Officials took to Twitter last week to invite a so-called “bedbug” to campus.
David Karpf, an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs, published a tweet calling New York Times columnist Bret Stephens a “bedbug” after the bug infested some Times offices. Stephens lambasted Karpf in an email to him and Provost Forrest Maltzman that was later posted on Twitter and went viral. Stephens deactivated his Twitter handle after the email spread on social media, then the provost stepped in.
In response to the email, Maltzman released a statement on Twitter backing Karpf and inviting Stephens to campus to discuss civil discourse on social media.
Publicly responding to Stephens’ email demonstrated that Maltzman condoned the columnist’s unprofessional email. Stephens is a public figure who puts himself in a position where people can disagree with him because he is a columnist. Stephens was wrong to include Maltzman in the situation in the first place, but Maltzman should have left his temper tantrum alone instead of validating his unprofessionalism through an invite to campus.
The back-and-forth on Twitter was between two adults in occupations that should be professional: One is a Times columnist, and the other is a GW professor. Stephens’ choice to get the provost involved in the situation was childish and did not warrant a University response. Backing Karpf’s original tweet is OK because Maltzman was looped into the scuffle, but turning the argument into a University event was wrong.
Instead of responding to Stephens directly on Twitter or emailing him back, Maltzman could have released a statement saying the University would not get involved in the personal affairs of a professor expressing his freedom to speak. A response merely defending Karpf would have shown that the University acknowledges the incident but knows not to step in.
The opinions and thoughts of professors not directly concerning officials are not a matter they need to comment on, even if Stephens invited their response. Maltzman should not have responded to Stephens’ baiting email by inviting him to campus because it was a personal matter between Stephens and Karpf. But the University used the situation as a plug for more attention unto itself.
Maltzman’s response to Stephens was also posted on Twitter, but Stephens had already announced he would deactivate his Twitter account. The University wanted to be part of the national conversation even though the columnist stopped following along, on social media at least. Since Stephens’ Twitter account had already been shut down, officials’ response was more of a call for public attention.
Rather than making the fight into a University event, the provost could have publicly explained to Stephens that involving Karpf’s boss in a personal matter was unprofessional and unacceptable. Inviting Stephens to campus implies that somehow it was acceptable for Stephens to email Karpf’s boss, because it legitimizes his complaint.
Stephens also did not invite Karpf to his home to have a civil discussion, he invited him to call him a bedbug to his face. Since Stephens did not extend the courtesy to have a civil discussion with Karpf, the University should not have shown the professional courtesy of inviting him to our campus.
The disagreement between Karpf and Stephens was a personal matter that did not warrant a University response. Standing up for Karpf is OK, but officials took the matter too far by asking Stephens to come to campus to gain public attention off of the media frenzy. The University should not set aside its professional integrity for a few moments in the national spotlight.
Hannah Thacker, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is the contributing opinions editor.