Jonathan Aldrich's blog

What to do about Richard Grenell? Confronting Racism in our Midst

I love CMU, and I believe our heart as an institution is in the right place. But sometimes, we don’t do the right thing, because our processes are broken. One example of this is how a few months ago, Richard Grenell was hired as a Senior Fellow at Carnegie Mellon, the university where I teach. Since then, he has been behaving as badly as many students, faculty, and staff feared. I ask, as someone who cares deeply about making CMU a more diverse and inclusive university: What should Carnegie Mellon do about Richard Grenell? And how can we learn from this experience so that this does not happen again?

Background and Context

First, some background. Richard Grenell’s appointment in CMU’s Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS) was met with protest letters by students. CMU’s provost defended the appointment, saying that it was important that the director of IPS have the “academic freedom…to make appointments such as this.” A follow-up letter signed by nearly 300 CMU faculty and staff pointed out that academic freedom does not in fact comprise an individual right to make appointments in a university, and it certainly does not remove the obligation to properly vet candidates for senior positions to ensure that they meet our university standards. Both letters cite Mr. Grenell’s sexist comments on social media, his willingness to meet with numerous members of the racist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic Alternative for Germany (AFD) party, and how he lied to the American people about whether tear gas was used to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters in front of the White House. I cosigned the faculty/staff protest letter because I believe that Mr. Grenell’s actions are disqualifying for any senior position at CMU.

In response to these letters, CMU’s president convened a 3-person committee to review whether Mr. Grenell’s appointment was considered and approved in a manner that was consistent with university policies and procedures. Regarding Mr. Grenell’s behavior, the committee’s report expresses concerns about his social media posts, noting that “the general tone of many of his communications is dismissive and disrespectful of the opinions of others.” However, they raised a question about “whether we would expect someone coming from outside academia to have abided by its principles beforehand as a condition of employment.” Regardless, they note that “in any case, during his year at CMU, we fully expect him to follow all University policies and the more general principles of academic freedom.” This raises our first question: Has Mr. Grenell been following CMU’s policies and principles of academic freedom since his hire? And if not, what should be done?

The committee’s report also notes that “department heads are granted considerable authority in making both staff and special-faculty appointments for visitors.” So whether CMU’s policies were followed depends on whether a Senior Fellow falls into this categories. The committee said that those involved in hiring Mr. Grenell made a good-faith judgment that it did–and I agree that the judgment was made in good faith. But the report also suggests that “when a highly visible figure, such as Mr. Grenell, is to be hired in this role, there should be a more robust and open discussion across campus than took place in this case.” This raises our second question: How should future appointments similar to Mr. Grenell’s be reviewed?

Let’s conider the questions in turn:

Richard Grenell’s Behavior as a CMU Senior Fellow

CMU’s Code of Business Ethics and Conduct states that CMU “does not tolerate discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, handicap, religion, creed, ancestry, belief, age, veteran status, sexual orientation or gender identity.” Furthermore, “all members of the University community are expected to familiarize themselves with and follow applicable University policies and procedures.” Finally, CMU’s policy on Freedom of Expression is incorporated by reference. Has Mr. Grenell followed the Code of Conduct since being hired?

On July 14th, two weeks after starting as a CMU Senior Fellow, Grenell tweeted about the “Chinese flu,” using a racist term for COVID-19. Grenell’s tweet is a clear instance of harassment on a basis of race and national origin, and thus violates CMU’s code of conduct. We do not immediately fire faculty/staff for first violations of this sort, but it does raise questions. Have Grenell’s supervisor(s) discussed his behavior with him, and made clear that it is unacceptable? Has he been warned that disciplinary actions up to and including dismissal may be taken if he continues to violate the CMU Code of Conduct?

More broadly, Mr. Grenell’s tweet clearly demonstrates that his behavior has not changed simply by being hired at CMU; even if we will not fire him immediately for it, it does demonstrate pretty clearly that hiring him was a mistake.

More recently, Mr. Grenell has been photographed multiple times indoors without a mask, which is in conspicuous violation of CMU’s COVID-related safety policies. CMU’s provost sent an email to the community last week about a different instructor whose campus privileges have been revoked for the remainder of the 2020-2021 academic year for violating one or more CMU COVID-19 safety protocols. Have Richard Grenell’s campus privileges been likewise revoked for the remainder of the academic year, due to his egregious COVID policy violations?

How Future Appointments should be Reviewed

In my view, the short record above clearly shows that we should not have hired Richard Grenell–and the student, faculty, and staff protest letters preceding his start date make clear that this issue was utterly predictable. How can we avoid making similar hiring mistakes in the future?

Mr. Grenell’s hire vividly illustrates that CMU’s policy of giving department heads discretion to hire high profile visiting faculty and staff is fundamentally flawed. One person can make the decision to hire, with no checks and balances–despite the fact that the hired person can contribute to a hostile environment for racial minorities. The hired person can also risk campus safety. Checks and balances are needed.

How might such checks and balances work?

Here is one suggestion, based on my own experience with the faculty governance process in the School of Computer Science. In my School, all tenure, research, and systems-track faculty hires are approved by a representative body of faculty, the SCS Council. This approach ensures that people who are hired, and who could be viewed as representing the university, receive scrutiny not just by the hiring individual or department, but by faculty representatives from across the School. It also helps to support transparency in hiring decisions. Having served on Council and seen the concern that its members have for diversity and inclusion, I am confident that someone with Mr. Grenell’s record of racist and sexist comments would not be approved. I would argue that a similar transparent faculty governance approach should be used across CMU’s colleges for all high-profile hires that represent the university–including Senior Fellow hires like Richard Grenell. The review, of course, should be made strictly on a basis of qualificiations and behavior, not politics–CMU’s president is correct to note that IPS and other organizations need the ability to hire those from every part of the political spectrum.

An objection that may be raised is CMU’s tradition of “bottom-up” governance - that there is value in delegating power to department heads, and that they should have a certain independence from review by higher levels of the administration. But it would be truly Orwellian to make this an objection to review by a faculty committee: the proper meaning of “bottom-up” is not “a unilateral decision by an administrator” but rather “decisions made by and/or reviewed by the faculty.” Faculty review of hires is a step that makes us more bottom-up, not less!

It’s worth noting that CMU has a strong tradition both of departmental autonomy and of responsible and deliberative decision making. Few hiring decisions are overturned in the current practice, and there is no reason to think that adding a review by a responsible faculty body in a few additional cases would change that. Mr. Grenell’s case is very much the exception, not the rule.

The president has announced that a commission will be formed to study whether additional levels of review in hiring should be required. The commission should endorse an arrangement that, like the one suggested above, empowers faculty committees to help ensure that our standards and values will be upheld by those we hire.

A Note on Academic Freedom

A final question the president will pose to the commission is whether or not academic freedom applies to the practice of giving department heads great discretion in hiring. The committee actually examined that question, and reports that “in our investigations, we could find no description of academic freedom that extends any right to a member of the administration in making hiring decisions.” This is, of course, consistent with the faculty/staff protest letter. It is also consistent with the literature, including van Alstyne’s paper and the AAUP’s statement on principles of academic freedom. The commission should reinforce the committee’s finding: academic freedom is about individual teaching and research, not about administrative hiring.


Hiring Richrad Grenell was a mistake, but it’s one we can learn from. We must recognize the proper role of academic freedom as one that protects individual scholarly inquiry, not administrative power. We should be enforcing CMU’s standards consistently after hiring, and more importantly, we should be adding checks and balances in a transparent faculty governance process to ensure that future hires represent the institution CMU aspires to be.

My thanks to colleagues who provided feedback on earlier versions of this post.