On April 30, 2021, Cypress College placed Faryha Salim, an adjunct professor in communications, on administrative leave following an exchange with a student who gave a presentation on “cancel culture” and policing in the United States. Salim was also subjected to violent threats.
Students in Salim’s communications class asked to present a persuasive argument and field critical questions and comments following their presentations. According to Salim, Braden Ellis, the student in question, gave a presentation on cancel culture and policing in the United States. In the following question and answer period, the Salim questioned Ellis’s comments supporting the police. Salim further interrogated Ellis’s responses during the exchange and offered Ellis an opportunity to make a final comment at the end of the class session.
Following the class, Ellis provided a reporter with video footage from the class. An edited video showing only a limited portion of the exchange between Salim and Ellis was later posted online and was soon covered by several local media outlets as well as Fox News, which later interviewed Ellis on-air.
When the video and media coverage began to circulate, Cypress College reportedly received a number of complaints, including phone calls and social media posts expressing anger over Salim’s comments on policing, using racial slurs, and threatening violence against Salim and other members of the campus community. In one email sent to the college, an anonymous individual self-identifying as “the new Klan” stated that an “associate” armed with a semi-automatic rifle and explosives would enter the college to carry out an attack. The college suspended on-campus classes in response to such threats of violence.
On April 30, amidst the complaints and threats, the college announced that Salim (without mentioning their name) would “be taking a leave of absence for the duration of her assignment.” However, in a follow-up statement on May 7, the college confirmed that it was the administration, not the professor, who made the decision to put Salim on leave, purportedly to “protect her safety, maintain her confidentiality, and mitigate attacks from those who sought to threaten her as well as the students in her class.” The college did not explain how administrative leave would ensure the safety of the professor or the students given that the course was conducted virtually.
In response to the administrative leave order, Salim reportedly expressed a desire to continue teaching the course. On May 13, the college wrote to Salim with an offer to reinstate their teaching responsibilities for the course.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about external pressure and violent threats directed at a scholar for their responsible exercise of academic freedom as well as an order to place the same scholar on administrative leave in connection with the same. While higher education officials should take steps to ensure the safety and security of the campus community, they must refrain from taking actions that restrict or retaliate against scholars’ responsible exercise of academic freedom and ensure that actions intended to ensure safety and security of scholars and students are consistent with international standards relating to academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and other core higher education values. Restricting a scholar’s teaching responsibilities in response to external pressures over academic activity, even when purported to ensure their safety, may violate that scholar’s academic freedom and may have the appearance of legitimizing those who apply pressure, undermining everyone’s right to academic freedom. State authorities should also take steps to ensure the safety and security of scholars and other members of higher education communities, in ways consistent with core values of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, including by investigating threats and holding perpetrators accountable.