Dr. Fang Zhou, an associate professor of history, made headlines after drawing criticism for his online comments about illegal immigration.
News broke after Georgia Representative Bee Nguyen criticized Dr. Zhou on Twitter. In her tweet, posted June 5, she included screenshots of Dr. Zhou’s Facebook comments and asked, “Are these the values supported by Georgia Gwinnett College?”
While we celebrate the passage of the Dream Act, this @GeorgiaGwinnett professor uses hostile terms “ghetto thugs,” “libtards,” & spreads false narratives about immigrants.
— Bee Nguyen (@BeeForGeorgia) June 6, 2019
Dr. Zhou has a sign in his office that says “Deportation of Illegal Immigrants” and relishes the opportunity “to educate students about illegal immigration every semester,” such as “the financial drain of illegal immigration on the economy and the high crime rates of illegal immigrants,” he wrote on Facebook. “My students are ‘woke’ and overwhelmingly against illegal immigration after taking my class.”
“I have concerns about him teaching those things in the classroom,” Rep. Nguyen told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She criticized Dr. Zhou for using “inflammatory terminology” and spreading “false narratives” about undocumented immigrants.
Dr. Zhou also used terms like “ghetto thugs” and “libtards,” and said he does “a celebration dance every time ICE deports illegals.”
Renitta Shannon, another Ga. Representative, tweeted in reaction to Dr. Zhou’s comments.
Sounds very familiar. Words like “Ghetto” and “Thug” = long-standing dog whistles for N**ger. Thank you @BeeForGeorgia for calling this out, regardless of the race of the person saying it. @GeorgiaGwinnett this professor has no business teaching anybody anything! #DreamAct https://t.co/SZdWUy6ide
— Rep. Renitta Shannon (@RenittaShannon) June 8, 2019
The media coverage culminated when Dr. Zhou appeared on Fox News’ The Tucker Carlson Show, which averaged 3.1 million viewers for the month of July. “I can’t believe there is someone like you still teaching in an American University,” Carlson said. But Dr. Zhou said he is not worried about his job security. “I’m an associate professor with job security. My institution has an academic freedom policy.”
In online comments that did not appear in the previous media coverage, Dr. Zhou went so far as to assert that undocumented immigrants are “intellectually inferior and morally inferior cheaters.”
But “no matter how distasteful we may find some of the things he says,” said Dr. Beth Cavalier, President of the Faculty Senate, “based on our policies, he does have the right to say them.” She noted, though, that “classroom behavior is different than online, personal time behavior.”
“If students feel like there is discriminatory or harassing behavior happening in the classroom, they should report it,” she said.
Dr. Zhou is a “proud Georgia Republican.” He supports President Trump’s immigration policies and supported Governor Brian Kemp’s gubernatorial campaign, which featured a notorious video advertisement in which Kemp said, “I got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself.”
Dr. Zhou describes himself as an “anti-illegal immigration activist,” and that activism spills into the classroom. He gives an anti-illegal immigration speech “probably once a semester,” he said.
Now, two former students of Dr. Zhou have described classroom behavior that some may deem more problematic. During his lectures on the Great Wall of China, Dr. Zhou has begun to chant “build that wall.”
“He was physically chanting, arms in the air,” said Amber Johnson, a former student of Dr. Zhou who graduated in July with a degree in history. “He began to chant, in the middle of the lecture, ‘You gotta build that wall. Build that wall. We gotta keep those illegal immigrants out. We don’t want them in this country. We gotta kick them out as far as we can.’”
Another former student of Dr. Zhou said she had a similar experience. “He straight up had his fist in the air, like fist-pumping, and saying build the wall,” said Taylor Royster, who graduated in May with a degree in history.
“That kind of behavior,” Dr. Cavalier said, “falls a lot closer to harassing and discriminatory behavior.”
Dr. Zhou confirmed the students’ reports but repeatedly denied that the chants were related to President Trump’s gesturing, border wall, or immigration policies. “No, we are talking about Chinese history,” he said. “What does that have to do with Trump?”
“I don’t buy for a second that it was unrelated,” Royster said. “You know what you’re doing.”
GGC Administration Response
Administration officials did not respond to interview requests. Instead, the Public Relations Committee sent an email outlining GGC’s “Academic Freedom” and “Freedom of Expression” policies.
“[GGC] is committed to respecting the First Amendment rights of all individuals” and “does not take a position on the content or viewpoint of the expression, but allows for a diversity of viewpoints to be expressed in an academic setting,” the “Freedom of Expression” policy states.
GGC’s Academic Freedom Policy, however, does appear to place constraints on “the content or viewpoint of the expression.” A professor is “entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing [his/her] subject,” the policy states, “but [he/she] should be careful not to introduce into his/her teaching controversial matter which has no relation to his/her subject.”
Dr. Laurel Holland, Interim Dean of the School of Liberal Arts, said she has received “probably a dozen” complaints about Dr. Zhou “within the last two years,” only one of which was a formal complaint, initially a grade appeal, filed in the spring of 2019.
“The grade appeal was denied,” she said, “and then the student wanted to proceed on a different level regarding his remarks about immigration, and so that’s when we referred her to the Office of Legal Affairs.”
Dr. Holland’s personal view is that Dr. Zhou’s comments are “very unfortunate” and “derogatory.” But he has not violated GGC’s policies, she said.
“[T]his professor has no business teaching anybody anything!” tweeted Renitta Shannon
“Every member of this campus,” she said, “[has] the right to freedom of expression.” And although “protecting vulnerable populations” is important, her primary concern “is to make sure that policy is not violated.”
In the context of lecturing about the Great Wall of China, chanting “build that wall,” in accordance with GGC’s “Academic Freedom Policy,” does bear at least some relation to Dr. Zhou’s subject, irrespective of any political connotations. “Of course, it does generate other ideas based on the current political climate,” Dr. Holland said.
It is unclear, though, whether Dr. Zhou’s classroom behavior transcends the “reasonable limitations” on “manner of speech,” as stated in the “Freedom of Expression Policy,” or transgresses the dictate that professors “should exercise appropriate restraint,” as stated in the “Academic Freedom Policy.”
GGC is the most diverse college in the South, with minorities comprising approximately two-thirds of the student population. “We’re very proud of that,” Dr. Holland said, before describing the “delicate balance” between freedom of speech and what GGC describes as its commitment to the principles of “inclusive excellence.”
GGC Faculty Senate Response
Shortly after the news broke about Dr. Zhou’s online comments, GGC’s Faculty Senate sent out an email reaffirming their “Resolution of Support for Our Diverse Student Body,” initially passed in Nov. 2017. “[W]e the Faculty, strongly express our support for our immigrant students,” the resolution states.
“Some of the things that have come up publicly have been about the values that GGC supports, and I thought it was a good reflection of values that we have publicly supported,” said Dr. Cavalier when asked about the timing of the reaffirmation.
Despite Dr. Zhou’s derogation of undocumented immigrants (he insists on using the modifier “illegal”), he said, “Everybody is welcome to take my class. We’re an open-access institution.”
His reviews on Rate My Professors are overwhelmingly favorable, and of the 58 reviews, not one of them mentions anything about immigration or his opinions thereof.
“Nobody ever showed that they were uncomfortable like I did,” Royster said. And even though she found his behavior “shocking,” given the diversity of GGC, she doesn’t believe that Dr. Zhou should be fired.
“I don’t want to say he should be fired, but somebody needs to talk to him about what he’s doing,” she said. “Maybe give him a warning, and if it keeps happening, then do something about it.”