Towson University plans to honor longtime professor despite criticism of his role advising controversial student group

Richard Vatz, a TU professor for 41 years, says he told a campus group that he advises that their comments in a chat were inappropriate. But he has stayed on as advisor.

Published on: November 25, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: November 25, 2022 11:49 AM EST

Towson University students protest that the University hosted Attorney General nominee Michael Peroutka and Gordana Schifanelli, Dan Cox running mate in the West Village Commons Ballroom A from 6-8pm.  The League of the South, according to its website, seeks to “return to a more traditional, conservative Christian-oriented Southern culture.” The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled The League of the South as a hate group.

Towson University is naming an auditorium after a longtime professor who came under fire for continuing to advise a campus group whose student members apparently used offensive language to refer to various groups.

Richard Vatz, a rhetoric and communication professor who is retiring Jan. 1, will have his name on the auditorium in Van Bokkelen Hall, where he’s taught many classes during his more than four decades at TU.

Vatz has been criticized for continuing to serve as an advisor to the campus chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative organization whose members exchanged messages in a chatroom with homophobic, racist and ableist language, according to The Towerlight, the independent student-run newspaper that first reported on the leaked messages.

Turning Point USA describes its mission as building a “conservative grassroots activist network on high school and college campuses across the country,” while the Towson University chapter says it is a “diverse non-partisan political group.” However, the Anti-Defamation League said the group’s appeal extends beyond conservatives to right-wing extremists, white supremacists and those who are anti-Muslim.

In October, some students protested after the Towson chapter hosted Michael Peroutka and Gordana Schifanelli, the Republican candidates for attorney general and lieutenant governor, respectively. Peroutka was once a member of the League of the South, a group described as “explicitly racist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Schifanelli, a U.S. Naval Academy adjunct professor, repeatedly disputed the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, called for Gov. Larry Hogan to be removed from the Republican Party and tweeted a QAnon-related hashtag, The Banner has previously reported. Both were defeated.

Club members used a slur for gay men to mock Pride month and refer to the monkeypox virus, as well as an insensitive term to describe people with disabilities, The Towerlight reported. Another exchange among members was over how Baltimore doesn’t look like America.

“It looked like the middle of f-----g Uganda,” a group member said in a chat, according to the student newspaper. “Even war-torn Ukraine looks nicer than west Baltimore.”

Vatz, a past Teacher of the Year who in 2004 received the President’s Award for Distinguished Service, told The Banner that the comments exchanged by Turning Point members were “not the worst you’ve ever seen.” But he said he did tell the group that they were inappropriate, and that if they continued to make such remarks, he would no longer serve as their advisor. No issues have come up since then, he said.

He forwarded to The Banner an email from a group member that denied that anyone had said anything racist, referred to the intolerant remarks as “childish and petty” and said that they did not represent the organization.

“Although no violence or harm was intended to any specific person, I am aware that inappropriate comments such as these should not ever be made within a club chat,” the email stated. “I apologize sincerely, on behalf of myself and the rest of the club. Free speech will be respected; however foolishness that misrepresents TPUSA, its members, and conservatism as a whole will NOT happen again.”

Vatz, who is Jewish, said the students made a mistake and that the communication was unacceptable. He said he doesn’t tolerate bigotry, noting that he quit a group a decade ago amid a controversy over its views.

“The day I heard that they left some notes on campus, I quit within seconds,” he said.

It was the Youth for Western Civilization. Members wrote “white pride” messages on sidewalks across campus in 2012. After the group dissolved, its founder tried starting a white student union on campus.

Still, Vatz’s decision in the recent case remains controversial.

When The Towerlight broke the story about the auditorium naming, its Instagram post received more than a hundred comments. One comment came from Allison Vanisko, a junior.

“Why are we naming something after the advisor of a group that has caused hurt amongst our campus,” she wrote. “I guess ‘no hate at TU’ are just empty words.”

Vanisko noted that the school followed a thorough process in renaming two dorm rooms that initially bore the names of owners of enslaved people. She said she didn’t believe such a process was followed prior to naming the auditorium, and speculated this was because Vatz had contributed financially to the university.

This perpetrates “the notion we have in America that all you need is money. Money gives you power in this country,” Vanisko said.

Brian DeFilippis, Towson’s vice president of university advancement, said in an interview that the university has a lengthy process for naming large buildings like stadiums and dorms, but not for naming smaller spaces like auditoriums.

The decision to dedicate the auditorium in Vatz’s honor was made more than five years ago, he said. However, the move was only announced in recent weeks; a ceremony is set for Dec. 9.

DeFilippis said the naming is really about what Vatz’s philanthropy has done for thousands of kids. The longtime professor has done extraordinary things “and cares deeply about the university,” DeFilippis said.

“As an institution, we support an open dialogue and a free exchange of ideas,” he said, adding that this sometimes includes statements that are not broadly supported. “We need to be a place where those opportunities to exchange ideas continues to occur.”

A university spokesperson said Friday that Vatz’s contributions and pledges were substantial.

“In his lifetime, he has given six figures,” he said.

“Open dialogue and free exchange of ideas are imperative to a higher education,” Melanie Perreault, Towson’s provost, said in a statement. “While hate speech is unacceptable and those who use it will be held accountable, a university classroom must be a place where the opportunity to exchange ideas can occur.”

Richard Sousy, chair of the college’s Young Democratic Socialists of America, wasn’t surprised about the naming. Sousy said it shows that the university cares more about its financial support than its students, which isn’t a good look to prospective students and potential donors. The student leader suggested that the university return Vatz’s money and cancel the dedication.

“He wants to have a positive seat on this campus, and we cannot allow his approval for hate and bigotry to go ignored,” Sousy said.

Vatz said he tends to want to help conservative groups because there’s “so much anti-conservatism in higher education,” but that he won’t help groups that are “outrageously prejudiced.” Overall, he said, the criticism he’s received for advising Turning Point isn’t something he is running away from.

“I really feel that if this causes me some pain and difficulty, that’s fine. That’s what a tenured professor should experience if they’re doing what is right,” Vatz said.

He stressed that if one looks at his awards and classes, one won’t find a hint of prejudice. And given the positive evaluations he’s received and the popularity of his elective classes, it’s clear others would agree, he said.

The Towerlight published a letter from 10 of Vatz’s colleagues denouncing the professor’s decision to continue sponsoring Turning Point.

“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 stated.

Vatz described his feelings toward the faculty letter as “complicated.” He was more critical of The Towerlight’s coverage of the issue, accusing them of contributing to the criticism.

DeFilippis called Vatz’s donations “heartfelt and passionate,” saying they have supported student success. For example, the professor’s money went toward an endowment that supports students studying and engaging in debates.

Vatz credited the auditorium naming honor to the many awards he’s won and the 40 years he’s taught at the college. He also noted that he’s the longest-serving member on the academic senate and has published multiple works.

Vatz acknowledged that he’s given and pledged a total of around $400,000, including $80,000 to go toward academic awards. He said he’s also donated to causes such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the United Negro College Fund.

The professor is set to retire in five weeks, though the college is allowing him to keep his office for a few years while he conducts research. He said it’s unclear what the campus rules are for remaining as an advisor beyond that date; he also advises AEPi, a Jewish fraternity, and the women’s tennis team.

Said Vatz: “I’ll still be on campus, haunting the place.”

A previous version of this article understated the amount that Professor Vatz has given to Towson University, based on information provided by Vatz. He has donated or pledged a total of around $400,000 to the university during his tenure.