A months-old Facebook post criticizing a terrorist group and a hateful scrawl on a bathroom wall brought a Connecticut college to a grinding halt earlier this week.
Connecticut College, in New London, canceled classes on Monday so students could attend a mandatory series of events for a “campus-wide conversation on racism, equity and inclusion.” The unusual move was triggered first by a professor's Facebook post from last August, in which Andrew Pessin likened the U.S.-designated terrorist group to “a rabid pit bull.” That angered one student, whose complaint to the administration triggered a wider "discussion" on tolerance. Then when a racial slur appeared on a bathroom wall, Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron shut down classes.
“Israel had the right to defend itself from the violence posed to it as an individual would have the right to defend himself from the violence that would be posed to it from a pit bull.”
- Professor Andrew Pessin
"By now, there have been many opinions expressed about the original Facebook post, as well as about subsequent comments on Yik Yak and elsewhere,” Bergeron wrote in as open letter to the student body. “But one thing has become extremely clear: the level of harm that incendiary language can have on a community. The post caused an outpouring of anger and pain among many different groups of students, faculty, and staff."
Andrew Pessin, who teaches Philosophy but is now on leave, wrote the Facebook post while Israel and Hamas were fighting in Gaza. In it, he justified Israel’s blockade and likened Hamas to a “a rabid pit bull chained in a cage, regularly making mass efforts to escape.” The posting stayed up for months until February, when one Pessin’s students called the comment racist. Pessin took down the post, but stopped short of apologizing for the sentiment he expressed.
“At this point it feels to me not a matter of assuaging wounded feelings, but a matter of deliberately trying to silence and even threaten pretty much the only Jewish professor on campus who openly advocates for Israel,” Pessin said on student run website The College Voice, according to local news station WTNH.
“Israel had the right to defend itself from the violence posed to it as an individual would have the right to defend himself from the violence that would be posed to it from a pit bull,” Pessin said to the news station. “Regrettably that language was inflammatory.”
It was not clear if Pessin's leave was voluntary or related to the ongoing controversy. The bathroom graffiti, which involved use of the "N word," was not apparently related to the debate over Hamas.
The school is also reviewing its social media policy. And the school’s president has made official statements against “hate speech.” The school is also considering new protocols for handling bias incidents and new security procedures as well as the creation of a “community council.”
It was not immediately clear when or if Pessin would be returning to teach.