They Tried to Cancel Me

A professor recalls the anguish of a false accusation

Things began innocently enough.

My wife, Andrea, and I emerged from Covid-reclusion one evening last July and ventured into Saratoga Springs for a dining option outdoors, so that we could safely avoid the mask-down/food-in/mask-up protocol. We also planned to check out the “Back the Blue” rally in support of the police, held in nearby Congress Park. We had heard about the rally through a friend, and were intrigued by the organizer’s pledge that it would be “a positive all-inclusive” and “peaceful event.” We stood at the far edge of the crowd for 20 minutes or so, witnessed a little back-and-forth between rally participants and Black Lives Matter counterprotesters. One of the counterprotesters took a photo of us with his phone, and cursed, which seemed strange at the time. Soon after, we retreated to the comfort of our dinner.

The following morning, as I was preparing for my daily run, I took a peek at my email, and found several messages from an unknown sender. The first explained that my wife and I had become the targets of a rapidly expanding social media campaign bent on destroying our reputations and costing us our jobs. The sender was alerting us out of a sense of compassion, and asked to remain anonymous as he feared being labeled a traitor. His emails contained screenshots of messages disseminated in this campaign, including a photo of us, a long list of spurious accusations, some contact information, and templates for drafting emails to my department chair, the dean of the faculty, the dean of students, and the president of Skidmore College, where I am a professor of art, teaching jewelry design and metalwork. 

Over the next few days, college administrators received a flood of poison-pen emails, most from the same template, alleging that we “were seen protesting with Blue Lives Matter while Skidmore alumni and students were being tear-gassed.” In point of fact, there never was any tear gas, although riot police did use pepper-bullets later that evening—many hours after we had returned home. The poison-pen emails added that I was known to be a racist and a sexist, and that I was guilty of “consistent mistreatment and disregard for non-cis white males” in my classes and advocated “exclusionary, racist and fascist ideology.” They demanded my immediate termination, as well as that of my wife, unaware that she hadn’t even taught at Skidmore since 2018. 

The president of the college issued a guarded statement, affirming the First Amendment rights of all community members, but made no mention of the malicious campaign against me. The administration replied to those who sent individual emails (several hundred, at a minimum), pledging the college’s commitment to investigate the complaints, while avoiding any suggestion that a smear campaign conflicted with the college’s values. True to their word, the administration did investigate my teaching, combing through several years of student evaluations, searching for evidence of racial or gender bias. They would find none. Despite receiving a few personal expressions of support from Skidmore officials, Andrea and I felt wholly abandoned by the college and extremely anxious about our future. It was clear that the college would not fire me, but it was equally clear that my reputation was taking a pounding, and that the program I had worked so hard to build over the past 31 years was in jeopardy. 

A little online research revealed to me just how common it was for faculty, even tenured faculty like myself, to simply resign rather than suffer the indignity of investigations, hearings and “re-education.” But Andrea and I resolved to stay and fight. When the investigation had run its course (six weeks later), I was informed that there would be no sanctions against me. I felt nothing. No victory. Not even relief. Someone once stole my wallet in a pool hall in Terre Haute, and returned it empty. I felt much the same then.

What my detractors failed to achieve through the administrative inquest, they partly accomplished through a boycott. My once robust enrollments fell to distressingly low numbers during the first few days, with one of the classes bottoming out at zero.

Activists posted a handbill on the door of my studio classroom: “STOP: By entering this class you are crossing a campus-wide picket line and breaking the boycott against Professor David Peterson. David Peterson is notorious for the blatant sexism he treats his female students with, his outwardly transphobic treatment of trans students, and his general disregard for all students who are not white cis men…This is not a safe environment for marginalized students. By continuing to take this course you are enabling bigotted [sic] behavior on this campus.”

Leaving nothing to chance, a small contingent of student activists picketed my studio on the first day of classes, confronting the few remaining students with the fliers that denounced me as sexist and transphobic (this last claim having replaced “racist” for some reason). Peer pressure has always been a sharp tool of coercion, so I won’t fault those who opted out of my classes; I hope they wish to return in future. What I cannot guarantee is how much enthusiasm I will have when the future arrives. What was my passion is, for now at any rate, just an income source. 

In contrast to the position of the administration, many faculty colleagues from across campus supported Andrea and me. Some offered advice, some encouragement, some were just mad as hell that our students would do such a thing and think it noble.  Without their generosity and advice, Andrea and I might have withdrawn into bitterness and considered my resignation.

Media scrutiny played an unexpected role in my case. A college paper, The Skidmore News, published an opinion piece by an undergraduate, asserting (without a single example) that “there have been many claims of Mr. Peterson making students of color and queer students feel uncomfortable and unheard.” The article said that many white professors ridiculed students of color, and that members of the campus support staff made racist comments. “Students of color and Black students especially feel threatened to have staff enter their spaces or to come face-to-face with individuals that empower beliefs that inherently go against their identities,” the article said.

