The Professor and the Protester Otesanya David March 27, 2022

The Professor and the Protester

The Professor and the Protester


The demonstrators are calling for a vaccine mandate. In the center of the frame is a counterprotester. He’s conspicuous, wearing a neon vest. He walks through the crowd, holding a placard above his head. As he moves away from the front of the demonstration, a handful of people follow him, including a man wearing jeans and a short-sleeved, button-up shirt. The counterprotester is talking, or maybe shouting. It’s hard to make out what’s said. The man gestures to the counterprotester and takes a few steps toward him.

Then, the man reaches up. With his left hand, he grabs the counterprotester’s sign.

A scuffle ensues. The two stumble behind other people, out of the camera’s view. People rush toward them. There’s yelling and more commotion, but it’s impossible to tell what’s going on, or who all is involved. “Get the fuck off me!” the counterprotester yells, twice. He stoops to pick up his sign, and the clip ends. The video — taken in August at Pennsylvania State University’s main campus — is 17 seconds long.

The counterprotester, who emerged from the incident with a bloody nose, is an undergraduate at Penn State. The man who grabbed the sign is Oliver Baker, an assistant professor in the African American studies and English departments. After the rally, Baker was charged by the campus police with simple assault, disorderly conduct, and harassment, and placed on administrative leave, pending a university investigation. Two of those charges were later dropped, and at a trial before a judge, Baker was found not guilty of the third.

Penn State is moving to fire him anyway.

The university hasn’t said publicly what offense Baker committed that’s serious enough to terminate a tenure-track professor. Much of the process is confidential. But it’s safe to assume that what administrators see when they watch that clip is someone interfering where he shouldn’t have. They see a choice, or choices, that run counter to how they think a professor ought to behave. Maybe they see someone trying to physically silence a student he disagrees with. Maybe they see an instigator.

Many others at Penn State say the administration has it all wrong. They see a professor who engaged in good faith to de-escalate a potentially dangerous situation. At best, they say, Penn State is overreacting; at worst, it is making an example of Baker and sending a chilling message to faculty members about the limits on their permissible conduct. Some wonder how safe their own jobs are.

Courtesy: Centre County Report

A video shows a scuffle between Oliver Baker, an assistant professor, and a student at a demonstration at Penn State University, in August 2021.

No matter how you see it, a dispute that lasted just seconds has led to a consequential test case of how a public university navigates the pitfalls of a highly politicized pandemic. The fallout has the potential to end Baker’s career.

What exactly is he being held accountable for?

Last August, any hope that the pandemic would not become hyperpoliticized had long vanished. In some states, Republican officials had been mounting offensives against the mandating of vaccines. Meanwhile, colleges were scrambling to adjust to the more contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus. Public universities in some red states walked a tightrope between two constituencies — those conservative lawmakers, who hold the purse strings, and many faculty and staff members who wanted more rigorous protections against a potentially fatal disease.

Eric J. Barron, Penn State’s president, described in an open letter on August 12 how fraught the situation had become. Nationwide, every action responding to the pandemic “is being met with division and controversy.”

Covid regulations across the country “clearly reflect state-level political realities,” Barron wrote. In Pennsylvania, state funding for the university requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature. So that money “relies on strong bipartisan support.” (The Republican Party controls both chambers.) Barron described what steps Penn State had taken, like offering incentives to get vaccinated, and requiring testing for those who had not shown the university that they were inoculated.

The university’s approach to Covid, Barron wrote, was designed to “achieve the desired outcome, with as little polarization as possible.”

The president’s argument, to some, was insufficient. The next day, the University Faculty Senate, which represents 23 campuses, voted no-confidence in the university’s pandemic plan for the fall of 2021, and passed a resolution in support of a vaccine mandate. On August 27, a group called the Coalition for a Just University put on a rally in favor of such a measure.

On that Friday afternoon, a crowd of professors and some students convened on the hot pavement outside of Old Main, the university’s administrative hub. The semicircular plaza in front of the building is a designated free-speech zone. Virtually every attendee was masked. They stood, in Bermuda shorts and sun hats, socially distanced, waiting for the demonstration to begin.

