A Furman University professor has been furloughed for attending the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., where protesters gathered to oppose plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The private University of Greenville announced in a letter to campus stakeholders last week that it had launched an investigation after learning that a faculty member had attended the rally – which was organized and attended by white supremacists – as the employee may have ties to white nationalist groups.
The 2017 Charlottesville rally, where armed protesters waved Nazi and Confederate battle flags and chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans, turned deadly when a white supremacist protester deliberately drove his vehicle into a sea of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring 35 others.
Furman President Elizabeth Davis said in the letter that after learning of the faculty member’s attendance at the 2017 rally, she immediately launched an investigation and banned him from teaching or coming to campus.
“The opinions of the organizers of the Unite the Right rally do not reflect the values I stand for, and they are not the values to which we are committed in our vision, mission and values statements,” Davis wrote. “They harm members of our community, diminish the sense of belonging and hinder the opportunity for each individual to thrive.”
While the university declined to identify the faculty member or share additional information about its investigation, he was identified online by an anti-fascist group as Christopher Healy.
The State Media Co. contacted Healy, a longtime computer science professor, who referred a reporter to a free speech group he said handled his media inquiries and could share his “outlook for Charlottesville.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, a nonpartisan advocacy organization that champions free speech for people of all opinions, released a statement from Healy on Thursday.
In the statement, Healy, a 51-year-old Pickens resident, said he had simply exercised his rights as a US citizen to oppose the removal of Lee’s statue.
“This episode taught me that there are real enemies of free speech,” he said in the statement. “In the United States, we are not guilty by association, but I feel like a butterfly accused of starting a hurricane.”
FIRE sent Furman a letter on Wednesday outlining its concerns about the university’s treatment of Healy and asking him to reinstate him.
“While some may be deeply offended by Healy’s presence at this protest, Furman promises his community freedom of speech and cannot backtrack on the basis of exercising that freedom,” the statement said. organization in his letter. “Because there is no legitimate basis on which Furman can sanction Healy, he must immediately end his investigation and reinstate him as a teacher.”
What prompted Furman’s investigation?
The university was not aware of Healy’s attendance at the Unite the Right rally until last Friday, when the group Sunlight Anti-Fascist Action unmasked him on Twitter.
The anti-fascist group, which describes its mission as “exposing Nazis, racists and fascists wherever they hide”, ran a lengthy Twitter thread on Healy that included photos of him at the rally juxtaposed with other photos of him available online.
In the photos from the rally, Healy wears an olive polo shirt, blue plaid shirt, olive pants and brown boat shoes. He stands in the midst of a crowd of protesters, some of whom are waving Confederate flags or wearing white supremacist iconography, but nothing in his appearance identifies him as a supporter of that ideology.
Sunlight Anti-Fascist Action, which said it identified Healy through an anonymous tip, tagged Furman in a number of its posts. The group also released a lengthy blog post explaining its rationale for leaving Healy, whose personal information it claims was on a leaked list of a known neo-Nazi group.
Healy did not immediately respond to emailed questions about his alleged ties to white nationalist groups, and a spokeswoman for FIRE said the organization does not represent Healy and cannot speak on his behalf.
According to Healy’s Furman biography, which remains online, he has taught in the university’s computer science department since 1999. He served for three years as president of the Furman chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, a selective academic honor society , and for 10 years as a chapter. Advisor to Upsilon Pi Epsilon, a computer science honor society.
On his Furman page, Healy lays out his teaching philosophy and the lessons he says he learned in life. Among the lessons Healy cites are helping those ignored or cast aside by society, thinking critically, and having the courage to do the right thing.
“Don’t always believe something just because someone says it,” he wrote.
A page for Healy on the teacher review website ratemyprofessors.com contains 33 student reviews of his teaching over the course of 20 years. Opinions on Healy’s teaching methods are mixed, but none of the reviews mention anything about the professor discriminating against students or sharing his own political ideologies in the classroom.
FIRE requests the reinstatement of a professor
Sabrina Conza, FIRE program manager for campus rights, sent Furman’s president a letter Wednesday night asking for Healy’s reinstatement.
Photos of Healy at the rally show him “peacefully protesting,” she wrote, and no one has alleged that he participated in any violent or illegal actions that day.
“The fact that Healy attended the rally cannot alone constitute a basis for punishing him,” Conza wrote.
She continued that although Furman ultimately decided not to impose formal discipline, their investigation violated the university’s commitment to free speech outlined in the faculty handbook, as it deters others from speaking out. exercise their First Amendment rights in the future.
FIRE requested a response from the university by October 12.
Furman spokesman Clinton Colmenares reiterated Thursday that Healy would not teach or be welcome on campus as the university gathers information and determines next steps.
“We are taking every step to ensure there is limited disruption to students, faculty and staff, and that our community comes out of this even stronger than before,” he said.
Furman examines his racist history
Furman, which was founded by a slave owner and did not desegregate until 1965, has in recent years taken steps to examine and distance itself from its racist past.
In 2017, the university formed a slavery and justice task force in response to a student newspaper editorial that explored the school’s racist beginnings.
Later that year, the task force launched its Seeking Abraham Project, named after a slave belonging to Furman’s first president, which sought to investigate the contributions slaves had made to the university. Furman’s faculty actually traveled to a conference at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, two months after the Unite the Right rally, to present their initial findings.
The task force published its final report in July 2018.
In the years that followed, Furman removed the name of the founder’s son, James C. Furman, a slave owner and the university’s first president, from one of its buildings and erected a statue of Joseph Vaughn, its first black student, in the middle of campus. The university celebrates Vaughn’s legacy on January 29 each year.
Last year, Furman adopted a strategic diversity plan and is in the process of hiring a chief diversity officer, Colmenares said. The university also hired an associate dean to help focus on faculty diversity and inclusion, and made several other key diversity hires, he said.
Following news that one of his professors had attended a rally organized by white supremacists, campus leaders met to discuss organizing events where students and faculty members can come together to deal with the situation.
“It’s something Furman takes very seriously,” Colmenares said.
This story was originally published October 6, 2022 1:30 p.m.