What’s In A Name? Robert Lee Mitchell III and Arrianna Marie Coleman

Last week I logged into to Twitter to see two friends and colleagues in a debate about prestige and grades.

I asked them, incredulously, who cared about grades in graduate school?

I am not just in higher education but I study it. And, I can tell you that grades must be achieved but they are, by no means, the true metric by which graduate students are judged successful. It seemed to me a harmless enough observation.

Robert Lee Mitchell, III saw our exchange and disagreed. He disagreed vehemently enough to call me “stupid”, “dumb”, “post-racial”, “post-grades” and eventually an “affirmative action admit at a b rate graduate school.” We had never crossed paths before this moment.

Well, alrighty then.

I dismissed this as the work of a professional provocateur but Mr. Mitchell wanted it to be known that he is a real graduate student in political science at a “prestigious” university — the University of Chicago — where, unlike me, he had been admitted based on merit. He told me to see his twitter page for an online article he had written that proved that he was “real” and meritorious.

I had a hard time believing that a black graduate student at a U of C would call other black graduate students affirmative action admits or tell a professor that she is an idiot or any of the other dozens of insults Mr. Mitchell was throwing about the half dozen or so black academics that engaged him during this exchange.

But, alas, a simple search of U of C’s website revealed him to be, indeed, an actual student. Still, I doubted Mr. Mitchell’s claim that bullying, insults, and vicious attacks of colleagues was the “University of Chicago way”.

I emailed Mr. Mitchell, not to chastise him, but to extend a sincere offer to explicate his thoughts on black graduate students, public engagement, and professionalization. I am on several committees of late organizing conferences around this theme. And despite charges that I am a no-merit graduate student at a sub-par university, I thought Mr. Mitchell’s style of engagement would spice up an academic exchange on the “culture of nice” and subversive politics that can characterize public scholarship.

The email said:

On the off-chance that your twitter is a performative aspect of your research, I wanted to extend an invitation to talk about the way you engage social media with some colleagues at an OS journal.

This invitation so angered Mr. Mitchell that what followed was no less than an attempt to blackmail me into…something.

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He threatened to tell the world that I am a criminal.

Mr. Mitchell’s charges of a criminal past are true.

Last year I was stopped driving a car belonging to my parents.

The car was registered in N.C. and I was turning aimlessly, lost in the area near Morehouse Medical School attempting to find the entrance ramp to I-20.

The officer who stopped me for looking lost doubted the legality of my out-of-state tags and driver’s license.

When he took me to the campus police station to book me I called a friend, mentor and white lady — an administrator at Emory University — to vouch for my legal personhood.

It never occurred to me to be ashamed of what happened. Indeed, my friends and parents have razzed me so much about the mugshot that it has come close to becoming a holiday gag gift.

But Mr. Mitchell thought that spreading the word of this event would end my career and he was happy to be the one to do it. Indeed not five minutes later he and his colleagues began tweeting and posting the mugshot and sundry claims online. Because I emailed him an invitation to a professional engagement.

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Later, his colleague, Arrianna Marie Coleman would join Mr. Mitchell in what is now a three day public attack on my work and character. But Ms. Coleman’s attacks are more pointed and troublesome.

They include claims that I have a “history of plagiarism” and that I have conducted illegal and unethical research without IRB approval.

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I have repeatedly asked Ms. Coleman and Mr. Mitchell for evidence supporting these claims. Sadly, there is not much one can do to make someone be honest on Twitter.

But, there is a lot that one can do to protect her credibility through other venues.

Thus, I find myself doing something I never, ever, ever thought I would do: I am using they system against fellow black people. Black graduate students at that.

That hurts me because the work I do is deeply embedded in who I am.

I could do the Ronald Reagan Legacy project I initially proposed in graduate school. Instead I study for-profit colleges, social inequality, racism and sexism because I genuinely care about the structural inequality people who look like me encounter as they try to make a life in an unequal American society.

I care enough that there is little I won’t do to spread the gospel. I was near Morehouse the night I was detained because I had rushed back from a visit home to N.C. to make a meeting where I was brainstorming with Spelman faculty about how I could contribute to a social justice class she teaches there.