Before it did, Avi Rachlin arrived. The 20-year-old business-management major in the orange neon vest was unmasked and carrying his homemade sign. One side displayed a meme about vaccine-passport supporters and tweets referring to Anthony S. Fauci’s evolving predictions of when the pandemic would end. On the other side was a warped picture of Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist, pointing a gun. The photo was overlaid with the text, “Shut the Fuck Up Liberal.” Next to Jones’s picture was an anti-vaccine meme depicting what’s called a “nonplayer character” — a gray humanoid meant to represent people who do not think for themselves — being injected with syringes. That picture was emblazoned with “Govern Me Harder Daddy.” Among most crowds, Rachlin would’ve stood out. Among the rally’s bookish crowd, he especially did.

When he arrived, attendees remember, Rachlin began shouting anti-Covid vaccine messages. At one point, he asked the crowd whether, if they support Black Lives Matter, did they support the Black New Yorkers who were banned from going into restaurants and to work because they hadn’t taken the “experimental” vaccine? (New York City had recently announced it would mandate the vaccine for workers and patrons of indoor dining establishments, among other businesses.) He shouted about Fauci and Fauci’s emails, and later about how in Australia, even the vaccinated are allowed outside their homes only “one hour a day.” (Australia imposed strict lockdowns, and, in parts of Sydney, restricted people’s outdoor exercise time.)

Michael O. West, a professor of African American studies, history, and African studies who helped host the rally, said he tried to get the demonstration underway but he couldn’t initially, because of Rachlin’s volume. He was like a “one-man wrecking ball” said another faculty member, which, from a tactical standpoint, he allowed, was impressive.

The Chronicle reviewed eight videos and hundreds of photos, and spoke with 27 people who were at the demonstration, including Rachlin, who said he was “not interested in getting myself in trouble.” As for his volume? “I definitely would say that I was loud.” He remembered “reciting off numerous facts about the vaccine, its real-life effects,” like “a broken record.”

Some of Rachlin’s comments were about more than Covid. People remember him at various times cursing, telling someone to “go to hell,” calling someone a “bitch.” Asked what his degree is in, Rachlin replied with his major, and a jeering, “What’s yours, gender studies?” Some people in the crowd booed Rachlin or yelled at him to leave. One woman sprayed her water bottle in his direction.

Rachlin wasn’t the only counterprotester at the rally. A handful of dissenters stood toward the back, near the grass, and held signs with slogans like “My Body My Choice” and “Enough Medical Tyranny.” They booed pro-mandate speakers occasionally. Rachlin didn’t appear to be associated with them. He moved through the crowd, and got in people’s faces, attendees said. Rachlin was “deliberately lunging at people, including me,” said Eduardo Mendieta, one of the rally’s organizers and a professor of philosophy and Latina/o studies. At some point, Rachlin bumped against him, Mendieta said. “I’ve been to many protests, and this was strange.”

Rachlin, when asked if he remembered bumping into people, said, “I remember people bumping into me.”

Minutes after Rachlin arrived, Kirk French, a teaching professor of anthropology, called the campus police. “The guy seemed violent, you know? And I was like, I don’t know what’s about to unfold,” French said. “Plus, everybody’s at fever pitch, on both sides, vaccine mandates, anti-vaxxers, everybody.”

Meanwhile, some people chose to stop engaging with Rachlin. “As soon as I asked him one question, then he made it obvious that his response was going to be, you know, combative rather than conversational,” said Michael Schmierbach, an associate professor of media studies who’d asked Rachlin about his degree. “It didn’t make much sense to me to keep talking to the guy.”

A handful of people, including Baker, made the opposite choice. They began to shadow Rachlin around the demonstration. As tensions mounted, “We’re like, OK. This has turned very aggressive,” said Bailey Campbell, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering. “We need to get his attention, get him away from people.” She told The Chronicle she’d done what’s called “de-escalation” work at local protests before, as had Baker. The basic tactics, she said, are to “buy time” and “remove fuel.” That means separating aggressive people from what seems to have made them angry, and spreading out that interaction over time.

Baker (in striped shirt), an assistant professor of English and African American studies, blocks Rachlin (in neon vest), a student and anti-vax protester, from vaccine supporters.

