Jennifer McErlean, a philosophy professor at Siena College near Albany, New York, is evidently no fan of today’s conservative students — and not a fan of apologies, either.
And though Siena calls members of its college community “saints,” the behavior of at least some of those in power appears to fall short.
Earlier this week, McErlean denigrated conservative students and principles in an email to the president of the school’s Turning Point USA chapter, Antonio Bianchi, as Campus Reform originally reported. Bianchi, in turn, called on fellow nonliberal Siena students to contact the professor to express their feelings about the matter.
And Nicole Commisso, a junior at the school and the communications director for its Young Americans for Liberty club, took Bianchi up on that. In an open letter posted on Facebook this week, Commisso called the professor’s behavior “disgusting.”
Commisso indicated she was singled out by McErlean for her “conservative op-ed pieces in the college newspaper.” The right-leaning student added that McErlean’s email “shows the liberal/leftist bias on Siena College’s campus” and suggested the professor’s behavior was shameful.
DISGUSTING: Siena College Philosophy Professor, Jenn McErlean, out right states in an email that conservative students…
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LifeZette reached out to the student for further insight. “A year ago I wrote a controversial op-ed piece in the school newspaper, ‘White Privilege: Injustice Does Not Fix Injustice.’ This op-ed is the letter she is referring to in her email trashing Antonio and [me] as conservative students,” Commisso said in an email to LifeZette.
“This is no way for a professor to behave, in terms of [making light of the] threats toward students due to discrimination against their political beliefs,” the student added.
After the publication of her op-ed in The Promethean, the student said she “received many threats during this time.”
Commisso said a “girl pushed in my chair at the campus cafe, someone followed me and waited for me to get up from my seat to leave a ripped-up version of my article so I would see it when I got back, and a professor of mine refused to answer questions I had in her class because I wrote the article and did not believe in white privilege. The list goes on and on,” the student told LifeZette. “I definitely expect strong reactions from my pieces, but threats are unacceptable and should not be considered ‘ridiculous’ by a professor!”
In the email chain — which began as a conversation between Bianchi and an alum, and addressed an upcoming conservative conference — the philosophy professor indicated she’s quitting the civil discourse committee because “it was making me miserable thinking of how to work with students like Antonio,” as Campus Reform reported.
McErlean’s other controversial statements are, to put it bluntly, not to be believed. This professor — presumably a role model for the young students she’s teaching on campus — also suggested the following:
- that student Antonio Bianchi was lying about the number of like-minded conservative students on campus;
- that his description of conservative students who felt threatened was “ridiculous”;
- that Nicole Commisso’s letter was “insulting, false, and provocative”;
- that attendees of an upcoming free-speech conference should be greeted with a “silent, sign-carrying wall of people”; and
- that organizations on campus that are right-leaning are “evil”
Three groups on campus — Turning Point USA, the College Republicans, and the Young Americans for Liberty — are co-sponsoring a daylong event on April 15, titled “Let Freedom Ring,” which will feature a number of conservative presenters. Students, staff and administrators are invited to attend.
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Presenters will include lobbyist and commentator Roger Stone, Project Veritas founder and investigative journalist James O’Keefe, former presidential candidate Austin Petersen, Nico Perrino of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Christian Ragosta of the NRA, and Kassy Dillon, founder of Lone Conservative and a student at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
In an interview with LifeZette this week, a determined Dillon said that “[McErlean’s] actions show how needed this conference is.”
The Lone Conservative founder had just returned from the Generation Next forum in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. During the sit-down with young people at the White House, President Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Alexander Acosta, and others addressed millennial thought leaders such as Dillon. Among the topics: freedom of speech issues on today’s college campuses.
“I will welcome the ‘protest wall’ and try to have some dialogue with those students,” the Mount Holyoke senior told LifeZette.
Dillon also commented on the harassment that many student conservatives experience on campuses where liberalism dominates.
“If you’re going to be open about your views, you have to realize that your views can have repercussions, especially in liberal-dominated areas. So you’re going to have to have thick skin.”
