SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: February 05, 2021

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):Tufts University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On February 5, 2021, an unidentified individual hijacked a Tufts University Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) online event to display racist language.

Starting in early March 2020, many higher education institutions across the US suspended in-person classes and campus activities, moving them all online as part of an effort to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Faculty, students, and members of the higher education community began to use online video conferencing platforms, including Zoom, to hold virtual classes and meetings. A growing number of online meetings and classes have since been hijacked by uninvited individuals who post racist, pornographic, or other disturbing messages to the screen or chat. On March 30, 2020, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a warning about the increase in reports of these hijackings, commonly referred to as “Zoom-bombings,” calling on victims of “teleconference hijacking, or any cyber-crime” to report them to the FBI.

On February 5, Dr. Karl Reid, the Executive Director of the National Society of Black Engineers, spoke at Tufts’ Colloquium Series on Diversity Equity and Inclusion in STEM. The virtual event on diversity and inclusion in engineering was open to the university community and the general public. According to a statement issued by Tufts University President, Tony Monaco, an unidentified individual took control of Reid’s presentation and wrote a racist term across the slides. Reid turned off the screen share and finished his presentation. The Tufts University Police Department has launched an investigation. As of February 11, 2020, there are no public reports of suspects having been identified.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the hijacking of a university event, intended to prevent or retaliate against the non-violent exercise of the rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression. Members of the public have a responsibility to respect institutional autonomy and refrain from interfering in the functioning of higher education. State authorities and other stakeholders, including companies running internet communication platforms, have an obligation to take available measures to protect the functioning of the higher education space, and to respond appropriately to threats, particularly during a period of heightened vulnerability of the higher education space. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such acts undermine institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and democratic society generally.