Steven Rubin

Baker (in striped shirt) blocks Avi Rachlin, a student (in neon vest), from other protesters.

Baker did most of the talking. He kept asking Rachlin to go to the side of the protest, to have a conversation away from other people. Rachlin, who remembers that similarly, wasn’t interested.

The people in the group, including Baker, began putting their bodies between Rachlin and others at the rally, blocking his path toward the center of the demonstration and the speakers. At times one or more of them formed a human shield, of sorts, standing very close to him with their arms outstretched. As Rachlin moved through the protest, they moved with him. According to Campbell, Rachlin began shouldering them, attempting to force his way through. Otis Williams, then a Penn State undergraduate, was part of the group. According to Williams, Rachlin at one point tried to move back toward the center of the protest. Williams and another person stood in his way, trying to be “some sort of presence.” That’s when Rachlin “put his shoulder into me, and, like, pushed me to the side. And I remember just thinking, like, ‘What is going on?’”

Rachlin, the student Otis Williams (black shirt), and a third demonstrator make contact.

Steven Rubin

Rachlin, the student Otis Williams (black shirt), and a third demonstrator make contact.

Rachlin told The Chronicle that because people were following him and “constantly trying to block me in on all sides,” he felt that moving around the demonstration was the only way for him to stay safe. At one point, he “needed to just get out, so I forced my way out of the enclosed space.”

Moments later is when it happens. Baker grabs Rachlin’s sign. That decision, and what followed, could ruin Baker’s career.

Avi Alexander Rachlin loves a stunt. Or at least he used to. Scroll through his YouTube channel, under the name “avsterbone,” and you’ll find titles like “I Must MASTURBATE At Wendys!!! (Prank Call).” In the 2018 clip, Rachlin tells a Wendy’s employee over the phone that he’s a customer who would now like to masturbate in the restaurant’s lavatory — or, he offers, on her face.

Rachlin, who’s from Freehold Township, N.J, has lived much of his life on the internet. He posts on Reddit channels like r/Anarcho_Capitalism (he described himself politically to The Chronicle as a “libertarian anarcho capitalist” who believes in “maximum human liberty, maximum self-responsibility” and privatizing government), and r/progun (self-explanatory). It’s often not clear whether he is trying to be offensive as a gag or is expressing his opinion. Replying to a 2021 Reddit post about male primary-school teachers in Spain wearing skirts, to show students that they can dress how they want, regardless of gender, Rachlin commented, “Faggots.” Asked by The Chronicle for context, Rachlin said, “I think that’s a faggot thing to do.”

“I’m going to do me, say what I want, and not really care about it,” Rachlin said. “And if people don’t want to be associated with the real, authentic me, that is totally fine.”

Offline, too, Rachlin has no problem speaking his mind, or objecting to authority figures. He filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against his hometown police chief, for example, after his application for a firearms purchaser-identification card was denied, arguing that the denial was unconstitutional. According to court documents, when reviewing Rachlin’s application, the chief came across what he called some “serious concerns” stemming from a May 2017 incident at Rachlin’s home. Rachlin, then 15, had been making “racially charged” YouTube videos, which his parents disapproved of. As a consequence, “electronics and power” were “taken out from his room” but Rachlin “tried to rewire the outlets,” a police report says. He was evaluated — voluntarily, according to Rachlin — at CentraState Medical Center and was released a few hours later. According to the attending therapist’s notes, Rachlin indicated that he was expressing “his First Amendment right of free expression.” He didn’t understand what the fuss was about.

Covid became another preoccupation for Rachlin. When the vaccines first came out, Rachlin said, he wanted one. But then, he said, he started learning about myocarditis, about the prominent Covid-vaccine skeptics Peter McCullough and Robert Malone. “I got really into Tucker Carlson … watching a lot of his stuff, and all of this kind of really radicalized me” to the fact that “something really scary is going on. And I don’t trust the process anymore. I’m afraid. And I’m not going to be a lab rat.” His concern ramped up in August 2021, when, as Covid-transmission levels rose across Pennsylvania, Penn State announced that masks would be required indoors at all campuses. Rachlin did not approve.

