Metro

Controversy trails new professor to BU

Educator’s comments on white males stir debate on race, academic freedom

An image from the Twitter account of Saida  Grundy, who starts this week as a Boson University professor.
An image from the Twitter account of Saida Grundy, who starts this week as a Boson University professor.

Incoming Boston University professor Saida Grundy stirred up an Internet frenzy last month over a heated string of tweets that disparaged white males. An uproar about academic freedom, self-expression, and alleged racism followed.

As the daughter of well-known civil rights activists, the newly minted PhD understands controversy, and has not generally shied away from hot-button topics, whether in class, in magazine articles she has penned, or online interviews.

But now, Grundy, who will start at BU on Wednesday, is trying to escape the firestorm and has declined several requests for interviews. The Globe contacted more than two-dozen friends, family, academic colleagues, and even her childhood dentist, all of whom declined to speak about her, sometimes after conferring with Grundy.

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A review of her credentials, writings, and family history, however, reveals a lifetime of forcing difficult conversations, undaunted by backlash.

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Grundy grew up in Kentucky, where she learned firsthand lessons about the civil rights movement. Her father attended the University of Kentucky in the 1960s, when it was still primarily a white school, an experience that took a toll on him, he later told an oral history project.

Grundy’s mother, Ann, participated with Martin Luther King Jr. in the famous march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and devoted her life to advocating for racial justice.

Grundy’s grandfather, Ann’s father, was the pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., until a few years before it was bombed in 1963 by the Ku Klux Klan, killing four young black girls. Even though Saida Grundy did not witness it, the event shaped her life, she later wrote in a magazine article.

“In the call for justice to roll like thunder, the Grundys are noisemakers and rollers,” a presenter said last year at a lifetime achievement award ceremony for Grundy’s parents at the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice.

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The debate about Saida Grundy’s tweets began last month, and although now her account is private, the messages are captured elsewhere online. One of the most often-cited calls white college males the “problem population” in America.

Among other tweets, she posted: “Every MLK week i commit myself to not spending a dime in white-owned businesses. and every year i find it nearly impossible.” And “can we just call st patrick’s day the white people’s kwanzaa that it is?”

While Grundy later apologized for the manner in which she communicated her thoughts, she didn’t apologize for the content. Indeed, the 30-something academic has spent her career studying and observing racial interactions.

At the University of Michigan, where Grundy earned both a master’s degree and last year a doctorate, she attempted to fill what she saw as a gap in academic research about middle-class black males.

“In contrast to scholarship on the ‘crisis of the black male,’ which repeatedly addresses young black men as a national problem, this project asks how black men experience an institution that bills them as solutions to that problem,” Grundy wrote in a 2012 paper.

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Grundy’s bluntness about race didn’t surprise Fatma Müge Göçek, her graduate school sociology professor at Michigan. In class, Grundy was passionate and lively, she said.

‘Every MLK week i commit myself to not spending a dime in white-owned businesses.’

Tweet by incoming BU professor Saida Grundy 

“She stood out among others,” Göçek said.

In academic sociology, she said, it is common to analyze situations in terms of power dynamics, race, and gender. And throughout history, white men have held the most power and influence.

“She’s a sociologist, that’s the lens through which she sees the world,” Göçek said.

In a 2013 Huffington Post video interview, Grundy railed against black Greek life organizations, calling them corrupt and mismanaged.

Even Grundy’s everyday communications hint at her spunk. E-mails sent from her phone arrive with this tagline: “[sent from an overpriced mobile device where autofill and autocorrect ironically cause more errors than they resolve. please excuse punctuation, typos, and terseness.]

A 2010 commentary Grundy wrote for Essence Magazine illustrates how her upbringing shaped her worldview. She wrote about Aiyana Jones, a 7-year-old black girl shot and killed in a police raid in Detroit, near where Grundy lived at the time. She compared the child’s death to those of the girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church.

“The State does not protect little Black girls,” Grundy wrote.

As she has been thrust into the spotlight, other parts of Grundy’s past also have surfaced. News outlets published stories last month saying she was convicted in 2008 of a misdemeanor after she created a fake online account for another woman on an adult website.

Grundy allegedly told police “this was a jealous thing regarding another man.” After stories broke, Grundy in a statement last month called the incident “poor judgment of a heartbroken 24-year-old.”

For now, Grundy is focused on her move to Boston, finding a place to live, and preparing for her classes. She is set to teach two sociology courses on race and ethnicity at BU this fall, both of which are full, according to the university.

Virginia Sapiro, dean of BU’s College of Arts and Sciences, said she hired Grundy for the tenure-track position, along with 17 other assistant professors who will start this fall, because of her impressive credentials.

“Universities are not opposed to controversy,” Sapiro said. “Education requires that people be able to communicate with each other and listen and tolerate people communicating.”

Grundy is joining a university where race is a controversial topic. The Boston City Council last year compelled president Robert Brown by subpoena to answer questions about Boston University’s hiring and enrollment diversity.

Only 3 percent of BU students are black, and 2.8 percent of faculty are black, a percentage that has risen less than 1 percent during the past three decades. Other area universities report similarly low numbers of black students.

BU has also come under fire for its decision to close the African Presidential Center, whose founder, Charles Stith, has criticized the school for not doing enough to support black students.

Brown has defended the school’s record on diversity and in May wrote a letter about Grundy’s tweets that criticized them but stopped short of calling them racist.

“Words have power and the words in her Twitter feed were powerful in the way they stereotyped and condemned other people,” Brown wrote.

Others at BU have rallied around Grundy, praising her bravery and candor. The faculty union criticized Brown for ignoring the “cultural value of such intellectual labor.”

BU’s black student union, Umoja, has given an even stronger statement, mentioning hurtful Facebook comments, anonymous posts, and letters directed at black BU students as a result of Grundy’s tweets. “We believe that we need to have these dialogues, even if they make us uncomfortable,” the group said.

Contact Laura Krantz at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.