Eric Rasmusen isn’t in the mood to talk, which is out of character for the IU economics professor. Until late last year, Rasmusen was a social media gadfly. His venue of choice was usually Twitter, where his tweets on everything from politics to academia largely went unnoticed. That changed on November 19, when a Twitter user with more than 475,000 followers retweeted a screenshot of one of Rasmusen’s posts. Suddenly, he was the center of attention—and not in a good way.
The tweet in question included a link to an article headlined “Are Women Destroying Academia? Probably.” For his tweet, Rasmusen excerpted a quote from the article: “Geniuses are overwhelmingly male because they combine outlier high IQ with moderately low Agreeableness and moderately low Conscientiousness.” Later, Rasmusen told the Indiana Daily Student he simply found the quote “interesting” and “worth keeping note of.” He invoked a common Twitter caveat (“retweets are not endorsements”), saying: “It seems strange to me because I didn’t say anything myself—I just quoted something.”
On campus, however, Rasmusen became persona non grata. Students and faculty both called for his firing. But because IU is a government-funded institution, it is obligated to protect Rasmusen’s First Amendment rights. As long as Rasmusen hadn’t violated the school’s anti-discrimination policy, IU had no case for dismissing the tenured professor.
The day after Rasmusen’s tweet went viral, the university announced protections for his students. To prevent any discrimination, the Kelley School of Business there offered them an opportunity to transfer out of his class, with IU provost Lauren Robel stating that it was “reasonable” for women and minorities to be concerned about getting a “fair shake.” (According to IU, no students took the university up on the offer.) Furthermore, Rasmusen’s classes were subjected to double-blind grading to “ensure that the grades are not subject to Professor Rasmusen’s prejudices.”
Robel’s statement was damning. “His expressed views are stunningly ignorant, more consistent with someone who lived in the 18th century than the 21st,” she wrote. But, she added, he wasn’t going anywhere: “[IU] cannot, nor would we, fire Professor Rasmusen for his posts as a private citizen, as vile and stupid as they are, because the First Amendment of the United States Constitution forbids us to do so.”
[pullquote align=”left” caption=”Lauren Robel, IU Provost”]“His expressed views are stunningly ignorant, more consistent with someone who lived in the 18th century than the 21st.”[/pullquote]Robel’s statement was lauded by lawyers and academics around the country. Rasmusen, though, was less appreciative. In response, he created a page on his personal website dedicated to defending himself. But his enthusiasm for the fight waned as he was dogged by harassment at home (fake blood was splattered on his front walkway one morning) and suspicion at work, where he was booted from his office by the Kelley School without explanation and moved elsewhere on campus.
Meanwhile, Rasmusen’s Twitter use slowed to a trickle. When first contacted for this story, he declined to be interviewed, saying that he was trying to put the controversy behind him. But it’s doubtful he will have much luck with that. According to IU spokesman Chuck Carney, the school is now looking into two new student allegations against Rasmusen.
Clearly, his future at IU is jeopardy. The university has reason to tread carefully, however. While Rasmusen’s dismissal would no doubt be cheered by many who regard his views as antithetical to the campus’s values, it could also call into question the fierce commitment to free speech and academic freedom that has defined IU for more than a century.
To put it in the most charitable terms possible, many of Eric Rasmusen’s views are problematic.
After the initial tweet about women in academia went viral, more cringe-inducing tweets surfaced. Like this one: “I just realized—Women’s Studies and Home Ec are the same thing. They are both meant to teach a woman how to live her life. It’s just that only one of them keeps her promise.” He also authored a tweet saying he thought ex-FBI lawyer Lisa Page was “a slut who was having an adulterous affair at the office.”
Clearly, the man is no feminist. And his views on programs helping African Americans are similarly controversial. In her statement, Robel accused Rasmusen of disseminating “racist” views—referring, presumably, to his past criticisms of affirmative action. Responding to the claim, Rasmusen dug in his heels, writing that “the whole idea of affirmative action is that too few black students would get in without racial preferences, so we need to lower the standard for them and accept that they will do worse academically.”
Rasmusen’s take on homosexuality has also made waves. In 2003, he wrote on his blog that gay men shouldn’t be allowed to teach because they “like boys and are generally promiscuous. They should not be given the opportunity to satisfy their desires.”