“A vocal minority of whining, pink-haired, nose-ringed libtards created enough noise to cause an about face,” he wrote in an Instagram post. He formed Penn State Resistance, which bears the slogan “No Authoritarianism. No Tyranny. Freedom Only.” (It’s pretty much a party of one.) On Reddit, he posted an email he had sent to Penn State’s Office of Student Conduct, in which he said that the office must “disapprove of this org and want to shut it down. I am here to tell you that won’t happen.” With “complete sincerity, I am telling you that I do not want nor plan to get in trouble.”

However, he continued, “I will not complete these 2 years on the sidelines. I will be in the spotlight.”

That he was. On that Friday in August, all attention was on Rachlin. He told The Chronicle he wanted to represent the faction of people who’d chosen not to get vaccinated, to say, “We don’t like this idea. Please listen to us.”

On Twitter, his tone was more aggressive. These “SJW libtards are going to get an earful from me as I’ll be counterprotesting with actual facts & science. Get ready!”

To Rachlin, the idea that people perceived him as a threat is ludicrous. He described his sign as “goofy” and said he was wearing a construction vest for his own visibility and safety.

During his conversation with The Chronicle, Rachlin seemed unable or unwilling to understand how others might view him. Days after the rally, French, the teaching professor who had called the police to the protest, and Laurel Pearson, an assistant teaching professor of anthropology who is married to French, published an opinion piece in The Hill, arguing that Penn State and other public universities had an imperative to mandate vaccines. Two days later, Rachlin emailed them, asking to interview them about their op-ed over Zoom. When they didn’t respond, Rachlin followed up. “Thank you for the request, but we are not taking part in interviews,” French wrote back. A few hours later, Rachlin emailed the registrar, asking for French’s and Pearson’s class schedules, class locations, and office hours. A department assistant forwarded the email to the faculty members because it seemed “weird.”

By then, French had looked up Rachlin online. He realized Rachlin was the guy from the rally and had come across his lawsuit over the firearms permit. French teaches an anthropology class in an enormous lecture hall. “If you wanted to do maximum damage at this university, this would be one of the classrooms to do it in.”

French contacted the campus police, who contacted Rachlin, who told the officer that his goal was to conduct an “ambush interview.” The officer told Rachlin that “this was not advisable” and that his behavior was making French “feel uncomfortable, and rightly so,” according to an email that Dustin Miller, the officer, wrote to French, summarizing the interaction. Miller told Rachlin that if he contacted French or Pearson again it could be considered harassment. Rachlin agreed not to contact them. He told the officer he “understood how his behavior” could have been unwelcome and apologized to Miller.

Talking to The Chronicle, Rachlin was less than contrite. “What a coward!” he said, of French. “It was very clear that my intention was to talk to him about his article and challenge his views. So to hide behind the wall of fear — ‘Oh my god, I’m so scared of this guy’ — I believe is a disingenuous take.”

Same goes for Oliver Baker’s intentions on the day of the rally. When he and others encouraged Rachlin to move to the side so they could talk, did they want a sincere conversation?

“Of course not,” Rachlin said. The idea that people who are “literally advocating for the coerced medical treatment of the general population” want to talk rationally is “laughable.”

So what did they want?

“Me to shut up.”

He would not. As Rachlin was led away from the rally, “the police” threatened “to arrest and charge me with disorderly conduct if I kept raising my voice,” Rachlin later tweeted. He was assessed by the university’s ambulance service, then taken to Mount Nittany Medical Center for further evaluation, according to the criminal complaint. Rachlin suffered a bloody nose, and posted a photo. He also tweeted a photo of a drop of blood that fell on his poster, writing that it would “serve as a reminder that rights come with a cost.”

Rachlin is led away by the campus police.

Steven Rubin

Rachlin is led away by the campus police.

It was clear, Rachlin wrote on Twitter, that a “thug” stole his property and that he was “brutalized.” In reply to the 17-second video of the incident, posted by Centre County Report, he tagged Tucker Carlson and Fox News. His voice “CAN NOT and WILL NOT be silenced,” he wrote on Twitter.

