Professor's tweets cause stir on campus

Baruch College students expressed concerns about the Twitter posts of Baruch communication studies professor Michael Bayer after one student shared a screenshot of Bayer’s tweet regarding race in a Facebook group called “Baruch College Textbooks: BUY or SELL!!!”

Members of the group had a discussion about the professor’s Twitter account in the comment section under the original post. His tweet evoked strong responses from students who were in support of and against him. Some students reported the account's content to Baruch administration.

On March 7, Ashley Zhang, a Baruch senior, came across an article about the Twitter account of absurdist comedian Owen Benjamin. The article, published on the website NextShark on March 2, offers screenshots of tweets as examples of what writer Heather Johnson Yu claims to be “a history of racially charged offensive rhetoric under the excuse that it’s comedy.”

The comedian’s tweet, posted on Feb. 15, stated: “If blacks can mock whites but whites can’t mock blacks in mainstream comedy shit will get violent. I mock the blacks not because they stole my bike as a child, but because one sided racial humor will end with horror.” Zhang noticed a response to Benjamin’s tweet in one of the screenshots because it was attributed to a Baruch professor whose class she had taken. The tweet came from @michaelbayer1, an account with no direct connection to Baruch, and said on the same day as the original tweet: “Can’t we all just unite in our mockery of Asians???” At 1:23 a.m., Zhang shared this tweet in “Baruch College Textbooks: BUY or SELL!!!,” looking for “some exposure/possible answers.”

When reached for comment, Zhang said, “I think the fact that an esteemed educator such as Michael Bayer, whose course I've taken and enjoyed very much, making comments such as these on his personal social media is disappointing and hurtful and a sore reminder of how Asians are perceived in this country. It's a reminder to myself, and I'm sure to many other students, that despite being born here, raised here and being just as American as anyone else here, we are still viewed as a trope.”

Bayer, an adjunct communication studies lecturer, has been at Baruch since 2012.

Some students brought their complaints to the college’s faculty later on March 7. Aldemaro Romero Jr., dean of the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, noted that he received at least three complaints that included screenshots of the account’s tweets. He said that a number of other related complaints were brought to his office. According to some members of the Facebook group, the privacy settings of @michaelbayer1 were changed sometime around 1 p.m. on March 7. The change made all of @michaelbayer1’s tweets private, hidden from view of anybody not already following Bayer’s account.

The college began an investigation through the Office of Diversity, Compliance and Equity Initiatives. Mona Jha, the college’s chief diversity officer, stated to The Ticker on March 7, “We were alerted today regarding some of Mr. Michael Bayer’s social media postings and are in the process of investigating the complaints that have been brought to our attention.  Please be advised that Baruch College under its policy of equal opportunity and non-discrimination is committed to addressing discrimination complaints promptly, consistently and fairly while recognizing the due process rights that are accorded to all of our faculty, staff, and students.” When questioned about the investigation, Romero informed The Ticker that it was confidential.

Bayer responded with a statement that is presented here in full, unaltered: “I’m deeply sorry to anyone in the Baruch community who was offended by recently circulated tweets from my personal Twitter account.  As the account was in no way affiliated with Baruch or my work as a teacher, I naively assumed my words would never reach beyond my few hundred followers. Unfortunately, given my penchant for dark humor, my overdeveloped sense of sarcasm, and the provocative nature of many Twitter accounts, I have often made absurd comments or sarcastic jokes that, in hindsight, were very insensitive.

“I love teaching at Baruch.  I admire, respect and care for all my students, and I marvel at the diversity we have here.  I have always believed that every human being holds equal worth, dignity and potential, and I sincerely regret if some of my foolish, spontaneous tweets have conveyed otherwise.”

Dr. Michael Goodman, director of the Master of Arts in corporate communication at Baruch, stated that in the five or more years that Bayer spent in Baruch, Goodman had never heard a negative word about the professor from any student. Goodman sat in on at least two of Bayer’s classes and stated that the latter was “thoroughly professional, well-respected in the classroom by students.” Regarding the tweets, Goodman said that what professors do outside of school, short of breaking the law, is “pretty much their own business.”

Dvora Zomberg, a Baruch senior concerned about the content of Bayer’s Twitter account, pointed to the effect these posts could have on students. She said, “Bayer’s disregard for and mockery of some students’ identities is not only deeply offensive, but an impediment to learning. I can appreciate differences in opinion, but this was the type of opinion differences from which no constructive discourse could emerge — it’s callousness for the sake of shitposting, and as a professor in a diverse school, Bayer should have taken his students’ identities more seriously before making these opinions public.”

In Fall 2016, Baruch reported that 40.5 percent of its enrolled students were Asian or Pacific Islander.

