UVM Professor's Viral Video Prompts Calls for His Resignation | Off Message

UVM Professor's Viral Video Prompts Calls for His Resignation


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Updated 12:55 p.m.

University of Vermont students and faculty members are calling for the resignation of professor Aaron Kindsvatter in response to a video he posted last week, in which he claimed that he feels ostracized for being white.

On March 8, Kindsvatter, a professor of counseling in the College of Education and Social Services, uploaded the video to YouTube, titled “Racism and the Secular Religion at the University of Vermont.” In the nine-minute video, which has since received more than 15,000 views, Kindsvatter asserted that he “first heard of whiteness” when a faculty colleague “offered to help [him] with it, like it was some kind of disease,” as he put it. “It was a dehumanizing experience,” he said.

“I never expected the concept of whiteness to endure, because it's so obviously discriminatory,” Kindsvatter continued. “But not only has this ideology endured within the university, it has flourished.” He cited a July teach-in organized by UVM’s Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, called “Turning the Conversation to Whiteness,” as an instance “in which a number of vague social ills were associated in a causal way with people of a particular race.”

Among his immediate concerns, he noted in the video, is a policy initiative, slated for adoption within the College of Education and Social Services, that would incorporate scholar and historian Ibram X. Kendi’s definitions of “racist” and “anti-racist” into the program’s teaching philosophy. “If this policy is passed, in speaking up against what many would consider to be an anti-racist teaching, but one that makes a causal connection between people of that particular race and vaguely defined societal ills, I would be considered, in a way that is consistent with program policy... a racist,” he said.

On Saturday, the heads of UVM Sisters of Color, a student organization, launched a Change.org petition demanding that Kindsvatter step down — on the grounds, the authors contend, that the views he expressed in the video endanger students of color and undermine the university’s purported values. The petition, which has so far garnered more than 1,800 signatures, includes a screenshot of a supportive comment on Kindsvatter’s video, which reads: “if I am ever confronted I am going to tell them” — referring to proponents of anti-racism — “to go to hell. There will be no discussion and if they persist I’m going to knock the shit out of them.” Kindsvatter replied: “damn straight.”

Ayanna McDaniel, a sophomore in the College of Education and Social Services and a vice president of UVM Sisters of Color, was outraged by Kindsvatter’s video. “We couldn’t stay silent on it,” she said. “A UVM professor shouldn’t be saying those things, and he definitely shouldn’t be able to represent the university.” Senior Josephine Mercado, president of UVM Sisters of Color, said she was equally angered and saddened by Kindsvatter's remarks. "Then I started reading the comments on the video, and I went from being upset to feeling unsafe," she said. "This is an educator who's condoning violence against students. I think there's a feeling on campus, especially among students of color, of being terrified." Some of her peers, she added, are considering transferring from UVM because of Kindsvatter's behavior. 

Kindsvatter made headlines in 2016 for criticizing a team at UVM charged with investigating incidents of bias and harassment on campus, arguing that the university's policies "[opened] the doors for censorship of anyone of any ideological perspective who says something in class that could potentially offend somebody else," as he told Seven Days at the time

He felt compelled to speak out again after a UVM administrator commented that debates about newly adopted diversity, equity and inclusion requirements in the curriculum were resulting in “harm,” he told Seven Days on Monday. “I have noticed that words like ‘harm’ and ‘unsafe’ have been used as a kind of cudgel in my department and in the counseling program in order to gain ideological compliance and to maintain ideological conformity,” Kindsvatter wrote in an email. “As a counselor, I have often seen this tactic used in abusive relationships; it’s called emotional blackmail.”

According to Kindsvatter, he had been unaware of the petition seeking his resignation until Seven Days asked him for comment. “I think the fact that this has happened is both interesting and useful,” he said. “In family counseling, therapists often facilitate an ‘enactment’ — that is, they watch the family interact in order to make dysfunctional ways of relating become apparent. This petition would seem to be an enactment of what is going on within society, and what is being taught within universities like UVM. I suspect that it paints a vivid picture of what happens to professors who step out of acceptable ideological bounds.”

Kindsvatter's email signature contains an excerpt from the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics, which reads: "Counselors are aware of—and avoid imposing—their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees, and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature."

Asked whether he would seek training if a client voiced discomfort with his views on race, Kindsvatter demurred. "I expect that, were I successful in therapy with such a client, that they would come to understand both of us as individuals rather that as abstract composites of either our race or of holders of particular opinions," he said.

In an interview with Seven Days, Scott Thomas, dean of the College of Education and Social Services, disavowed the statements Kindsvatter made in his video. “The video is completely inconsistent with our values and principles in the College of Education and Social Services and stands quite in contrast to the common ground values of the University of Vermont,” Thomas said. “And while we value the freedom of expression and the right of people to adhere to their worldviews, we really can't force our values and principles on people and ask them to adopt our institutional principles in ways that we might hope all would. And we do stand by the fact that we're entitled to promote those values at every turn.”

In a joint statement emailed last night to students and faculty in the College of Education and Social Services, Thomas and UVM provost Patricia Prelock said they would accommodate any student “who wishes to seek alternative courses taught by other faculty members to complete their program requirements.” Neither Thomas nor Prelock would comment on whether the administration might proceed with disciplinary action against Kindsvatter, who is tenured. Prelock did, however, indicate that Thomas has previously had “conversations” with Kindsvatter “to help him be thoughtful in how he engages and interacts in challenging topics.” “Sometimes, that’s successful,” Prelock said. “And sometimes, that isn’t.”

McDaniel, for her part, was disappointed in the statement from Thomas and Prelock. “Basically,” she said, “they told us, ‘We feel for you, and we value your voice,’ but they’re not actually giving us the opportunity to share our voice with them.”

Moving forward, Thomas said, he plans to involve students in the resolution process. “Giving our students agency in solving the tensions that exist around this specific incident is a top priority,” he said. “So we will be meeting with students in the college, and we’ll be wanting to know their perspectives and their sense of the solutions that exist.”

Meanwhile, said Mercado, she and the other leaders of UVM Sisters of Color have yet to receive any response to the multiple emails they’ve sent to Thomas and other administrators. "You have time to send out this blanket statement to the listserv, but apparently not to get back to the petition drafters about meeting and discussing the harm this individual has caused," she said. "If you actually valued our voices, you'd give us your time instead of just virtue-signaling."