Remarking on a Centre Daily Times reporter’s account of the protest that “some shoving” had occurred, Rachlin tweeted, “Don’t worry. If charges get filed it won’t be for ‘shoving.’ Perhaps Assault + Battery.” He punctuated the tweet with an upside-down smiley face.

Walter Oliver Baker, 37, comes from a rural, working-class background. He’s from Missouri and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Missouri at Kansas City before getting his Ph.D. in American literary studies from the University of New Mexico, in 2019. That year he started his position in both English and African American studies at Penn State. Landing a tenure-track job in the humanities anywhere these days is a stroke of good fortune. Landing a tenure-track job straight out of graduate school at a place like Penn State, especially when that graduate school, in the hierarchical world of academe, ranks lower than Penn State, is akin to winning the lottery.

Interested in “critical ethnic studies” and “critiques of racial capitalism and settler colonialism,” according to his faculty profile, Baker developed courses that spoke to “his goals and his vision for a more just society,” said Timeka N. Tounsel, an assistant professor of African American studies and media studies. His down-to-earth demeanor seemed to resonate with students. He runs his classroom without hierarchy, said Jess Rafalko, a graduate student in the English department.

Outside the classroom, Baker became a fixture at protests, including those put on by the 3/20 Coalition, an advocacy group that was formed after Osaze Osagie, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by the State College police in 2019. At some of those demonstrations, he’d engage with hecklers, said Bailey Campbell, trying to talk them down. He was good at it, she said.

In 2020, when the pandemic began, Baker helped create a mutual-aid organization that regularly passes out food and hygiene items like toothpaste and soap to people in need. The university wrote a story about the organization and included a photo of Baker standing next to his pickup truck, preparing to deliver a mattress to a local resident. Mutual aid, Baker is quoted as saying, is “a direct action sort of thing — people caring without any strings attached.”

Eleven days after the rally, in September 2021, Baker learned from his dean that he was being placed on leave, pending a university investigation into a “recent alleged assault against a student on campus,” Baker said in an email to The Chronicle. (He answered a few questions over email but declined an interview.) “That was the first that I had learned of the charges.”

He faced two misdemeanors — simple assault and disorderly conduct — and a summary charge of harassment. Avi Rachlin told the police that he was at the rally “to counterprotest peacefully and only sought to exercise his First Amendment right,” according to the criminal complaint, filed by Jesse Clark, a Penn State police officer. Citing the Centre County Report video, Clark writes that Baker, along with “several other males and one female,” had been “attempting to cordon off the victim” (Rachlin) “from moving freely.” Baker grabbed Rachlin’s sign and attempted “to take it by force.” The victim “holds on with both hands as” he “is subsequently pulled to the ground,” where the struggle continues. A few seconds later Rachlin is “back on his feet with a bloody face.” In a follow-up interview, Rachlin told the police that he might have struck his head when pulled to the ground by Baker, and that he believed his injury was caused by Baker’s shoulder making contact with his face.

But evidence soon emerged in court that would cast doubt on that narrative.

At Baker’s trial, in November, Rachlin gave his version of what happened, which mirrored the criminal complaint.

Then Baker gave his. (There’s no transcript of the trial, which took place in a magisterial district court, but The Chronicle spoke with several people who were there, and one of them, Will Weihe, a graduate student, along with Baker’s lawyer, provided notes of the proceedings.)

Baker told the courtroom that he’d wanted to attend the rally to hear a friend speak. He walked to Old Main around 3 p.m. and noticed someone who was yelling loudly, wearing an orange vest, and holding a sign with a picture of Alex Jones brandishing a gun. Baker said he assumed that person was a local resident, not a student. He heard Rachlin say, “Shut the fuck up, bitch” to a woman who’d asked him to leave. He described trying to defuse the situation by asking Rachlin if they could talk at the edge of the rally.

Baker said that to keep Rachlin from knocking someone down, he decided to stand between him and the speakers. When they were in close proximity, Baker said, Rachlin hit him a few times in the face with his sign.