Earlier this week, the president of Turning Point USA’s Siena chapter ran into the philosophy professor at the center of the controversy. The pair agreed they would like to talk in person. But when Anthony Bianchi pointed out to Professor McErlean that the email she sent was wrong, McErlean drew the line.
“She responded by saying, ‘I should not have directed it all individually on you, but the points I was making still stand,'” Anthony Bianchi told LifeZette in an interview.
“Students are tired of being told how to think and they are just waiting for someone to let them know they’re allowed to speak up,” Bianchi also said.
“When it comes to the [Let Freedom Ring] conference, Siena in general has been an exception,” he said. “Any faculty who mattered let Turning Point USA and the other groups host the conference as long as we followed all necessary policy. Administrators here have really set an example on how to make conservatives feel welcome on campus in the last couple weeks.”
But, he added, “professors have been horrible. They have tried to stop us every step of the way. They formed committees and email threads to shut down our clubs and [de]legitimize our members.”
Michael Bove, president of Siena’s Republicans club, one of the sponsors of the April conference, echoed Bianchi’s sentiments in an email to LifeZette. In addition, Bove is calling for disciplinary action.
“As far as I am concerned with Dr. McErlean, she is an embarrassment and an utter disgrace to the Siena community,” Bove told LifeZette.
“To directly single out and harass conservative students in the way she did is absolutely unacceptable, and I think there should be disciplinary actions against her. I think it’s also a shame that the college (and administrators) have not reprimanded her for her actions,” he added.
Commisso shares Bove’s determination to ensure McErlean is held accountable. “There has to be some consequence for her actions, and we will not drop it until there is,” she said. “There are many conservative students on campus who will not stop fighting for some justice to be found in this situation. If this was the other way around and a conservative professor discriminated [against] a liberal student, all hell would break loose. She should be suspended if not fired for her actions. We will not let this just wash away like Siena wants,” Commisso added.
The controversial letter isn’t the first time McErlean’s alleged liberal bias has been on display at Siena. Bove related a recent incident to LifeZette that took place on March 14, in which the professor, in violation of the event organizers’ specific request, politicized a moment of silence for the victims of the Parkland shooting.
“Students are tired of being discriminated against on college campuses and are happy someone is standing up for them.”
Specifically, the organizers, per Bove, “asked that no signs be displayed,” as they intended the event to serve as a politics-free venue for students to grieve and pay respects to the victims. Bove says McErlean snubbed that guidance and chose to display a sign at the event that said, “Ban AR-15s … #NeverAgain.”
Despite the controversy — or more accurately, perhaps because of it — Bianchi notes there has been an upside.
“Since this went everywhere, I have received over 100 emails, texts, or DMs [direct messages] from students at Siena saying how happy they are we are standing up. Overnight, someone distributed hundreds of flyers with the email [McErlean] wrote on it around campus. We do not know who but, the point is, students are tired of being discriminated against on college campuses and are happy someone is standing up for them,” Bove told LifeZette yesterday.
Commisso, who came up with the name for the Let Freedom Ring conference, agrees with Bove’s sentiments. She added, “We will not stop until justice is served — for not just Antonio and me, in terms of being discriminated against in an email from McErlean on her Siena email account — but for every conservative student who has been discriminated against just for being conservative.”
McErlean did not respond to LifeZette’s emailed invitation to comment. LifeZette also reached out to the Siena College administration.
In an emailed statement, Lisa Witkowski, Siena’s associate director of communications, shared these thoughts: “I can confirm that there was an email exchange last week among Dr. McErlean, one of our students, and an alumnus on the topic of free speech and civil discourse, and that all three have every right to discuss and debate this matter peacefully.”
She added, “On behalf of the college, I can state that we are committed to respecting academic freedom. It is no small challenge to respect both individual rights and the rights of the community, as well as the need to protect the common good. Among the goals of higher education is the open exchange of ideas and respect for opposing viewpoints. Using dialogue to come to a shared understanding helps inform the very foundation of our educational mission.”
This article has been updated with the Siena College statement.
Michele Blood is a Flemington, New Jersey-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to LifeZette.