Response to Asheen Phansey's firing after Controversial Facebook Post

Photo courtesy of The Daily Beast

Upon the recent firing of Babson’s now-former director of sustainability Asheen Phansey, Babson has been swept in the midst of a pivotal conversation about the boundaries of academic freedom, fluctuating internal trust, and scrutinized public reputation. Asheen Phansey and the College were swept into this ensuing storyline after Professor Phansey’s message on social media went viral nationally.

In the surrounding context of President Trump’s tweet that threatened to bomb 52 significant Iranian cultural and historical sites, Asheen Phansey wrote, “In retaliation, Ayatollah Khomenei should tweet a list of 52 sites of beloved American cultural heritage that he would bomb. Um ... Mall of America? ... Kardashian residence?”After the message was screenshotted from Professor Phansey’s private Facebook group, intended for only friends, and posted on a right-wing blog called TurtleBoy, Asheen began to be inundated with death threats, ridicule, and overtly racist statements.

When Professor Phansey appeared on WGBH Boston’s Local NPR, he stated that “there were people that said, ‘I have you in my crosshairs and that you should be killed in the parking lot.’” On the show, Phansey explained how his previous Facebook posts highlighted the heated rhetoric that was shaping America towards war with Iran. He also shared posts of beautiful Persian sites the President would purport to bomb with the message of “let’s not do this.” However, Phansey’s satirical message following up this context was the catalyst for a major media reaction.

“I was horrified about how people really willfully, misconstrued [the post], said Phansey.

Within one hour of the post going viral, Asheen Phansey was suspended, and within 24 hours, he was fired after Babson College spokesperson said, “This particular post from a staff member on his personal Facebook page clearly does not represent the values and culture of Babson College.”

Within hours, major media sources such as the Boston Herald, the Washington Post, NY Times, NY Post, NBC News, and the Boston Globe all reported on the incident, leading to subsidiary news organizations and political commendations all running with the story. On Babson’s campus, a major Senate Committee meeting was held to open discussion to Senate committee members and faculty members from the community with President Spinelli on the hot seat answering questions.

Though Babson Free Press journalists were not allowed to be in the room during the meeting, a Webex stream was provided that allowed insights from the meeting be made available to members of the community. During his opening remarks, President Spinelli reported the chain of incidents and procedures that lead up to the final decision being made to terminate Professor Phansey.

“I believe the process was fair,” President Spinelli said.

According to President Spinelli, the Babson Police alerted him and the leadership team about the incident, leading him to pose the question: “How do we do a thorough, fair process to investigate the concerns brought by the Babson police.”Spinelli stated that “feeling of pressure was 100%, it was multidimensional and all over the place.” “The amount of hate I got from all factions was overwhelming,” said Spinelli in response to a question about whether race and Islamophobia created external noise that expedited Phansey’s firing as compared to a white, privileged person.

As much as Spinelli emphasized the role of implementing fair processes, faculty members expressed fear that their academic freedoms weren’t clearly outlined nor protected by Babson in their social media policy. “The roles seem ambiguous and don’t really seem to meet that goal of guiding individuals out of danger, and they are being applied in a larger cultural context in which trust is either at best pretty limited, or at worst, really broken,” a Senate member said.

The College’s social media policy states that"

“the College shall have the right to remove or cause the removal of any content (or portions thereof) for any reason, including without limitation content that the College, in its sole discretion, deems false, misleading, obscene, defamatory, libelous, tortious, degrading, threatening, harassing, hateful, insulting, inflammatory, offensive, unlawful, fraudulent, discriminatory, invasive of the privacy or publicity rights of others, in violation of intellectual property or other proprietary rights, injurious, unlawful, illegal or otherwise in violation of this Policy.”

Issues of trust also spread via accusations by a member that felt wronged by the initial press release Babson issued and felt that it did not protect Professor Phansey. “Again to the press release, that criminalized Asheen, it said, ‘we have referred this to local, national, and federal officials.’ It’s insane for his protection,” a Senate member stated. Another faculty member felt that he was “stabbed in the back.”

In reply, President Spinelli said, “We put [the statement] [in the press release] because it is protocol.” However, the ensuing conversation wasn’t about protocol, but about the effect litigation plays on decision making and the faculty’s conviction that fear of litigation played a larger role than was stated by the leadership team.

“I have watched this college for many years to make decisions about litigiousness in fear of litigation rather than under the auspices of ethics and principles. And I am disappointed by it again,” a Senate member said. “I’m talking about power here, and this is why we don’t have trust in this community,” said the Senator, adding that “the tenor of the room is one of extreme tension.”

Another professor expressed his concerns that this decision will set a precedent that will not allow faculty members to interact as fully with the students in fear of being fired. “Babson’s product is heavy interaction with students. On the business side, it's worrisome that faculty may be diminishing their interactions with students by fear of falling astray,” the Professor said. “I’ve noticed I’ve changed the way I’ve interacted with my students,” said the Professor.

In his response, President Spinelli said, “If we have a unity decision in everything I do, we will be ground to a half. The intense and expeditious process will be laid out. If I were to extend that, you could not count on me to make tough decisions.” On the contrary, however, “That conversation would be a trustworthy building exercise without the false dichotomy of reducing speed,” one Senate member said.

President Spinelli explained that when he attended a conference for President’s of top American Colleges and Universities, he said, “the environment is incredibly dynamic. With the level of angst I feel, I was below the mean in that room. I was stunned at how much people feel in that room and existential threats. If we slow it down, we lose every competitive advantage".

Article by Eric Lindholm

The views expressed herein are attributed to their authors and not to this publication nor Babson College. The materials appearing in this publication are for information purposes only.