage among the university fathers, was a Tweet from Higgins criticizing law enforcement: “I finally have nothing to say other than police are meant to service and protect white supremacy,” a clear jab at the many police officers who have been acquitted after killing Black people under questionable circumstances, even when there is sharp, clear video of what went on.
The straw, university officials say, that broke the proverbial camel’s back, however, was his final Tweet: “So y’all been real quiet about #heterosexualprideday,” Higgins opined. “I mean I thought I’d see parades celebrating rape culture, homophobia and transphobia.” In a following Tweet, he added, “Oh wait: y’all do that every day…” His fate was all but sealed after that digital outburst. Announcing the search for Higgins’ replacement, Dean of Students Jan Collins-Eaglin wrote, “Our priorities for the QRC remain the same—to maintain in a seamless fashion the robust services of the center, including its ability to provide direct support to students, expertise in workshops and trainings, and an inclusive space focused on student success and support, with a demonstrated commitment to diversity and community.”
That has me asking questions. If Claremont was truly interested in a “commitment to diversity and community”, then where is there any room for dissent?
The university chose Higgins for his activist background, and his Tweets were there for all to see, even before they picked him up. Higgins wasn’t suggesting violence or discrimination, he was merely expressing, as a gay man of color and letters, his feelings on the issues of the day.
While I’m well aware of the unwritten faculty code that proscribes expressing political thoughts before one has finished his or her probation, Higgins wasn’t in an actual teaching position. Yes, he was there to help LGBTQ students of color grow, and find their peace and place in an often hostile, homophobic world, but not as an adjunct, fellow, or full professor.
Baccalaureate education is nothing without a healthy dose of real-world life. In order to discover the world, a student must experience the world. Higgins, in his snippets of criticism about what he saw going on around him, raised awareness for the pupils (and everyone else) about the stark realities Black LGBTQ people must face every day. What harm was done in that, other than, perhaps, to bruise the fragile egos of white administrators used to being enrobed in the protective cloak of privilege? Why silence (and through so doing, frighten others against speaking out) a person who did what all good colleges should do: encourage critical thinking?
Yes, we still live in a grossly heteronormative society. Yes, the police are engaged in applying their powers in such a way that people of color, particularly young ones, have good reason to fear for their lives at every encounter with law enforcement. Yes, there are sharp racial divisions within the LGBT community itself–as the outcry over the Philadelphia Pride Flag’s addition of black and brown stripes last month made so visible. Higgins was expressing sober truth in his Tweets. While they may have been salubrious for the student body, they were, clearly, inimical to the sensibilities of upper management.
Higgins himself says he’s accustomed to struggle. “People keep asking me if I’m okay this week. Baby I’m fat, Black, queer and educated. My whole life has been a fight.” Those 118 characters sum it up quite well.
But I still have questions…