Statement on Faculty Harassment and Defamation at American University

July 2020

For nearly two years, several faculty members of American University’s School of International Service (SIS) including myself—a foreign national holding a Green Card—have been harassed and defamed by an American University (AU) student. During this timeframe, AU conducted three related investigations that I am aware of: two in response to complaints filed in 2018 and 2020, respectively, and one requested by me in early March 2020.

The first investigation found me “to have behaved consistently and within the bounds of professionalism [and] did not see evidence that [Esser] treated [the student] differently than non-black students.” The second investigation did “not find [Esser] responsible for alleged retaliation” while observing “increasingly provocative accusations, including anti-German rhetoric directed against [Esser] in February 2020.”

In contrast to these findings, an online petition posted on Facebook and other social media on behalf of the student a few days ago states that the latter had been “found guilty in the [third] report of ‘Harassment,’ ‘Retaliation’ and ‘Discriminatory Harassment.’” This third report is marked “confidential” by the Dean of Students, but the student has apparently chosen to share their copy with the author of the online petition. Evidence of the petition’s wording can and will be provided should this case be adjudicated in legal proceedings.

Having enlisted the support of a faculty member in AU’s College of Arts and Sciences, Instagram and Twitter users affiliated with AU also posted and widely shared a libelous story about me around the same time. Using a “template [to] flood their inboxes” (Twitter post), numerous students have since sent e-mails to AU administrators and faculty demanding my “removal.”

Considering the ongoing defamation campaign’s severity and the actual damages it is causing, which range from students refusing to stay enrolled in my courses and public labeling of a fellow SIS faculty member as “the queen of the fucking KKK” to retractions of professional opportunities and documented health impacts, I urgently wish to clarify the following:

  • The claims in the aforementioned Instagram post are fabrications. At no point did “the topic of Germany c[o]me up” in any of the classes the student took with me in the fall of 2017. Instead, in February 2020, the student sent me a personal e-mail stating, “Fuck off back to Nazi Germany you piece of shit fucking shit [sic].” Nearly identical language appeared on the student’s Twitter channel at around the same time. The “Nazi” label echoed an earlier, equally false and unsubstantiated claim about my family, which the student had included in their 2018 complaint against me. I can and will provide evidence of these Title VII violations should this case be adjudicated in legal proceedings and in compliance with FERPA.

(For a background on ethical and legal dimensions of calling someone a Nazi, please read Andrew McFarlane’s story in BBC News. In the words of law professor Manfred Heinrich, as quoted by German public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle: “If I say, you’re a moron, you’re an idiot, you’re a Nazi, there’s of course more to it than the insult ‘you’re dumb.’ Saying ‘Nazi’ implies unscrupulous acts and barbarism.” In the same article, linguistics professor Heidrun Kämper explains that calling someone a Nazi invokes “the entire spectrum of a totalitarian dictatorship, the belief in conforming to one reality.”)

  • I equally refute the claim that I ever asked for so-called “wellness checks” (which in at least one case apparently resulted in a police visit) on any member of the AU community, past or present, nor did I ever report to AU’s Police Department (AUPD) or any other police force that anyone was intent on killing me. There is no evidence to corroborate such claims, and I can and will testify to this effect should this case be adjudicated in legal proceedings. Following advice from AU administrators, I did on two occasions ask for unarmed AUPD escorts—as did other SIS faculty members—and I would do so again if given the same advice by my employer.
  • During a recent sanction panel related to this matter, I did not ask for anyone’s dismissal. Rather, I asked for the student “to be educated on these issues, and [stated that] I hope that this will help [the student] realize that people actually care about [the student] and do not want [the student] to give up on [their] aspirations.” There are five non-party witnesses to this statement. Not even two hours after the panel had met virtually, I – together with sixteen other SIS faculty members – was informed in writing that a decision on the student’s status had in fact already been made. I was not privy to this information at the point when I met with the sanction panel.
  • I continue to affirm that much suffering and disillusionment have been felt by all parties involved in this matter during the past two years. To some, especially those who have been part of the ongoing social media campaign, this statement may ring hollow. Some may be so enraged by the broader context in this country (and justifiably so) as to be unable to view the facts of this case objectively. I most sincerely hope that there will come a time when reconciliation will be possible.

I continue to join in the global outcry about racism, as I have done for years. Many long for radical structural changes, and rightly so. Tremendous damage has already been done to all those who seek to separate facts from fiction, as challenging as this can be. I believe that we must focus on systemic change first and foremost, and on case-by-case action if and when the facts merit it. At American University—and everywhere—we must seek full inclusion and diversity, with all the individual challenges this entails. When we take shortcuts, I am afraid all of us will lose.

I therefore once again urge American University to take effective action to protect all members of the AU community against discrimination, harassment and retaliation whenever these occur in our midst – no matter by whom.

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