IU seems torn between protecting academic freedom and promoting an environment where students feel safe.
How can a Yale- and MIT-educated professor maintain those social views? At least part of the answer lies a couple of miles southwest of the IU campus at Bloomington’s Trinity Reformed Church.
In a city often regarded as a haven for social progressives, Trinity is a reminder that religious fundamentalism can thrive anywhere. The congregation is led by Tim Bayly, who is considered something of a radical even by evangelical standards. Bayly wrote a book on homosexuality called The Grace of Shame, which essentially argues that shaming homosexuals is simply the Christian thing to do. In a 2012 blog post, he wrote that “gay men want very young men and boys. Their perversion has always been closely associated with pederasty.”
[pullquote align=”right” caption=”Tim Bayly”]“Everyone who is a victim has the most power and authority in our culture today. Christians are squelched on every level, and anyone who is objective can see this.”[/pullquote]When Rasmusen came under fire for his tweets, Bayly was his most vociferous defender. On the phone, Bayly is congenial and expansive. He says that Rasmusen “has been absolutely trashed” by Robel, whose response to the controversy was “unbelievably unprofessional.” The way Bayly sees it, this whole controversy is symptomatic of a culture that is both obsessed with victimhood and alarmingly hostile to traditional Christian views. “Everyone who is a victim has the most power and authority in our culture today,” he says. “Christians are squelched on every level, and anyone who is objective can see this.”
Bayly shrugs off the notion that his church is a breeding ground for bigotry. “The narrative is that we’re outliers, that we’re wacko,” he says. “But isn’t Bloomington better for having orthodox historical Christians? Why not have pluralism? Why not be careful to not stomp with your combat boots and shame Christians who are in higher education? Don’t we go to school so we can be confronted with alternative worldviews?”
Last November’s tweet wasn’t the first time Rasmusen’s “alternative worldview” caught the attention of IU administrators and students. There was the infamous blog post in 2003, when Rasmusen wrote that hiring gay teachers “puts the fox in the chicken coop.” Then-chancellor Sharon Brehm said at the time that his statements were “deeply offensive, hurtful, and very harmful stereotyping,” but that they did not violate any university policy.
In 2017, Rasmusen wrote an op-ed for The Washington Times defending then-U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, who had been accused of sexual assaulting teenage girls. Rasmusen opined that the accusers “lacked credibility,” and added that while Moore did in fact court teenage girls, his behavior amounted to “consideration, not predation.”
Neither of those instances caused anywhere close to the level of outrage that followed Rasmusen’s Twitter debacle. Former IU student body vice president Maggie Hopkins was among those who engaged Rasmusen directly on Twitter at the time. She took specific issue with the assertion, from the article he shared, that females are more emotional than males, and therefore not as well-suited for leadership roles in academia. “This article suggests there should be far fewer women at universities,” Hopkins tweeted at Rasmusen. “I am deeply offended by this tweet, and my ability to feel that offense does not diminish my intellect.”
“Public institutions are in a unique position to uphold the First Amendment. But as the provost said in better words than mine, it majorly sucks sometimes.”
Hopkins, a Fulbright Scholar who graduated from IU last May, also told the Indiana Daily Student in November that IU “is doing a disservice to its students, male and female, if they allow a man who espouses those ideas to be in charge of their education, in any capacity, even in one classroom.” But in an email exchange this past February, Hopkins backed off from her call for Rasmusen’s removal. “Public institutions are in a unique position to uphold the First Amendment,” she wrote. “But as the provost said in better words than mine, it majorly sucks sometimes.”
Indeed, provost Robel did appear to regard the First Amendment as more of a nuisance than a critical bulwark against censorship when she wrote, “[My] strong disagreement with his views … is not a reason for Indiana University to violate the Constitution of the United States. This is a lesson, unfortunately, that all of us need to take seriously.” She declined to comment further for this story.
Donald Downs, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin and author of Free Speech and Liberal Education, says he agreed with the substance of Robel’s response, but found her tone of frustration concerning. “I applaud the provost’s strong stance on the First Amendment right at stake,” Downs says. “But her words seemed to treat it as a negative obligation rather than a good thing for the institution and higher education.”
