How a Story From a Middle Tennessee College Is Really About Our American Apocalypse (Part 1)

This isn't a hard story, but the hardest part about telling this story is where to begin. There are so many pieces, so much history, so many still-moving parts. It involves a history of a town, Cookeville, Tennessee; the history of a school, Tennessee Technological University; the personal stories of those involved; a battle over a school mascot; right-wing media's vortex; and so very much more. But, maybe, we should begin with the cause of all the trouble: the flyer.

The flyer shows a white man with a buzzcut sitting on the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones, looking stern, as one might do when posing on that iconic prop. This is Professor Andrew "A.J." Donadio of the Nursing Department at TTU. The flyer reads, "This racist college professor thought it would be a great idea to help start a Tennessee Tech chapter for this national hate group, where racist students can unite to harass, threaten, intimidate, and terrorize persons of color, feminists, liberals, and the like, especially their teachers. Their organization created a national ‘Professor Watchlist’ to harass and intimidate progressive educators, including many women, African-American, and Muslim professors. Professor Donadio and Turning Point USA. You are on our list. Your hate & hypocrisy are not welcome at Tennessee Tech. No Unity With Racists. Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech."

The flyer was created by a friend of mine and a tenured English professor at TTU, Andrew William Smith. On Friday, February 5, copies of it were placed on tables in the largely empty Nursing building by tenured German professor Julia Gruber. Gruber went back 90 minutes later to take the flyers away because it is a college in the middle of Tennessee and it didn't seem to be worth the trouble, but some of the flyers had already been taken by someone and shown to Donadio. On the afternoon of Saturday, February 6, Smith posted it on a bulletin board in the student center. It was brought to the attention of the school administration, which launched an investigation into Smith and Gruber based on a complaint from Donadio for violating university policies by posting the flyers, even briefly. They were identified by witnesses and surveillance images - no, really, they used security footage, and they look like terrorists in the pictures from it because they're wearing masks, which is what you do in a pandemic.

Some context here: Donadio, who is an outspoken conservative on Facebook and at meetings in Putnam County where he is an elected county commissioner, became the faculty advisor to a TTU chapter of Turning Point USA, which is the organization started by annoying conservative activist and insipid radio "personality" Charlie Kirk. It says it's a "non-profit organization whose mission is to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote freedom." In other words, TPUSA (which, to be fair, always makes me giggle because, well, TPing the USA does seem like the right-wing's goal) wants to indoctrinate college students into conservatism. It is literally doing what conservatives accuse "liberal professors" of doing. 

Oh, and TPUSA does have a Professor Watchlist, which exists "to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom." It's a fairly limited list, and it mostly just gives people excuses to harass the professors for things like sending an email saying that God wouldn't be mentioned in a graduation ceremony or for activism off campus. It's bullshit, like everything Charlie Kirk does, but it has a malevolent intent, like everything Charlie Kirk does.

TPUSA has been cited numerous times for its association with white nationalists and the alt-right and called out for those associations by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. No less a source than the conservative Washington Examiner says that it's "a group that’s deeply troubled and dishonest at its core," citing its issues with racism and its blind support for Donald Trump, in an article titled, "Young conservatives should steer clear of Turning Point USA." Other colleges have refused to recognize campus chapters; at Taylor University, which has a student chapter of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, the student senate voted to reject TPUSA. 

And why not? After all, Charlie Kirk praised the continued closure of campuses in the Fall of the pandemic not for safety reasons, but because he believed that it would limit student voting against Trump, which is not exactly supportive of student rights. And Turning Point USA sent seven buses of people to the January 6 election protest that turned into a violent insurrection. Kirk had originally said they would send 80 buses, but he's never not a liar. Kirk himself has often promoted the false allegations of election fraud, with conservative pollster Frank Luntz telling him at one point, "This election is over." In other words, lots of people on the right and on college campuses reject TPUSA and Charlie Kirk. It's not really all that unusual.

I'm telling you all of this because one thing that has gotten lost in the fallout from the flyer is that Turning Point is a terrible organization filled with terrible people and those associated with white nationalist groups and whose goal is to harass and threaten professors, and it suckers students into being part of what is a legitimately more radical organization than just about anything on the left. I mean, for chrissake, look at the hypocrisy at its core - calling out the left for being "woke" and engaging in "cancel culture" while coming up with a rhetorical hit list of liberal professors and attacking anyone who is associated with Black Lives Matter.

I wasn't going to say anything about this whole situation beyond a few tweets because I was worried about my friend losing his job. Then Donadio decided to go public. He turned to the churning right-wing media machine, perhaps hoping to get some mileage out of the usual aggrieved white conservative schtick we've seen so many times. The first piece was in the Tennessee Star, which is run by a former Breitbart-er and Tea Party dinguses. It featured examples of things Smith has said, like a defense of Lil Nas X's "Montero" video. Smith and Gruber are not shy about their activism on a range of issues.

Also getting into the act was Charlie Kirk himself. On TPUSA's website, Kirk called Smith and Gruber "amateur neo-tyrants," and he defended the Professor Watchlist. Yeah, see, according to Chuckles, the Professor Watchlist is pure as driven snow in that it is "reporting only factual accounts that have been published by other news outlets." In one entry, which I won't link to, those "news outlets" include the crazy-right-wing clearing house for attacking liberals at universities, Campus Reform, and the hardly neutral National Review. And then Kirk has the gall to say that it's a threat when the flyer says, "You’re on our list," when his organization has a publicly available, actual, you know, list that professors are, you know, on. So he's saying that to be put on a list is a threat? Then what the hell is TPUSA doing? 

Again, it can't be said enough: This is the kind of thing that Smith and Gruber were protesting: this hatefulness, this demand for conservative hegemonic thought, this silencing of professors they disagree with, this brainwashing of students under the guise of "freedom." And, of course, TPUSA's racist and insurrectionist beliefs.

Smith and Gruber, on advice from their attorney, didn't do any media, awaiting the outcome of the investigation by the university. And, because this was making the rounds on the right-wing nutsosphere, they started getting all kinds of threats and harassing phone calls and emails. Because of course they did.

More on all that, including how they have fought back and how that aforementioned mascot battle is part of the story, in Part 2.