Other tweets by @michaelbayer1 were found and saved via screenshots by students before the account became private. One was in response to a tweet by Sofie Whitney, a survivor of the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Whitney’s tweet said, “We’re gonna be in the air at 5:00, but everyone better be tweeting #MarchForOurLives!!!” and included a photo of other students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas onboard a plane. Bayer’s tweet in response said on Feb. 28, “It would be ironic if the plane crashed.” When asked to explain his words, Bayer called this tweet “…an absurd comment.  Given the purpose of the flight, it would in fact be ironic.  Obviously I wasn’t implying a crash would be humorous, but it was a very stupid tweet.”

He also commented to The Ticker on the tweet shared in the textbook group on Facebook, calling it “…a dumb joke I assumed could never be taken seriously.”

Bayer was informed of The Ticker’s coverage on March 7. On the following day, he came into Baruch to teach his COM 3102 and COM 4005 classes, Communication for Executives and Public Relations Writing, respectively. He informed his students about the coverage. Around 2:55 p.m., a group of his students came to The Ticker’s office of their own volition, leaving their class to speak with The Ticker’s editors about the coverage of this incident. A different group of students followed around 4:45 p.m. Between the two groups, there were around 35 students.

Joe Betesh, a senior and one of Bayer’s students, commented on his participation, “I’m here to make sure Professor Bayer isn’t harmed.”

Students who came to The Ticker’s office were concerned about the story that was in progress and its potential impact on Bayer. Betesh, speaking to Bayer’s role as a mentor, said, “This is not somebody who makes stupid jokes on Twitter. This is somebody who changes people’s lives.”

Both of the classes provided statements written as groups. They are presented here, in full, unaltered. The students of COM 4005 stated: “We, the students, have come to acknowledge the actions of Professor Michael Bayer. We are under the consensus that his tweets on his personal Twitter account do not reflect his character as a professor and as a human being.  Professor Michael Bayer has consistently showed his students that he is passionate about his work on and off campus. The unparalleled enthusiasm he provides fosters an open learning environment where his students are eager to learn.

“Professor Bayer challenges his students every day in class and encourages creativity. The students of this class are a diverse group and we all agree that Professor Bayer all treats us fairly without any bias. We, as a student body, all stand with Professor Michael Bayer.”

The students of COM 3102 stated: “We, as students, would like to address the situation concerning Professor Michael Bayer. While we do not condone the statements that were made that are currently in question, we stand in solidarity as testaments to his good character. Professor Michael Bayer is an exceptional professor who has succeeded in creating a safe space and learning environment for all his students. He brings positive energy to his classes, and makes students genuinely excited to participate. Baruch College is unparalleled in the diversity of its student body, and Professor Bayer has always shown the utmost respect and support for students from all different cultural backgrounds in his classroom. We believe he is an asset not only to our individual educations, but to Baruch College as a whole.”

CUNY’s Policy on Equal Opportunity and Non-Discrimination states: “Diversity, inclusion, and an environment free from discrimination are central to the mission of the University.” The policy identifies discrimination as “treating an individual differently or less favorably because of his or her protected characteristics—such as race, color, religion, sex, gender, national origin, or any of the other bases prohibited by this Policy.” Actions and speech are viewed differently from the college’s perspective, and free speech tends to be protected, with certain exceptions.

Romero directed The Ticker to an article he wrote in 2016 for Illinois newspaper The Edwardsville Intelligencer, where he offers the illustration, “to generally say ‘Kill all the Jews,’ for example, is protected speech no matter how hateful it sounds, but to say ‘Kill that Jew who gave me an F’ is considered a crime.” In his article, he adds the caveat that, “The courts have ruled repeatedly that institutions of higher education can have stricter policies aimed at preventing certain speech or acts that create a hostile environment, allowing them to act based on their campus policies.” U.S. Supreme Court decisions have indicated that hate speech is protected when not directed at individuals, though colleges have the right to be stricter in their own policies.

When reached for further comment on the investigation into Bayer’s tweets, Jha responded on March 9, “We have reviewed the posts authored by adjunct professor Michael Bayer that were brought to our attention on March 7, 2018. Mr. Bayer’s posts have appeared on his own private social media accounts, and do not reflect the values and mission of our college. Baruch College has a longstanding commitment to diversity and equal opportunity, and we are dedicated to cultivating an inclusive community. At the same time, Mr. Bayer has the right to express his opinions, no matter how distasteful they may be perceived to be.”

Whether or not students have complaints about Bayer’s tweets, Bayer’s right to have posted them is protected by the college. Jha added that “comments made as private individuals do not reflect Baruch’s values.” Students defending Bayer have indicated that they do not believe the tweets reflect on Bayer as a professor or as a person.