Furthermore, Downs suggested that Robel’s decision to denounce Rasmusen in such strong language could possibly have a chilling effect on academic freedom. “To vilify him the way she did, I am not sure that was called for,” he says. “A case could be made that she could have made the same point without being so vociferous.”
IU law professor Steve Sanders was initially so agitated by Rasmusen’s viral tweet that he took to Twitter to call him “an embarrassment to his faculty colleagues.” Yet, he was equally disturbed at how many of his colleagues were calling for Rasmusen’s job. “This controversy demonstrates a lot of liberal progressive faculty cannot be trusted with protecting academic freedom,” he says.
According to Sanders, this is especially unfortunate given IU’s legacy as guardian of academic freedom. He notes how IU president Herman B Wells defended the controversial research into human sexuality conducted by Alfred Kinsey in the early 20th century. Today, the Kinsey Institute calls Wells’s efforts “one of the most heralded instances of the protection of academic freedom in the mid-20th century.”
Now, IU seems torn between protecting academic freedom and promoting an environment where students feel safe. Highlighting this dilemma, Sanders points to the “IU is Home” slogan that the provost’s office has been using for its “inclusion campaign.” Sanders wrote critically of the campaign in Indianapolis Business Journal earlier this year, arguing that “home” is apparently a place where students “expect to be protected from upsetting facts and strange ideas or from people who might challenge their understanding of the world.”
“This controversy demonstrates a lot of liberal progressive faculty cannot be trusted with protecting academic freedom.”
Sanders understands the outrage that students feel toward Rasmusen’s remarks. But in the absence of any evidence that Rasmusen was actually discriminating against students in the classroom, he says Rasmusen is protected by the First Amendment. “Most people want to leap to the conclusion that since he had endorsed some unattractive stereotypes about women and criticized affirmative action, that students can’t get a fair shake,” Sanders says. “Maybe. But you need to have proof.”
In an ideal world, Sanders asserts, students and faculty would assume that a professor is capable of both having controversial views and maintaining a strong commitment to fairness. “I think it’s regrettable we have swept aside that assumption,” he says.
Indeed, IU seems to be operating under the belief that Rasmusen’s tweets make him a likely perpetrator of discrimination. Carney, the IU spokesman, says that while Rasmusen didn’t violate the university’s social media policy (“he was expressing his views as a private citizen”), the Kelley School launched the investigation “in light of the comments on social media” last fall just the same. Administrators there continue to conduct the investigation, about which they won’t provide much detail because they say it’s a personnel matter.
Carney does say the two student complaints that the school is currently reviewing were lodged before Rasmusen’s controversial tweets. Why didn’t those complaints—the first against Rasmusen in his 28-year teaching career—spark an investigation? According to Carney, the students “requested that nothing be acted upon until the semester concluded.”
[pullquote align=”left” caption=”Eric Rasmusen”]“You can always dig up an excuse to go after someone, no matter how law-abiding they may be.”[/pullquote]When IM made Rasmusen aware of those details about the complaints, he agreed to comment briefly by email. “That’s very interesting information,” he wrote. He said IU had given him very little information about the accusations, and that he was “relieved” that they were from students and not fellow faculty members—he’d originally assumed the latter, since he had been removed from his office. Rasmusen went on to say he didn’t know when the complaints were made, but that he had addressed the Twitter controversy in the classroom, inviting all of his students to email him anonymously with any concerns using an encrypted email service. “One student submitted a long email saying he (or she) thought I’d twice said things in the class that were insensitive, and asked if I could give any reason why he shouldn’t report those incidents,” he wrote. Rasmusen has no idea if that student ended up reporting him. But, if so, it would have been after the university started soliciting student complaints.
Rasmusen says he is worried that IU may be trying to manufacture evidence against him, adding, “You can always dig up an excuse to go after someone, no matter how law-abiding they may be.”
According to Adam Steinbaugh at Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—a nonpartisan nonprofit devoted to protecting free speech on college campuses—IU’s investigation “starts to have the appearance of a fishing expedition.” In other words, IU may be trying a little too hard to find an excuse to fire the controversial professor. However, Steinbaugh isn’t prepared to make that judgment just yet. “I would want to know much more about the origin of the complaints. Is there any substance to them? Who is the complainant?”
The answers to those questions will have to wait. At least for the moment, just like its controversial economics professor, IU is only willing to say so much.