CMU 'bent over backwards': A maskless Grenell spreads misinformation

When Richard Grenell was brought on as Senior Fellow in the Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS) this past June, students and faculty pushed back citing concerns about Grenell’s actions and rhetoric. Administration attempted to quell the fear about what this appointment would do to the school’s reputation, writing in an Aug. 3 report that “we fully expect Mr. Grenell to abide by all CMU policies, including the stipulation ‘to conduct all business and related professional activities in good faith and with fairness, accuracy, integrity and respect for others.’” In the last few weeks, more students and professors have argued that Grenell’s actions do no not constitute the “good faith” the university expected.

To his almost 700,000 Twitter followers, Grenell has posted disinformation about president-elect Joe Biden’s mask wearing, which was later deleted, as well as numerous claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election, which have not been substantiated. He’s called COVID-19 the “Chinese Flu,” has posted anti-mask rhetoric, and throughout the election cycle, has appeared at several political events without consideration of social distancing and without wearing a mask.

Many members of the Carnegie Mellon community have taken issue with Grenell’s recent behavior, sharing their takes on social media. In an open letter to president Farnam Jahanian posted on the Carnegie Mellon subreddit Nov. 7, one Reddit user wrote, “[Grenell] makes a mockery of our academic community's ethical, health, and cultural norms and has proven himself incapable of being restricted by any standard of decency.” Later in the letter, they state, “I am not a political radical. I do not criticize the political leanings of the recent appointee. I am incensed, rather, by his attacks on our sacrosanct democratic institutions. I am outraged by his vitriolic, racist, hateful speech so to the detriment of the culture of collaboration and unity we have attempted to foster at our beloved university.”

Another post on Reddit asked the university to “drop” him, citing his frequent sharing of misinformation on twitter. One user, who wrote that they had previously worked in the call center that solicits alumni donations, said in a separate post on Nov. 3 that alumni should tell Carnegie Mellon that they’re withholding donations pending Grenell’s employment status. That user concluded, “if CMU doesn’t care about their reputation, I’m sure they at least care about their money.”

On Twitter, a satirical account, complete with the username @CMU_IPS and a profile photo to match, has been quote-tweeting posts of Grenell at public events without a mask. Responding to a photo of Grenell and Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) both without masks, the account wrote, “Thank you to our Senior Fellow @RichardGrenell for refusing to wear a mask and continuing to combat the Fake News China Virus!”

The tweet garnered the attention of the university, which tweeted back from it’s official account, “That is not an official CMU-related account and we have already reported the fake account to Twitter” on Nov. 3.

That tweet marked the first university comment related to Grenell’s recent actions. To it, one user responded, “it’s not a fake account, it’s a parody. Y’all staff EMBARRASSING people and we like to joke about it!” Another chimed in, “might want to rethink these priorities.”

On Oct. 30, Jonathan Aldrich, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, posted a blog entry titled “What to do about Richard Grenell?” The piece argues that Grenell has not upheld the basic requirements for employment at Carnegie Mellon, specifically, those of the university’s Code of Business Ethics and Conduct. Grenell’s use of the term “Chinese Flu” after being hired, as well as his lack of compliance with the university’s COVID-19 guidelines, Aldrich says, have demonstrated that the concerns the community had upon Grenell’s appointment have been realized. “[Grenell’s] behavior has not changed simply by being hired at CMU; even if we will not fire him immediately for it, it does demonstrate pretty clearly that hiring him was a mistake,” Aldrich wrote.

Aldrich says the Grenell situation has illuminated the need for greater “checks and balances” in the hiring process at Carnegie Mellon. “CMU’s policy of giving department heads discretion to hire high profile visiting faculty and staff is fundamentally flawed,” Aldrich writes, “One person can make the decision to hire, with no checks and balances – despite the fact that the hired person can contribute to a hostile environment for racial minorities.” Aldrich urges the university to understand that “academic freedom is about individual teaching and research, not about administrative hiring.”

In an interview with The Tartan, Aldrich said that his gripes with Grenell stem not from anyone’s political beliefs, but from Grenell’s actions. “We've seen very partisan behavior from [Grenell] as part of the Trump campaign, and that's expected. I don't have any opposition to faculty or staff members at Carnegie Mellon being involved in politics. But I do have a problem with misinformation,” he said. Any Carnegie Mellon staff member, especially those that are prominent enough to be a “voice of the university,” Aldrich says, have an “obligation to the truth.”

Referring to the lack of administrative action regarding Grenell’s frequent incompliance with university COVID-19 policy, Aldrich said, “maybe [the administration] figure this doesn't matter, because maybe [Grenell] actually is never on campus, and never in a room with students.” But, given the public reprimand that a CFA professor received for violating COVID-19 guidelines on Oct. 24, Aldrich said that “it certainly seems at least a bit hypocritical to have this very public flaunting of COVID guidelines by a senior [staff member] without any comment.”

Conlon Novak, a masters student in Human-Computer Interaction, saw Grenell’s lack of COVID-19 safety on social media and began reporting instances of it to the university’s ethics reporting system on Oct. 14. So far, Novak has reported 4 of Grenell’s violations of COVID-19 guidelines to the university. In an interview with The Tartan, Novak said that he reported these violations in the spirit of A Tartan’s Responsibility, the university’s guiding principles for COVID-19 behavior, which stipulate that “every member of the Carnegie Mellon University community has a shared responsibility to uphold a culture of safety that balances health considerations with our desire to fulfill the university’s core mission.”

Novak said that the university has “been encouraging everyone to use these reporting resources when they see faculty, staff, students not following protocols.” Since Grenell is a staff member at IPS, “I made sure to pass along everything I saw violating the code as I understood it,” Novak said.

Novak, like Aldrich, says that trying to get the university to enforce COVID-19 guidelines, or reevaluate hiring practices, is not at all politically motivated. “This is the furthest thing from a political question, which is, I think, one of the reasons why this discourse seems to be so charged,” he said. “In actuality, this is a university who has bent over backwards to justify the hiring of someone who is not upholding their good name and reputation, and I genuinely can’t figure out why.”

“I don't want to call for anyone to lose their job, but I don't want to see anyone endanger the health and safety and lives of these students,” Novak said. He plans to keep reporting Grenell’s public COVID-19 policy violations to the university.

Carnegie Mellon spokesperson Jason Maderer said in a statement to The Tartan that university leadership have “received reports from members of the community about Ambassador Grenell’s campaign appearances”, and that they “have advised [Grenell] that these appearances, often while not wearing a facial covering or maintaining physical distancing, constitute high risk behaviors.” The statement continues, “as with all CMU community members, [Grenell] must comply with our COVID policies if he is going to come to campus or engage with other members of the community in person,” including a 14-day quarantine prior to arrival on-campus, the practice of physical distancing, and the use of a facial covering. “We are not aware of him being on campus or engaging with community members in person,” Maderer said.

When asked about Grenell’s unsubstantiated claims about the election, Director of IPS Kiron Skinner told The Tartan in a statement, “Like all CMU employees, the Institute for Politics and Strategy faculty and staff are free to engage in political activity on their own time."

Richard Grenell did not immediately respond to request for comment on this story