In an uneasy moment, Asheen Phansey was trying to be funny.
Amid recent tensions between Washington and Tehran, during which President Donald Trump threatened to target 52 sites “important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” Phansey suggested that Iran’s supreme leader might want do the same ― and get specific.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “should tweet a list of 52 sites of cultural American heritage that he would bomb,” Phansey, an adjunct instructor and administrator at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, wrote on Facebook earlier this week. “Um . . . Mall of America? . . . Kardashian residence?”
He would later describe the post as a “bad attempt at humor,” telling Boston news outlets that he was only poking fun at the nation’s relative lack of ancient culture. But his apology couldn’t save his job: The business school announced Thursday it had fired him.
“This particular post from a staff member on his personal Facebook page clearly does not represent the values and culture of Babson College,” the college said in a statement.
For his part, Phansey expressed regret that Babson did not come to his defense — and instead fired him “just because people willfully misinterpreted a joke I made to my friends on Facebook,” he said in a statement to the Boston Herald.
The incident marks the most recent instance of college professors drawing flak for their commentary on current events, particularly as questions of academic freedom and free speech play out in an increasingly volatile era of politics and policy.
While decades of First Amendment case law prevents officials at public universities from restricting what their employees can say, or punishing them for expressing their views, private schools like Babson enjoy much greater leeway on the matter. So when academics have made controversial posts on social media about any number of news items — mass shootings, the death of former first lady Barbara Bush, or North Korea’s imprisonment of Otto Warmbier — their posts have resulted in a range of disciplinary outcomes.
Yet, Phansey may be the first administrator to be disciplined for his Facebook posts.
Just a few months after receiving his MBA from Babson in 2008, he began working as an adjunct professor in the university’s graduate program. In between teaching courses about marketing and sustainable entrepreneurship, he also helped develop curriculum for an undergraduate class combining biology and business.
In February 2019, he made the jump from the tech world to campus full-time, joining Babson’s administration to lead the school’s sustainability initiatives.
As Trump initially floated the possibility on Saturday of retaliatory strikes against Iran, drawing widespread condemnation, Phansey chimed in on Facebook. (Trump has since backed away from the possibility of war with Iran.)
His post drew attention almost immediately, first boosted online by a Massachusetts tabloid-blog hybrid that is alternately devoted to supporting the New England Patriots and investigating “social justice warriors.” The blog wrote that echoing Trump’s threats would cost Phansey his job, but that a Facebook post encouraging Iran was likely to get the professor tenure.
Needless to say, the opposite was true. On Wednesday, just one day after the blog post, Babson said it had launched an investigation into the matter and suspended Phansey with pay.
Through a public relations firm, Phansey told local news outlets on Wednesday that, as a “born and raised” American, he “regretted” the post, which had merely been his attempt at making a humorous juxtaposition: Where Iran has centuries-old churches and mosques, he said, the U.S. is home to a gargantuan mall in Minnesota and multimillion-dollar homes for reality stars.
“I am completely opposed to violence and would never advocate it by anyone,” he wrote in a statement to the Boston Herald. “I am sorry that my sloppy humor was read as a threat. I condemn all acts of violence … I am particularly sorry to cause any harm or alarm for my colleagues at Babson, my beloved alma mater.”
Less than 24 hours later, he was fired.
In other cases where professors have mixed mentions of Trump, or his politics, with suggestions of violence, colleges have made similar moves.
In 2017, the University of Tampa fired a visiting sociology professor who tweeted that Hurricane Harvey was “instant karma” for the state of Texas going for Trump in the presidential election. In New Jersey that year, a similar fate awaited a gender studies adjunct at Montclair State University, who was stripped of two courses after he posting to Twitter that Trump was a “f—— joke” and should be shot to death.
And at Drexel University in Philadelphia, a politics and global studies professor was placed on leave — and then resigned two years ago — after a series of controversial tweets in which he said “Trumpism” was to blame for the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas.
As he reflected on his own firing, Phansey seemed to pick up on that trend.
“Beyond my own situation, I am really concerned about what this portends for our ability as Americans,” he told the Herald, “to engage in political discourse without presuming the worst about each other.”