David Peterson, an art professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and his wife, Andrea, were recently targeted by outraged Skidmore students. In late July, they had checked out a “Back the Blue” rally in their city, not as participants but as mere spectators. A month later, as students returned to campus, they found themselves in the middle of a whirlwind smear campaign that threatened their otherwise impeccable reputations, and their livelihood.
“It was really pure curiosity. My wife and I were simply curious about the rally. To be honest, it was almost an afterthought. We thought we should go down and just see what it looked like,” Peterson says. He believes a recent Skidmore graduate might have been in the crowd on July 30 — most likely participating in the Black Lives Matter counter-protest — but he’s not entirely sure who saw him at the rally and hurled the first smear. “I have heard that it was an alumni who may very well have been a student that I even knew or possibly worked with. It has also been suggested to me that it was a student who had never taken my class,” he says. “At any rate, they knew who we were immediately, and within an hour the social-media campaign had started against us.”
The morning after the rally, Peterson awoke to an email from a Skidmore alumnus, who warned him that angry students had taken to social media, demanding his resignation. He immediately contacted Skidmore’s administration. The accusatory emails then flooded in. “I estimate probably well over a thousand emails were sent to the president accusing me of racism, primarily, but then attaching sexism and a range of other types: gender bias, homophobia, and transphobia,” he says.
What was the “logic” driving the campaign to move Peterson and boycott his classes (one of which has been canceled)? “Because we were present at the ‘Back the Blue’ rally, or at least in the vicinity of it, they [students] made the determination that one would not be at that rally if one was not opposed to Black Lives Matter,” Peterson says. “Therefore, my wife and I must be racist, and therefore, it is unacceptable that we would be in a position of teaching students on a diverse campus.”
When Skidmore launched its investigation into the accusations, the administration neither spoke with students who had taken Peterson’s class nor looked at his previous syllabi in depth. But they did comb through past course evaluations written by students. “They were probing to see if they could find any complaints that might support the idea that there was some type of bias in my class,” he says. He calls the accusations made against him “totally baseless, with no merit to any of them.”
“We all have individual perceptions. What a student might perceive to be bias may simply be a teaching style that doesn’t align with their expectations,” he adds. “All I can do is defend myself and say there is nothing within my own moral and ethical composition, nor within the intellectual structure of my courses that would suggest this kind of bias.”
Peterson did receive support from several colleagues, who reached out to him as the smear campaign ramped up, offering consolation and advice. He’s also quick to praise Skidmore’s handling of the incident. “In defense of the administration . . . there was never any pressure for me to resign,” he says. Although there has been no formal statement on the matter, he believes the investigation is concluded, and Skidmore has made no recommendation for any sanctions against him. “That’s about as close as I expect to get,” he says. “I don’t expect there to ever be any kind of public announcement that my name has been cleared. . . . I’m just going to get back to business and pretend nothing ever happened, and at some point in future, maybe students will have forgotten about it.”
Despite the successful boycott of his classes, and the assault on his reputation and character, Peterson remains hopeful for the future. “I’ve been here over 30 years. I could retire anytime I want,” he says. But he intends to keep teaching.
“It was tough for a while, but I don’t think I would have traded this experience for anything. It’s been an eye opener. . . . I’m glad it was me [and] not a junior faculty member, somebody who was untenured — it would’ve been devastating for their career.”