I read grad school essays from black students who randomly find me online or meet me at conferences.

I introduce people to my mentors and curate online resources on how to survive academia when you were not born to succeed.

I do all of this for no pay, no reward structure and no immediate benefit because I believe it is what I am here to do.

Along the way I conduct research as ethically and professionally as any scholar who takes seriously her work and her integrity.

Any suggestion that I am dishonest or that I have plagiarized is one that I simply cannot let go unchallenged.

So, I am all in.

I am taking every means available to me to protect the integrity of who I am and what I do. With the  support of mentors, colleagues and friends I have requested of the University of Chicago an opportunity to address Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Coleman’s charges.

And I will go further.

I am selling my car and putting myself in debt to obtain legal counsel and I will go as far as necessary to protect the one thing I have: my name.

I do not do it with an unburdened heart but, as Tina Turner might have said, what’s love [of black people] got to do with it?

I will do a lot of things. I will accept an apology. I will allow you to call me a criminal. I do not care about Mr. Mitchell’s promise to start a t-shirt line with my mugshot on it. I really don’t.

But I won’t let you bully me or publicly slander my integrity or question the validity of my work.

To borrow from a great philosopher — one Mr. Meatloaf —  I will do a lot of things but I won’t do that.

ETA on Feb 2, 2013

I do not ask people to fight my fights, not because I am some kind of superhero but because it just seems rude to ask of people who have their own lives and concerns. I am stunned and appreciative for all of my colleagues, known and unknown, who have spread the word, started legal funds, contacted U of C and contacted me. Stunned. And appreciative.

I am still committed. I passed comps and wrote a dissertation proposal draft between writing a book chapter and editing a book proposal this week. So, talking to lawyers and managing this conflict has exhausted me. I don’t know if there is a good time for such things but this strikes me as not one of them. So, if I have not been able to say thank you please know that is not because I am not grateful. I am actually so grateful that a mere “thank you” feels inadequate.

This has now gone on for months

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58 thoughts on “What’s In A Name? Robert Lee Mitchell III and Arrianna Marie Coleman

  1. Have you set up a legal fund that other people can contribute to? I’m not sure of the logistics of it, though I’ve seen it done before, and I’m sure you’d find support from your peers and colleagues if you did this. You shouldn’t have to put yourself through debt to fight these ridiculous accusations. People will help.

  2. Hmmm….I don’t have a dog in the fight, but if Mr. Mitchell thinks his fanzine article is demonstrative of academic merit I would be curious to know how he survived under graduate school.
    There’s nothing like a false charge of plagiarism to raise the hackles. A simple side by side comparison with Ms, McMillian’s work suggest that RLM III has picked a fight that he cannot win.
    Good luck, Tressie

    1. I’m an old journalist who attends graduate school in Chicago (albeit at what Mr. Mitchell, et alia would consider ‘a b rate grad school”), and I too am dogless in this fight except as a writer. It is in this regard that I take exception to calling his work anything but amateurish. His lead focuses on Ms. Hill’s recent legal trouble with the Internal Revenue Service and her subsequent guilty plea, and then in the next sentence makes the absurd assertion that she “changed a generation.” Not only is this a terrible paragraph, it mixes quasi-news (celebrity scandals are hardly journalistic accomplishments) and wildly exaggerated opinion, leaving the reader to wonder if this is the writer’s view or something that the webzine sees as true. And the use of the direct address could be included in the first sentence to give it a folksy feel: If you’re not a big fan of the grocery store tabloids and don’t Tevo TMZ, you may have missed Lauryn Hill’s guilty plea to the charges of tax evasion after the songstress/actress failed to pay her taxes because she had gone ‘underground.’ Whatever the reason for this trouble with the revenuers, Hill will long be remembered for her work as a solo artist beginning in 1998.” Still not academic writing, but certainly less jarring than what Mr. Mitchell is suggesting as his bona fides. I won’t bore your readers with more of this analysis, but I will say that this sort of thing will happen with increasing frequency as people take advantage of instant publishing.