Baker testified that when he again approached Rachlin to ask him to go to the edge of the rally, Rachlin lowered his shoulder into Baker’s chest and put his sign in Baker’s face. When Baker grabbed the sign to move it, Rachlin threw his body against Baker and tried to put him in a headlock. Trying to step back, Baker felt Rachlin’s hands grab at his throat. (Campbell told The Chronicle she saw Rachlin put his shoulder into Baker. Other people at the rally who saw the scuffle said they saw Rachlin with his hands near Baker’s head and neck.)

Oliver Baker and Avi Rachlin, at odds.

Craig Houtz

Baker and Rachlin, at odds.

Steven Rubin, a documentary photographer and Penn State professor of art, was at the rally and captured that moment — not the initial sign grab, but right after. He snapped 118 photos of Rachlin that day, some of which were presented at Baker’s trial. They show Rachlin and Baker engaged in a struggle; Baker is stooped over and Rachlin is positioned above him. They show people rushing toward them. Then, after Rachlin and Baker break apart, they show Rachlin in a tussle with two other people. Baker is not involved, and there’s no photo that depicts the two of them going to the ground together, or Baker pulling Rachlin to the ground, as the criminal complaint alleges.

Julian Allatt, Baker’s defense attorney, who is not involved in the university’s case against Baker, cross-examined Rachlin at Baker’s trial and showed the student those photos. According to Allatt’s notes, Rachlin “admitted that he engaged in a physical struggle with two other individuals after he pulled away from Prof. Baker and that during this physical struggle, his nose was not yet bleeding.” (A drop of blood appears on Rachlin’s poster when he stoops to pick it up.) According to Weihe’s notes, Allatt asked Rachlin if Baker had pulled him to the ground. To which Rachlin replied “something like, ‘No I guess not. I can’t see where he did.’”

rule line

Scuffle sequence

These photos, taken over about eight seconds, show the struggle between Avi Rachlin and Oliver Baker. After Baker and Rachlin are separated, Rachlin is shown in another scuffle with two other protest attendees.

rule line

In fact, that day in court, the question of whether Baker had assaulted Rachlin wasn’t even on the table. The misdemeanor assault and disorderly conduct charges had been thrown out in October because the “evidentiary theories” upon which those charges were based were “inadequate to sustain proof beyond reasonable doubt,” according to an order signed by Sean McGraw, then deputy district attorney, and Steven F. Lachman, the magisterial district judge. After Baker was charged, Allatt conducted his own investigation and sent that evidence, including Rubin’s photos of the struggle, to McGraw, who then dropped the two most serious of the three charges.

Only a summary charge, less than a misdemeanor, of harassment remained on the table. The offense Baker faced requires intent — evidence that Baker followed Rachlin around a public place with the purpose of harassing, annoying, or alarming him.

Crystal Hundt, an assistant district attorney, argued in court that Baker should not have followed Rachlin or blocked his movement, that if he truly thought Rachlin was dangerous, he would have called the police. Yes, Rachlin might’ve been acting like a “jerk” but he had a right to be there and be heard, and Rachlin’s actions did not justify Baker’s behavior, Hundt said, according to Weihe’s notes.

Allatt argued that Baker engaged with Rachlin because he was trying to ensure the safety of others. During the trial, other rally attendees testified that they found Rachlin to be an aggressive presence. Paul M. Kellermann, a teaching professor of English, testified that right before Rachlin was taken away by the police, he started charging in the direction of the speaker. Kellermann, who stood at the bottom of the steps, “turned sideways … and braced for impact,” he wrote in a witness statement. Rachlin “bounced off me” and wandered in another direction.

The judge didn’t take long to render a verdict: Baker was not guilty.

Rachlin and Baker at the August 2021 protest, after Rachlin’s nose begins to bleed.

Steven Rubin

Rachlin and Baker at the August 2021 protest, after Rachlin’s nose begins to bleed.

Baker expected that the university would agree, he told The Chronicle. But later that month, Clarence Lang, his dean, told the assistant professor that he was initiating a process that could lead to his dismissal.

According to Penn State’s policy, tenured and tenure-track faculty members can be fired for a few reasons, including “grave misconduct,” which is what Baker is accused of committing. They must be provided with a written notice of the alleged misconduct and given a chance to respond in writing, in person, or both. After an initial meeting, the appropriate administrator can choose to dismiss the matter “if no serious concerns remain.” If they do remain, the dean will consult the provost. If they both concur that “the disciplinary sanction of termination for adequate cause is warranted,” the case will go to the Standing Joint Committee on Tenure, which has its own evaluation process. Ultimately, the committee, made up of two administrators and three faculty members, can conduct a hearing and render a recommendation to the president, who is the final decision maker.

