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Feminist professor survives cancelation for comparing transgenderism to QAnon

University ordered her to show "appropriate restraint" in sharing her views, but hasn't sanctioned her. She credits her lawyer's involvement.

Updated: May 3, 2021 - 8:37am

Two months before the University of Rhode Island (URI) publicly denounced a women's studies professor for comparing right- and left-wing "fantasy worlds," her program director allegedly tried to censor her curriculum.

Donna Hughes quickly got a lawyer. She credits that decision for saving her job and preventing the public university from further meddling in her teaching.

The professor put a target on her back by publishing an essay that argued the "trans-sex fantasy" is the left-wing counterpart to the right-wing QAnon conspiracy theory. It ran in 4W, a publication for "gender-critical" feminism, which sees transgender claims as a threat to women. 

URI identified Hughes by name in a late March statement that said her First Amendment rights and academic freedom were qualified by her "obligations" to students and the community. 

Her "anti-transgender perspectives … can cause pain and discomfort for many transgender individuals," it said. She must show "appropriate restraint" in expressing her views.

The dispute is emblematic of a recent survey of professors that found gender-critical feminists — often dubbed "trans-exclusionary" — are even more reviled than conservatives in academia.

Hughes, who leads graduate studies in the Gender and Women's Studies Program, told Just the News she has faced no sanctions for expressing her views, thanks to the early intervention of her lawyer, the civil liberties advocate Samantha Harris.

She believes URI backed down from trying to strip her of teaching core classes next year because she already had legal representation when the essay caused an outcry. Hughes has also not faced the university's "reeducation program."

The URI statement prompted a rebuke from Princeton University's Robert George, cofounder of the Academic Freedom Alliance, which had just launched. Hughes, one of the group's founding members, said George advised her during the dispute.

The alliance showed Just the News a warning letter it sent Colleges of Arts and Sciences Dean Jeannette Riley regarding Hughes. URI sent a "chilling message" to faculty by misrepresenting its "contractual commitments" under the American Association of University Professors' 80-year-old statement on academic freedom, it said.

Students trying to hijack disciplinary process with "cancelation campaign"

Hughes got in trouble Jan. 5 with her program director, Rosaria Pisa, for including the gender-critical website Feminist Current and a reading on "detransitioning" in her curriculum, which upset some students, according to a March 5 letter from Harris to her URI counterpart. 

The program director repeatedly told Hughes to "acknowledge" transgender students in her class, once invoking the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Harris. Pisa reiterated the directive when a "former sex worker" quit Hughes' class out of disagreement with the professor's view of sex trafficking, her academic specialty.

The letter sought URI's assurance that it would let her control her curriculum "without fear of investigation or disciplinary action." Peter Harrington, the university's interim general counsel, told Harris March 23 he would discuss the issue with colleagues.

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley resurrected the controversy on his high-profile blog April 29. He contrasted the university's denunciation of Hughes with its milder statement last fall about a professor who saw "nothing wrong" with murdering a right-wing activist.

"The only way that Hughes could not cause such harm [to transgender students] would be to stay silent on her criticism of the movement," Turley wrote. "This is a matter that runs to the very core of her writings as an academic and identity as a feminist."

The university didn't respond to queries asking for its response to Turley's analysis and Hughes' claims about its behavior toward her. Her program director, Rosaria Pisa, didn't respond to a request to provide her side about the curriculum dispute.

On April 30, Harris notified her URI counterpart that students had started a "cancellation campaign" against Hughes, citing the 4W essay and another that argued the Atlanta spa murders were "motivated by gender bias rather than racial bias."

Students were sharing instructions for reporting Hughes to URI's bias response team. Harris warned the university not to "allow its disciplinary process to be commandeered by students" to censor a faculty member. "The process itself becomes the punishment," she wrote.

"Unlike in the imaginary world of QAnon, real children are becoming actual victims"

Hughes laid out her problems with the transgender movement in her lengthy Feb. 28 essay in 4W, which refers to fourth-wave feminism. 

"The American political left is increasingly diving headfirst into their own world of lies and fantasy and, unlike in the imaginary world of QAnon, real children are becoming actual victims," she wrote.

The professor denounced the "hormonal and surgical horrors that de-sex" young people with gender dysphoria. "The sterilization of physically healthy individuals who fail to conform to society’s standards," she said, "mirrors the forced sterilizations of people during the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s."

Hughes told Just the News she submitted to 4W because of a "crackdown" on her views by mainstream feminist websites — not just trans skepticism but support for stronger measures against sex trafficking, her academic specialty.

She characterized her essay as a "thought experiment" on who would be her allies in opposition to both QAnon and trans arguments. "There's a lot of people like me who are feeling politically homeless" on the right and left, she said.

Hughes isn't sure how the essay became known on campus. "It wasn't like this was something I was giving students" or discussing with colleagues, she said.

The university's public denunciation followed a press release her dean wrote in consultation with the provost, according to Hughes. Her gender and women's studies colleagues wrote their own denunciation, which was sent to all students in the program. It was "a little shocking" at the time but not in retrospect, she said.

Students across the country contacted her with support, while others sought her counsel about how to even discuss the clash of feminism and transgenderism. Students in graduate and doctoral programs told her they have to be "totally silent" about what their views are so as not to upset their graduation committees, according to Hughes.

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