SARATOGA SPRINGS (TNS) — David Peterson, an art professor at Skidmore College, says it was “civic interest and curiosity” that led him and his wife to attend a pro-police rally in Congress Park in late July.
The Petersons arrived at a little after 7 p.m., watched from the edge of the crowd as “Back the Blue” supporters and counter-protesters traded barbs, then departed to get dinner after about 20 minutes. Neither thought much of it.
But that brief and quiet presence at the rally infuriated some student activists at the Saratoga Springs school. They’re demanding that Skidmore College fire a professor who has taught at the school for 31 years.
”Tonight, I and other Skidmore students witnessed Profs. David Peterson and Andrea Peterson at an anti-Black Lives Matter protest,” reads an email template posted to social media. “We demand the immediate dismissal of both Skidmore staff members for engaging in hateful conduct that threatens Black Skidmore students.”
A supposedly damning photo of the Petersons (Andrea is not actually a Skidmore employee) circulated by students shows them standing at the rally, which was advertised as a “positive, all-inclusive event” designed to humanize and support officers. The Petersons weren’t wearing pro-police T-shirts. They weren’t carrying a banner, holding a sign or waving a black-and-blue flag. They appear to just be listening.
But merely listening to an opinion that some Skidmore students find objectionable is apparently enough to get a professor in hot water.
”What’s troubling is the mob mentality,” Peterson, 61, told me. “All of a sudden, you have all these people who hate your guts and they know nothing about you.”
On a recent day, Peterson arrived at his classroom to find a notice taped to the door. “STOP,” it demanded. “By entering this class you are crossing a campus-wide picket line and breaking the boycott against Professor David Peterson.”
”This is not a safe environment for marginalized students,” the notice also said, after vaguely accusing Peterson of past sexism and transphobia. “By continuing to take this course you are enabling bigoted behavior on this campus.”
The boycott of the professor’s jewelry and metal classes has largely succeeded. Peterson said one course no longer has enrollees; two others have only a small number of students remaining.
It’s a weird world when taking a jewelry class amounts to a brave stand against peer pressure. But a Skidmore student told me those who oppose the boycott of Peterson (or just find it insanely silly) are afraid to speak up. They’re intimidated.
The college’s administration is saying very little. In response to a request for comment from President Marc Conner, I received a platitude-filled statement by email that had been sent to the Skidmore community about the controversy.
Without naming Peterson, it noted he had departed the rally long before a controversial confrontation between police and Black Lives Matter protesters. The statement expressed “unequivocal support” for First Amendment rights while adding that the school is “committed to fostering a working and learning environment in which all its members can flourish.”
Peterson, though, said he has been disappointed by a lack of support from the administration, which, he said, is investigating the students’ allegation of bias. (A Skidmore spokesperson disliked the word “investigation”; the school is following “various processes by which we handle different matters,” she said.) Peterson was also disappointed that student activists had not reached out to him before launching their campaign.
That’s remarkable, when you think about it.
Wouldn’t you want to hear somebody’s side of the story before demanding he be fired? Wouldn’t you want to engage in some sort of discussion?
The students don’t seem interested, which isn’t unusual on college campuses. As I’ve noted before, the notion that higher education is supposed to be about debate and free speech is losing to a campus cancel culture that disrespects dissent and demands conformity.
But the attempt to cancel Peterson isn’t even about free speech, because he never said anything. He would have had every right to loudly participate in the pro-police rally, but that’s not why he and his wife came to Congress Park.
”We were curious about what was going on,” he wrote to the Skidmore student newspaper. “Given the painful events that continue to unfold across this nation, I guess we just felt compelled to see first-hand how all of this was playing out in our own community.”
Peterson described himself as relatively conservative compared to most Skidmore professors, but said he rarely expresses views on campus and doesn’t believe students are aware of his politics.
But maybe they can sense that he’s a bit different, he half joked.
When I asked about police and protests, Peterson’s answer epitomized reasoned moderation. He said law enforcement need to be held accountable for the brutality we’ve seen too often, but added that defunding or weakening police departments would only harm society’s most vulnerable.
I would have loved to ask student activists why that was objectionable, but didn’t get the chance. Inquiries sent to three students associated with Pass the Mic, a campus group that has championed the anti-Peterson effort, were not returned by deadline.
Peterson said he has been buoyed by the quiet support of other Skidmore professors, who may realize that nobody on campus is safe if merely listening becomes a fireable offense. One, Peterson said, offered words that seemed especially wise.
Orthodoxies always need heretics, the colleague said. If they can’t find them, they’ll create them.
(Chris Churchill is a columnist with the Times Union of Albany.)