On January 10, Lang notified Baker that, after consulting with Nicholas P. Jones, the provost, he would refer his case to the joint committee on tenure if Baker did not submit a letter of resignation by the close of business on January 18, Baker said in an email. Baker declined to do so.

Word got around. Faculty members and students got angry, especially as screenshots of Rachlin’s offensive internet posts began to circulate, including his response to a Reddit prompt asking what readers would do if, for 24 hours, they could not be killed or be charged with any crimes. He wrote, in part, “To start, I’d rape a bunch of really hot girls … I’d definitely shoot up a school and make sure ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ is blasting on the loud speaker.” (Rachlin told The Chronicle that he thinks it’s “hilarious that people are, like, outraged” over a post posing a “hypothetical, nonreal situation.”)

Students, especially, see Baker’s possible termination as a choice Penn State is making about what values to uphold. “By persecuting Dr. Baker, they’re siding with Rachlin,” an undergrad who asked not to be named told The Chronicle. Fliers appeared around campus, including in Rachlin’s dorm, calling Rachlin a “dangerous white supremacist” and rape supporter.

Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs, said the Office of Student Conduct investigates every report it gets, including ones regarding social-media posts, but that there’s a “very high bar” for punishing speech. Generally, a threat has to be severe or pervasive enough to cause “legitimate, reasonable anxiety” that might prevent that person “from full participation in the life of the university,” Sims said. That doesn’t mean the office does nothing. Even without a formal charge, Sims said, there’s “opportunity for engaging with students on either side of the divide.”

Sims was also bothered by a petition demanding that Rachlin be expelled. The petition says in part that if the administration “does not honor our demand to expel Rachlin, it’s up to the students and people of Penn State to take matters into our own hands.” That sentiment, Sims said, is “deeply irresponsible and troubling.”

“Even if you do not find particular individuals all that appealing in various ways, we cannot have people inviting that kind of response to disagreements that they have with others,” Sims said. People “have to have faith in our processes.”

When it came to the process for considering Baker’s termination, faculty members were losing faith. At a January Faculty Senate meeting, a few senators pressed for more information about Baker’s case. It’s “affecting all of us, in terms of our understanding of what freedom of speech means on campus,” one faculty member said. Barron, the president, replied that as the final arbitrator in Baker’s case, he couldn’t address her question. In an interview with The Chronicle, Jones, the provost, stressed the importance of confidentiality in personnel matters.

I’ve been in this job and in leadership roles for a long time,” Jones said. “There’s always a desire for people to know more information.” When people don’t know that information, he said, they get frustrated. “I understand that and respect that. And I’m sure when I was a younger faculty member, I probably got frustrated at my prior institution, about not knowing the things that I thought that I should know.” But “we just don’t think these should be aired in public.” (Both Jones and Sims were made available for an interview on the condition that they would not go into details about Baker’s case or about Rachlin.)

Signs and banners at a January 2022 rally in support of Oliver Baker.

Caleb Craig, The Daily Collegian

Signs and banners at a January 2022 rally in support of Oliver Baker.

In the absence of information, Baker’s case became a sort of Rorschach test. “Everyone’s playing ‘guess the motive,’” said Michael Bérubé, a professor of literature at Penn State.

Some people who spoke with The Chronicle saw the initial charging of Baker by the campus police as a retaliatory act. The theory goes like this: Baker is a well-known activist in State College who has been critical of the police. He’s a known entity to officers in other police departments, and the law-enforcement community is tightknit. So of course he got the book thrown at him. Two people remembered separate incidents before the rally last year in which a police officer whom Baker did not know addressed him by name.

A spokesperson for the university’s police department declined The Chronicle’s request to interview someone about Baker’s case, saying it is “longstanding practice to maintain the confidentiality of the department’s investigations.”

