CNU scholar-in-residence says going to campus for meeting after controversial tweet was not safe

Sophia Nelson.jpg
Posted at 2:13 PM, Oct 29, 2021

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Christopher Newport University Scholar in Residence Sophia A. Nelson said Thursday that she has decided not to come to campus for a previously arranged meeting with students on November 9, after a tweet that many students at the university say is homophobic went viral.

She later clarified to CBS 6 and said she was not attending due to fear for her own safety. Nelson said my she has received "nasty emails, threats, and hate," and added that is has "been rough."

She also told CBS 6 the Dean of Students expressed concerns about the wisdom of her going to campus for the meeting. Due to the November 9 date being publicly announced, her security deemed attending was unsafe so she addressed the issue in an open letter and a video (below).

This stems from an October 11 tweet in which Nelson, an author and journalist, tweeted her viewpoints on bisexuality regarding a DC comic book character. She wrote, "I don't get why this is necessary. I don't! What if Christian parents of children reading comic books don't want their kids exposed to bi-sexual characters? This is being pushed on kids."

Nelson has since taken the tweet down.

Dr. Danielle Stern, a communications professor at the university, responded to Nelson's tweet with an emailed open letter distributed through the school, and many students signed a petition asking for Nelson's removal from the university. The university also responded, noting the tweet caused, "real damage here, causing pain, and anger."

President Paul Trible went on to say they will, "help heal, and do the work to promote diversity, equity and inclusion."

In an open letter to the school, Nelson said the controversy stemming from the tweet has "unfairly damaged both [her] professional reputation and character," and claimed that CNU's response to her tweet makes the school "unsafe for academic freedom and free thought."

"My being a visiting scholar here cannot preclude my right to engage on controversial issues outside of campus," Nelson wrote. "The difference between me and those who want to banish, remove, and condemn me, is that I respect their right to respond to my opinions with equal fervor. That’s what makes our country unique and the university setting so valuable and needed. I simply do not agree, however, that my tweeted question, or any of my previous tweets before I was ever invited to CNU warrant attempts to call me ugly names, slap on damaging labels, and remove me from my position."

Nelson said despite her decision that it was not safe to attend the arranged meeting, she intends to honor her contract with the university.

Nelson's full letter is as follows:

Dear CNU Community:

Let me start by saying I am a proud Christian, African American woman. My faith is my guide. It governs my life, my choices, and my humanity. I took great care in writing this letter. These are my words, not anyone else’s. Written from my heart to all of you.

One of the great lessons of scripture (of all faiths) is how we deal with being offended. We all get offended and hurt. As a black woman, I could stay offended every day of my life at the daily microaggressions, marginalization, and open hostilities I face as a woman of color. However, when we operate in offense, nothing good comes from it. So, I try to never allow myself to do so. When we let our feelings and our anger guide us, versus what CNU espouses boldly in its Freedom of Speech policy and its Honor Code policy we don’t heal. We don’t hear. And we don’t allow ourselves the gift of courageous conversation that enlightens. Instead, we lament. And we operate in grievance versus growth. And we damage one another as human beings.

Let me be unequivocal: I understood quickly on October 14th, 2021, the day that I was alerted that the CNU LGBTQ+ community was offended, hurt, and pained by the series of tweets I authored around the sexualization of children and comic books; I immediately pulled the tweets down, apologized not once, but twice and made clear on my feed in other tweets that “homophobia” was wrong and certainly not something I believe in or support. I was engaging in a clear back and forth dialogue with my many followers about not exposing children to any kind of sexualization in Comic Books. Including heterosexuals, and I even mentioned Christian characters not being appropriate as well. Any fair and complete reading of my entire Twitter thread on October 11th, shows that to be the absolute truth.

However, because students were hurt. I was hurt. So, I immediately reached out to Dean Underwood and Dr. Spranger to see if we could set up an on campus forum and dialogue as soon as possible, and they both enthusiastically agreed. I thought my actions at the time would be a sufficient first step to show both my heart and my embrace of all of our students at CNU, until I could get on campus and listen, share and to hear from and fellowship with students.

Truthfully I went even further than that. Beyond my outreach to school officials, I reached out to the spouse of a 30-year friend, Riki Wilchins, who is considered an expert in the LGBTQ+ movement. Her guidance to me was paramount in helping me to understand why an LBGTQ+ superhero would be so important to the community. She likened it to “Black Panther” and how excited the black community was with finally having a black superhero. I get it now. I also have spoken at length with media colleagues of mine who happen to also be LGBTQ+. All of them walked me through the process with grace, love, support, and most of all kindness. We are all humans. We should treat each other as such.

