By: Caitlyn Freeman, editor in chief
Faculty members in the Department of Instructional Leadership & Professional Development denounced the decision of their coworker, professor Richard Vatz, to continue sponsoring Towson University’s chapter of Turning Point USA after leaked messages showed members of the group using racist, homophobic and ableist language.
Ten faculty, who are Vatz’s coworkers in the department, said in a letter to The Towerlight they felt moved to speak out against him because they felt his decision to continue sponsoring the chapter goes against their values of diversity and equity.
The faculty members declined to provide additional comments.
“While we recognize Dr. Vatz’s right to academic freedom, we firmly stand against any of his actions that have contributed to a view of free speech as an excuse to demean and degrade those who represent minoritized communities on or off campus,” the letter reads.
Vatz did not respond to requests for comment by publication time Thursday. On Friday, after the publication of this article, he sent a response letter to The Towerlight saying he would not dispute the letter from colleges as they’re entitled to their opinions.
“My department has written a letter to The Towerlight about the Turning Point situation, a letter I shall not dispute,” his letter reads. “My debt to that department is considerable, to say the least, and they have the right to state their reactions to that situation.”
In early October, the group came under fire after leaked messages from their GroupMe chat showed chapter members making disparaging comments toward several marginalized groups, including Black and LGBTQ people.
Many students demanded the university dissolve the chapter. However, Towson officials said that as a public institution, they cannot legally punish group members for their language unless they threaten harm against another student.
The faculty also said in their letter the Turning Point messages feel similar to when former student Matthew Heimbach created a White Student Union on campus in 2012. Before starting the White Student Union, which was never an official university club, Heimbach started the university’s chapter of the Youth for Western Civilization, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a white nationalist group.
Vatz was the faculty adviser for YWC until the group chalked “white pride” around the campus in 2012.
The letter urges the university to create safer environments for marginalized groups.
“The University needs to be conscious of the impact these groups have on our campus, and how they can provide safe harbor for hate,” the letter reads.
As long as the chapter maintains a faculty adviser, it is allowed to continue operating as a Student Government Association -affiliated club, which allows it the opportunity to work toward receiving funding. The SGA can only act against the group if it violates SGA’s financial policy.
The chapter currently does not receive SGA money as it doesn’t meet certain benchmarks , including participating in specific SGA events.
Vatz initially told The Towerlight he would not continue sponsoring the group if he found evidence of bigotry among its members. He later backtracked and said he would continue sponsoring the group despite the racist and homophoic messages because the chapter’s leadership was apologetic.
In his Friday letter, Vatz said he did not hold bigoted beliefs and if another incident of bigotry within the chapter were to occur, he’d drop his sponsorship.
“Turning Point knows that their advisor was genuinely appalled and considers them effectively on probation,” Vatz told The Towerlight. “If I were a betting man (and I am not), I would bet heftily that their rhetorical immaturity and irresponsibility will never be repeated. I do believe in redemption for those who seriously seek it, especially for non-capital crimes committed by youth.”
The faculty members’ full letter is below:
Hate speech and the ideology of hate are not hard to find in our nation and in our communities. Whether it was the January 6th insurrection where white supremacist organizations stormed the Capitol or the presence of the Turning Point on TU’s campus, there are people who feel that it is acceptable to express homophobic, racist, and anti-semitic ideas without consequence. While Towson University has condemned this kind of hatred in a public statement recently, the Turning Point group remains a campus organization. Their presence reminds us of the white student union which existed on campus in the 2010s, making it a particularly unsafe environment for students and faculty of color, LGBTQ+, Muslim, and Jewish members of the Towson community. The university needs to be conscious of the impact these groups have on our campus, and how they can provide safe harbor for hate.
We write as faculty in the department of Instructional Leadership and Professional Development, whose mission is to disrupt the status quo that marginalizes students, cultures, and communities while confronting and dismantling ableism, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression; and to envision, strengthen, and innovate for equitable educational contexts. Without the clear affirmation of these commitments, it is difficult to argue for a campus that welcomes a diverse community. For us, it was particularly important to speak out as Rick Vatz, the faculty advisor to Turning Point, is in our department. While we recognize Dr. Vatz’s right to academic freedom, we firmly stand against any of his actions that have contributed to a view of free speech as an excuse to demean and degrade those who represent minoritized communities on or off campus. We do not tolerate nor will we be silent around hate speech and the ideology of hate.
(Faculty in the Department of Instructional Leadership and Professional Development)
Matt Hubbard contributed to this article.