Others say Baker’s case is a symptom of Penn State’s broader distaste for faculty activism and criticism. With Baker’s possible termination, “they are intending to send a message to all professors,” said Gary King, a professor of biobehavioral health, that they will “prosecute anyone who attempts to protest or to raise serious questions about university policy.”

Barron, the president, has vigorously opposed that idea, in the abstract. When a faculty senator asserted at the January meeting that there was a culture of fear about speaking out at Penn State, Barron said he was “personally insulted by that particular viewpoint.” He said he and other administrators spend “an enormous amount” of time protecting “this faculty and their right to teach and to speak.”

“We all came from the faculty,” he said. “None of us magically switched sides and decided we were going to retaliate against someone for speaking.”

Regardless, Baker’s case has made at least a few Penn State faculty members question their own sense of security. “I’ll never be prepared for when the institution decides that you’re a liability,” said a colleague of Baker’s in the African American-studies department.

“This whole thing, I keep saying, like, it disgusts me. But really maybe the more appropriate word is that it scares me,” said French, the teaching professor of anthropology. “I don’t know what kind of security any of us have,” he said. Not if Baker, a tenure-track professor, can be let go for something “this minor.”

The university doesn’t consider what Baker did minor. It accused him of committing grave misconduct and is now undertaking a process to prove it. It’s not possible to know what the university investigators who scrutinized Baker’s behavior at the rally, or the dean, who reviewed that information, or the provost, who conferred with the dean, see in Baker’s actions. Maybe they don’t buy the version of events that Baker, and presumably others at the demonstration, have presented. Maybe they don’t view Rachlin as a legitimately threatening presence. Maybe they think that if Baker really found Rachlin menacing, he should have called the police and waited for officers to arrive, rather than intervening himself. Maybe they think that Baker, by intervening in the way he did, is responsible for whatever happened as a result, including an injury to a student.

Baker’s supporters laud the assistant professor for his choices that day, saying he should be applauded for his attempts to keep rally attendees safe. But that’s not the only lens through which to view his actions. Jesse Barlow, a professor of computer science and engineering, was at the August demonstration. Grabbing Rachlin’s sign was, in Barlow’s view, bad judgment. To Raymond Najjar, another attendee and a professor of oceanography, it was clear that Rachlin wanted some sort of confrontation. Baker “took the bait, and he shouldn’t have,” Najjar said. “That was a mistake, I think.”

Still, Barlow, Najjar, and every faculty member who spoke with The Chronicle did not think he should be fired for his actions. “I’ve seen people not terminated for much worse judgment than that,” Barlow said.

Punishment in the workplace should be corrective, not punitive, said Paul F. Clark, a professor of labor and employment relations, who studies unions and labor management. And punishment should fit the offense, said Clark, who was at the August rally and noted that he thought Baker was acting as a good Samaritan. It’s not as if Baker threw a punch, he said. “If you wanted to say he got himself in the middle of something that he shouldn’t have been, and the guy ended up with a bloody face, all right. Well, then you suspend him, maybe.” You tell him “if you do anything like this again, you’re gone,” Clark said. It’s possible the university has other information informing its decision, Clark allowed. But barring that, Baker’s behavior does not seem deserving of “the capital punishment of the workplace.”

Baker’s Penn State job is not the only thing at stake. If he’s fired for cause, it’s possible, even likely, that he’ll have serious trouble getting hired for a tenure-track position at another college. Colleagues of Baker’s have been pressing administrators to reconsider. Bérubé said the English department wrote a letter to the dean, testifying to what Baker has contributed to the department intellectually, and also saying, essentially, “If you still think he’s done something wrong, there’s other off-ramps here.”

Bérubé, who once chaired the Faculty Senate and has served on the Standing Joint Committee on Tenure, has been at Penn State since 2001. He’s a keen observer of academe who’s written several books about higher education. He’s the type of professor to whom lots of faculty members turn when they need someone to read university tea leaves.

When Baker was placed on administrative leave, Bérubé’s first piece of advice to concerned colleagues was, essentially, “calm down.” That’s “completely routine. … This will all be sorted out. It’ll be fine,” he said.

Then, in November, when Baker was acquitted, Bérubé thought, “Ok good. We’re done.”

He was wrong.


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