Please believe me that my heart was wide open. I believed, as did the Faculty Senate, Dean Underwood, and our leadership that this was a real teachable moment for CNU. That it would make us all stronger as a university community. Not weaker. I was all in. 100% committed.

To that end the administration and I have been working hard since October 14, 2021, to get me on campus in a meaningful way to be with you. However, on October 15, 2021, the Dean of Social Sciences published a letter from Prof. Danielle Stern that was biting, untrue, inflammatory and unprofessional. That changed the moment for me. And it changed the tone on campus as well. It incited faculty, staff and students. I couldn’t help but note that this very week, Dr. Stern told WTKR news on camera that she has published such missives before. What good is done by such public condemnations? Are they bridging the gap between community and campus? Between faculty? I simply do not understand the impulse to cancel other’s voices, no matter how much their words may upset, offend or challenge us.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to be on campus to meet with you and address these issues around free thought, free speech, and the delicate balance of rights we all must respect and protect as American citizens. I asked for a video zoom audience with students, I tried to call into the SGA forum for faculty and students and was denied the opportunity. The administration insisted that in person campus forums would be the best way to address the upset on campus. I had no choice but to trust their judgement as they know the CNU community. I was to have a very different open letter to the community in the “Captain’s Log” this very week, only to have it “pulled” at the last minute by the editor. Lastly, I would have been on campus this week, had I not been scheduled for medical surgery which I had on Tuesday.

Regrettably, this has all gone too far. I read the student petition against me in a FOXNEWS article posted on Wednesday, October 27th and was devastated to read these words: "Our community is hurt and disappointed in the way this university has dealt with the homophobic and racist statements of Professor Nelson.” This is where I must draw the line. Neither me nor my words are racist or homophobic. And to characterize them as such in a petition to remove me is very shocking and damaging to me as a professional and as a human being.

Let me be clear: My tweets were not directed at anyone on this campus. I am in the opinion--pundit business. We offer provocative, real-time opinions on hot button social and political topics 24/7. My being a visiting scholar here cannot preclude my right to engage on controversial issues outside of campus. The difference between me and those who want to banish, remove, and condemn me, is that I respect their right to respond to my opinions with equal fervor. That’s what makes our country unique and the university setting so valuable and needed. I simply do not agree, however, that my tweeted question, or any of my previous tweets before I was ever invited to CNU warrant attempts to call me ugly names, slap on damaging labels, and remove me from my position.

Indeed, I now feel unsafe and unwelcomed. I would further argue that those who have stoked this crisis from day one, have endeavored to make CNU unsafe for academic freedom and free thought. That is a fight you will need to have amongst yourselves as you sort through the unbelievable fall-out that is sure to occur as a result of such behavior.

What is happening right now at CNU is happening on college campuses throughout the U.S. We are all wrestling with our place in this new, diverse, open world in which we must live and work. And learn. If we endeavor only to lash out and remove those who speak what we do not want to hear; we will never grow and we will never heal our divisions. If this great country of ours is going to last, we cannot afford to be polarized. What has happened at CNU over the past weeks has been disappointing to me. We are now the next college in the spotlight for “cancel culture”.

This has been very hard. And I am afraid this cycle of recriminations has robbed us of a great opportunity to be a shining light in the controversy of our day by working towards understanding, instead of intolerance. I have a contract with this university that I intend to honor. I hope we can all find a way forward that allows us to move on from this very difficult moment. Yet, at this time I will not be coming to campus to meet with students as announced by President Trible earlier this month.

It was my great honor to be named this school’s first black female scholar in residence. And I feel a great sense of loss that my work with Dean Lor Underwood in working to establish a preeminent women’s institute on race, politics, policy, and gender at CNU has been damaged by this cycle of grievance and accusation. Ironically, this whole experience only confirms my belief in how important it is for community members to work on campuses and aid opportunities for faculty, scholars and visitors to teach and research on such issues. We should all have the freedom to think free thoughts and to express those thoughts. And to be treated with grace, respect and teaching when we err in those thoughts. We should all be free to worship as we please, to believe what we believe and to love whom we please without reprisals.

In closing, I believe I have been unfairly damaged both in my professional reputation and character. I will never be able to get the words “homophobe”--and “racist” “anti-gay” now attached to my name in every headline, off of the internet. A twenty-five-year stellar professional career reduced to incendiary labels. None of us deserves to lose their livelihood, their profession or their good name for stumbling over complex social issues that can and should be worked out in a spirit of brotherhood, redemption, respect, and community.

Thank you for allowing me a forum to address the CNU community at this difficult time.

Prof. Sophia A. Nelson

CNU Scholar in Residence 2021-2022

The video statement can also be viewed below