      If you do pursue this legally, I’d be interested to hear of it as a court finding might have broad ramifications for the internet and blogosphere.

      Best of luck,

  3. Thank you for sharing this publicly. I was unaware of how the situation began but it seems that Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Coleman are insecure in their own academic position, hence the need to attack you.Good luck and please let those of us who support you know how we can help.

  4. I don’t have a dog in this fight either, other than I’m a Black graduate student and I am appalled that these two would attack you in this way. For what it’s worth, I support you and your work, and I hope that you are vindicated in court, but more importantly, that these two learn a lesson in humility, basic respect, and that what they did was bullying. From one Georgia girl to another, I dare say they lack hometraining. If this type of behavior is the “University of Chicago way” I don’t want anything to do with it.

  5. Hey Tressie.

    Sorry to hear about the unfortunate circumstances and obstacles that are trying to derail your life’s work. I just wanted to let you know that I think your work is always engaging, humorous, and that your scholarship is worthy of all the headaches that higher ed puts people of color through! It is so sad that we usually have to defend our passion and scholarship against those who we feel should be right beside us, supporting us, and helping to blaze the trail. Sadly, it is not usually the case. Be encouraged and good luck with all your future educational and professional endeavors. Hopefully one day soon I can call you Dr Tressie! Take care, Jonathan

  6. As the social justice professor at Spelman that you donate your time to every semester, you bet I’m ready to go to bat for you. This is unacceptable behavior from grown-ups and I will be reaching out to my U of C folks immediately to share this info immediately. Please don’t sell your car, let’s try raising the funds first.

  7. Greetings Tressie, my mouth is wide open and eyes fixed to the screen as I am in disbelief at what I have just read! I’m so deeply sorry that you have experienced this injustice particularly at the the hands of two black grad students. I would also suggest a legal fund as well as gofundme or indigogo page so that people can begin to donate ASAP. I’m in!

  8. This story is shocking. I’m truly sorry you had to experience this attack. I agree with a previous poster: this absolutely is cyber bullying and should be reported as such.

  9. This is disgusting and proof that internalized racism and academic privilege has diminished the quality of character of supposed thought leaders of color in academia. Us nobodies have you back!

  10. But, at the same time .. do you see something wrong with appealing to elite White instituions to check this dude (who should be checked)? White saviors, as always.

    1. In this case by the legal system because this is a clear case of libel – saying something in print that is slanderous of someone’s reputation. Because he is shileding himself with his academic affiliation that makes it appropriate to use those channels to get him to ‘reconsider’ his behavior and actions since it possibly reflects on them – and a chance of risking the institution.
      If he were enrolled in a different institution with Black professor that wouldn’t make it any less important.
      Like you, having to reach out to others -the so-called called White saviors are only white because of his institution. But what suggestions would you offer?
      Tressie did walk away from it and let him rant on and on but he/they have been like a dog with a bone.
      Just ugly.

      1. How this should be handled, I have no idea love. I only have one side of what went down, tried to find the conversation in it’s entirity, but couldn’t. The only conclusion I can come to, after the little I know, is that this Robert guy is a class A …. (you fill in the blanks;) But this type of altercation is so very scripted, he considers himself to be better because he is succesfull in a White supremcist patriarchal way (studying at an elite White institution). The sister who wrote this text, who he had the altercation with, fits into the same norms of being successful .. he says she is who she is because of affirmative action .. she sees this an attack on her merits and carreer in this world of Whiteness. The only thing that will come out of this, is that the White proffessors or what not, will see this as an entertaining case of a mandingo fight. He will not be kicked out. Some are saying this will affect his future career, how? (some) Black employers might take his behaviour into consideration, but he strikes me as a lad who would rather work for ehmmm, less “urban” employers. So the White employers, I don’t need to point out how he is seen on this racist job-market, how his skills are dissected in the exact same manner he dissected this sisters hard work…so a large portion of elite jobs, he will not get..the others..hmmm.

