Free Speech on Campus graphic

Teaching assistant’s alleged white nationalist ties spark student outcry at Alabama university – April 2019

Birmingham, AL

After leaked logs of online chat rooms revealed a teaching assistant’s alleged ties to a white nationalist group, students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) protested the apparent presence of white nationalists on campus as well as the perceived insufficient response from the university administration.

Key Player

Michael B. Williams is a graduate student in biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he serves as a teaching assistant for microbiology lab courses. Williams became the target of recent protests on campus for his alleged ties to Identity Evropa, a white nationalist group that actively works to recruit white men on college campuses. The group has been designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.

Williams admitted to The Chronicle of Higher Education that he had been a member of the group for more than a year, but said he had left to focus on his own life. He denied any bias in his work as a teaching assistant and rejected the label of white supremacist. That said, he believes white Americans should  advocate more forcefully for their own interests, the Chronicle reported.

Further Details

On April 7, 2019, UAB’s campus was covered in posters featuring Williams’s photo alongside accusations that he had been a member and pledge coordinator for Identity Evropa, UAB student media reported. The flyers also accused him of frequently listening to “The Daily Shoah,” a podcast run by neo-Nazi Mike Enoch that promotes conspiracy theories such as Holocaust denial and the threat of white genocide, according to student media.

The posters also critiqued perceived departmental and university inaction on the matter, and included contact information for certain leaders, including Paulette Dilworth, UAB’s vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Dilworth, in an April 8 statement, reaffirmed the school’s commitment to tolerance, but also cited the Free Speech rights of its students. She said that while UAB is aware of a certain student’s affiliation with Identity Evropa, federal laws  limit what information on student records can be shared, AL.com reported.

“UAB is a richly diverse and inclusive campus that is committed to protecting free speech while maintaining a culture of respect and civility that is aligned with our vision, mission and values,” Dilworth wrote. “While we may find certain beliefs repugnant, those beliefs are not a reflection of UAB or the mission we uphold and values we live every day.”

“You may be aware of posters being distributed on the UAB campus and via social media that show the picture of a student and his alleged affiliation with a group that is considered alt-right,” the university said in another email the same day. “We want to assure you that as an institution, UAB is against hate in all forms.”

Allison Padilla-Goodman, a regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said the university’s message lacked an “accurate and strong naming of the hate” and did not specify a plan of action going forward, according to the Chronicle.

Outcome

UAB students rally to protest Williams, tepid university response

On April 17, dozens of UAB students protested the perceived presence of white nationalism on campus. Hanh Huynh and Arianna Villanueva, two UAB students who organized the event, said they sought to “unite the student body against white terrorism” and to call attention to what they saw as an insufficient university response.

“[Williams is] not the only one, so we can’t sit here and say this student is the issue,” Villanueva told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “The acceptance of this ideology is the issue, the lack of condemnation is the issue.”

Amid the turmoil, Williams was pulled from teaching for two weeks while UAB investigated the possibility of criminal activity or violations of the university’s code of conduct, according to the Chronicle. Ultimately, he was cleared of misconduct and allowed to resume teaching by April 17.

External References

Biology TA accused of white supremacy, UAB Student Media

The Students Called the TA a ‘Nazi.’ He Said He’s Not a White Supremacist. The University Ruled He Could Return to the Classroom., The Chronicle of Higher Education

UAB students protest white nationalism on campus, AL.com

A University of Alabama-Birmingham Grad Student’s Alleged Ties to White Nationalism Sparked a Student Protest, TeenVogue

University of Alabama students are protesting a classmate’s reported ties to white nationalism, Yahoo! News

Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20

Uploaded June 7, 2019