Within hours of the article’s publication on Aug. 31, I began receiving emails, letters and phone calls of support from a surprising mixture of folks, including alumni, parents of students, local residents and a number of journalists. Conservative media outlets, which feast on reports of cancel culture at colleges, posted their own articles, from Breitbart to The College Fix to The National Review. The two largest regional newspapers, The Albany Times Union and The Schenectady Gazette, also published articles, which helped replace the rumors with facts.

So, that college-newspaper article, which might have muddied my reputation further, instead provoked events that placed public opinion squarely behind me. Demands for my termination suddenly ended. Some have suggested that the events of the past year—the pandemic, the civil unrest, and the looming presidential election—were contributing factors in the students’ rush to judgement. Others cite the decline in civility in politics. I can accept this to a point. But I see nothing abrupt about the decline of civil discourse and free speech on college campuses.

Forty years ago, speech may have been freer, but it certainly was not free. Most of my professors in the 1970s endorsed leftist agendas. Yet to assert an unpopular view then simply required debate-preparation and pluck. Today, it requires almost reckless courage and prudent financial planning. No longer do I believe I can challenge the prevailing doctrines on campus without facing an emotionally charged response. Tears are not uncommon. Profanity is almost guaranteed. Wrong-thinking is no longer simply unpopular. It is downright risky. 

Research confirms that left-leaning faculty outnumber right-leaning faculty by a wide margin (12 to 1 is the current consensus). The student population may be less lopsided, but only slightly. But what I wonder about are the political inclinations of non-teaching staff, such as technicians, secretaries and workers in campus facilities. Blue-collar staff are assumed to be more conservative, but this is speculation. You might think that these marginalized, voiceless, underpaid employees would be the focus of student and faculty sympathies, but you’d be wrong.

I have always felt a kinship with workers in the trades—electricians, carpenters, plumbers, and so on. My upbringing was decidedly hands-on, and many of the smartest, most generous people I have known have been those who solved problems with tools. I may be “an artist” to some, but when my father calls me “a metalworker,” he is flattering me.

I have come to know quite a few staff members, and many reached out to me when my troubles began. I, in turn, asked their views on free speech and open expression, and the allegations leveled against support staff in the student paper. Their responses were almost uniform: They preferred to leave their politics at home, and focus on their jobs when at work. More than one expressed it like this: “I keep my mouth shut, my head down, and do my job.”

Several said that they felt it was a privilege to work at the college, that they almost always enjoyed their interactions with students and faculty, and hoped their contribution was valued. I pushed harder: “What about the Skidmore News article?” Yes, they agreed, that was unfortunate—but not a fair characterization of their interactions with students: “These are good kids. They’ll learn when they get out in the workplace,” one said. If they were hurt by the remarks in the article, they kept it to themselves. They were, without exception, gracious and forgiving. In the search for institutional values, I would recommend these. 

To use the language of the academy, faculty enjoy an enormous disparity of power and privilege over non-teaching staff. We have lecterns; we have committees to defend our academic rights; we have tenure. Compared to us, staff inhabit a kind of parallel universe. Much of this is practical, and in some respects the staff may be enviable, given what is going on today in academia. But institutional priorities are defined by select members of the faculty, the administration and, increasingly, students. The demographics of these three groups do not differ much when it comes to social and political identification. Staff, on the other hand, are far more diverse, and my sense is that their political leanings reflect the mixed views of society. The growing suspicion toward higher education should not surprise us: When the academy disregards and maligns the values of half the population, public hostility is inevitable.

I was lucky.  As a tenured professor with over 30 years at the college, I had inviolable legal protections, and sufficient goodwill among my colleagues. Had I been an untenured assistant professor or, more vulnerable still, an adjunct instructor, the outcome could have been far worse. But the emotional toll on me and Andrea was high, even with our safeguards. There was the shock—even the shame—of having been publicly libeled, plus the fear of the unknown, and the dismal prospect of litigating just to keep my job.

I know three other faculty at Skidmore who have suffered similar public shaming over the past few years. One was driven to resign. The other two withdrew from all but the barest of required service, having formerly been among the college’s most dedicated servants. Whatever the outcome of my case, I knew things would never be the same. 

Andrea and I slept little during the first few days of this controversy, and it was some time before we stopped looking over our shoulders. As colleagues began opening up to us, our confidence slowly returned. But today, I rarely invite controversy or disagreement. Even when discussing topics as seemingly apolitical as aesthetics, I tread carefully, lest I raise an issue that is disquieting to someone or is perceived to be advocating masculine or western values. Inadvertent use of the wrong pronoun can land you in hot water. Every conversation is now fraught, and the language of the “woke” is an ever-moving minefield.

The students in my classes once benefited from robust critiques, full of passionate assertions and their zealous (even ridiculous) arguments. Now, there is a reluctance to speak at all, and a clamor to agree. If students dare to present a dissenting opinion, they will preface it with an apology and much vacillation. It is wearying.

The deeply held convictions of my students today are chiefly those that have been authorized by someone else. The ivory tower has become an echo chamber.

David Peterson is a professor of art at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.