Richard Taylor, a history professor at St. John’s University (SJU) in New York, has been punished for encouraging his students to think critically about the trade-offs in a historical process that fundamentally reshaped the world.
On Sept. 7, Taylor taught the Columbian Exchange to his “Emergence of a Global Society” class, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a campus free speech advocacy group. Named after the legendary navigator Christopher Columbus, the term refers to the centuries-long exchange of commodities, human populations, and diseases across the Atlantic following Columbus’s voyage to the Americas.
After covering the beneficial aspects of the Columbian Exchange, as well as the human suffering caused by the slave trade and the spread of new diseases, Taylor asked his students whether “the positives outweigh the negatives.” When a student said that “slavery could never be justified,” he clarified that he wasn’t trying to justify slavery and asked students to “consider global trade as a whole,” including lives lost to diseases and lives saved from famine by staple crops from the New World.
Taylor soon found himself targeted by an Instagram account named “Radical Social Justice Warriors at SJU” (SJURadical), which accused him of “enticing students to justify slavery” and published a pre-filled email for users to call SJU administrators for his termination.
“Professor Taylor’s discussion is an example of White saviorism and White privilege, a dangerous combination that inaccurately tells the history of Black people, a community already underrepresented in history,” SJWRadical wrote, adding that St. John’s University “can never be anti-racist or claim it values Black lives” if it allows Taylor to teach.
The New York City-based Catholic university informed Taylor that he was facing “over 300 complaints of misconduct” against him, before it eventually found him in violation of its “Bias, Discrimination, and Harassment” policy on Oct. 5 and removed him from teaching.
“By asking students to think about history on both a macro level and a micro level, the idea is that they will look at history from a long-term perspective. The exercise was one in which there is no correct answer, only what the student feels,” Taylor told FIRE. “How are young adults expected to become critical thinkers if we do not push them to think critically at the college level?”
In a letter to SJU leadership, FIRE’s Adam Goldstein argued that the university should uphold its promises to honor academic freedom and give Taylor his classes back.
“Under any basic conception of academic freedom, the choice of whether and how to confront controversial material in a pedagogically-relevant context is left to faculty members, not administrators,” Goldstein wrote. “St. John’s promises this right to its faculty and must not violate those promises.”