Following an alleged physical altercation with a counter-protester at a vaccine rally, Oliver Baker, an assistant professor of English and African American studies at Penn State, could lose his position at the university.
At the “Student-Faculty Rally to Vaccinate Penn State” event on Aug. 27, Baker and a group of protestors were interrupted by Avi Rachlin, a student at Penn State. According to the Coalition for a Just University — the program that hosted the event — Rachlin expressed “physically aggressive behavior” toward the protestors.
The situation escalated, and Rachlin and Baker engaged in an altercation that led to the former being escorted away by police with a bloody face. Baker was charged with simple assault, disorderly conduct and harassment and was also placed on paid administrative leave, according to university spokesman Wyatt DuBois
Rachlin’s actions weren’t out of character as he has a history of a provocative online presence. He has publicly admitted to supporting racist, homphobic and transphobic rhetoric through his social media.
And after essentially instigating with members of the peaceful protest, Rachlin opted to play the victim of this incident. According to CJU, Baker’s attorney found photo evidence of the altercation, which showed that the professor did not tackle Rachlin to the ground. Other witnesses at the event claim Rachlin swung his fists at Baker.
One of the key values that Penn State abides by is respect. Respect to the university means striving for a “diverse and inclusive community,” according to the Office of Ethics and Compliance. With the hatefulness that Rachlin spews, does he help toward a community that is diverse and inclusive? Yet, somehow Baker’s position at the university is the one that’s in question.
Rachlin isn’t the first student in recent years to be questioned by the Penn State community for their values and alleged actions. In summer 2020, a video was released of student Sean Setnick sitting in a car where the N-word was said. Setnick denied his direct involvement.
A petition was created to expulse Setnick from the university, which received over 31,000 signatures. Penn State responded with a Tweet saying it does not align with its views and condemned the messages.
It said nothing could be done in regard to Setnick. As a public university, Penn State said it can’t expel a student because of speech, “no matter how morally reprehensible it may be.” The same treatment will likely be given to Rachlin.
Yet, if Baker is under as much fire as he currently is from the university, then Rachlin shouldn’t be left off the hook for his actions and views that go against the grain of what Penn State stands for.
Baker, meanwhile, has been an upstanding citizen for the community with heavy involvement in activism and education in regard to social inequality, according to CJU — the proper example of what the university strives toward.
There were other counter protestors present at the event, though the small group remained peaceful. Rachlin clearly had an opportunity to show support for his beliefs without becoming hostile.
Baker was ultimately found not guilty of harassment under the Honorable Steven Frederic Lachman and the simple assault and disorderly conduct charges were dropped.
And yet, the university is still going forward with the AC70 Dismissal Procedure for Tenured and Tenure-Eligible Faculty Members, according to an email sent by Baker. Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers said the process is “confidential.”
The enactment of this process has led to an outpouring of support for Baker. Along with CJU, Students Against Sexist Violence at Penn State and Penn State's Chapter of the American Association of University Professors have backed Baker during this time.
SASV held a rally on Jan. 14 for Baker and also created a petition to prevent the university from firing him, which has nearly amassed 1,000 signatures from students, faculty and non-Penn State affiliated signees as of Jan. 18.
Penn State’s AAUP Chapter released a statement that condemned the use of the AC70 process, stating, “Such a misuse of our dismissal procedures would surely draw national attention, the repercussions of which would resonate for years.”
AC70 requires “clear and convincing evidence,” and with a not guilty verdict in hand, it will be hard for the university to justify going forward with this process without undermining the judicial system.
It also undermines the faculty and students that make up the core of this university. They have spoken and shown their support, yet to no avail. If they bring up these issues, Penn State must address it.
If there is background information that isn’t known, the university should be transparent with its community rather than leave it in the dark. While the process is inherently private, that doesn’t mean it can’t be changed — an open dialogue allows for a strengthened relationship between the university and its members.
By not taking a side, Penn State, in actuality, is still taking a side — akin to President Eric Barron’s open letter over the summer regarding vaccines. If it’s facing pressure from outside sources, Penn State must remember what makes it an institution of such prestige — its students and faculty.
Both parties have made it evident in their support of Baker. It is now the onus of the university to stop this process and listen to the concerns of its community.
Daily Collegian Opinion Editor Joe Eckstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.