        1. I’d respectfully disagree with your remarks that this behavior will not affect these individuals’ future careers. At least, if they intend to pursue a career in academia (which they may not), their employers are likely going to Google their names. White people, especially, love to Google prospective employees’ names. (I am not kidding. It should seriously be a category on the “Stuff White People Like” Tumblr: “Googling prospective employees’ names before the interview.”) Even when committees are not supposed to Google prospective employees’ names, they regularly do.

          And, despite what you think, few academic employers—-white or not—-are going to want to hire a colleague who exhibits the kind of behavior exhibited by these two U of C. students. It is, plain and simple, uncollegial behavior.

          Search Committees look for candidates who will fit well into departments and do good work—-not candidates who are bullies, who are acrimonious, and who will pick fights when they could be researching their next article or seeking funding for their next grant.

          This much I guarantee you.

          Outside of academia in pretty much any white collar professional setting, the behavior is not particularly esteemed either. The only place I can see it being overlooked (or even praised) is on Wall Street. So unless these students plan to become stock brokers, behaving this way online in full public view will definitely come back to haunt them when they eventually try to get jobs.

  11. This is just bizarre and absurd. I’m in the academy and have never seen anything like this. If there’s anything I could do to help, do let me know.

  12. This is so insane.
    And sadly, I too reached out the UofC MAPSS program to alert them of their school being represented in such a deplorable fashion. Talking crazy and using foul language is one’s perogative; but crediting your ill-behavior as ‘academic’ lessons learned and crediting your university and program for your behavior/actions is something else….If University of Chicago is such an institution to have a Student Code of Conduct then these 2, and especially Mr. Mitchell have violated it….and made the university and their degree program look VERY bad.
    Academia runs on the steam opersonal interactions of scholars -student through faculty. It is simultaneously collaborative and competitive. Manners are not written in stone, but it certainly helps oil the wheel and like any other industry impressions matter in making and keeping opportunities.

    I find it very CURIOUS that these two decided to come after you, although he engaged SEVERAL people in the thread (me included), especially since it was Jaz and Phuzzie who seemed to go toe-to-toe with him. Just curious.

    Please make selling your car a last result. Let’s try a Go Fund Me campaign. I am ready to make a donation.
    I hope this doesn’t take too much of your energy away from your studies – your main responsibilities. But please keep us notified. In the meantime praying for you and this situation.

  13. This kind of behavior is, sadly, all too common in academia.

    Fortunately when the individuals attacking you are Googled (i.e. – when they’re on the job market), their appalling behavior will come back in search results for committees to see.

    For what it’s worth: no one is ever going to consider hiring a colleague who will behave as these two individuals have behaved towards you. Maybe there’s some comfort in that….

  14. I’m sorry this is happening! Please keep us posted on your next steps so folks can support. And honor yourself with some self care this evening, this week…this is a LOT to deal with. <3 from across the internets, Jessica (@jmjohnsophd)

  15. I haven’t followed this spat on Twitter, but I am appalled at their behavior, accusations and overall unprofessional approach to the situation. Tressie, please DON’T sell your possessions. I’m sure there are dozens of scholars, grad students like me included, that will donate to this cause. Please post a link to an IndieGogo or Kickstarter campaign so assistance can be provided.

  16. Having just discovered they are first year MAPSS students, my response at this point is to let them hang themselves–MAPSS regularly cuts 70% of MA students at the end of the year. It’s a weed-out program that *might* lead to a PhD at their august “first rate” school.

    “Of the 47 MAPSS graduates who applied or reapplied with our support to Chicago departments for 2012 matriculation, 14 (30%) received fellowship offers and an additional 8 were waitlisted.” http://mapss.uchicago.edu/graduates/phds.shtml

    They’re just trolls whose opinions matter little. I think they’re probably not worth fighting.

  17. I am sorry this is happening to you! Don’t let this guy take up space in your head. The more you respond, the more he will continue his harassment. If you expend your own resources dealing with this unstable person, he gets what he wants. Chances are, people will gather from his behavior that his claims are unreliable. In short, don’t feed the trolls.

  18. I’m disgusted to see these attacks! However, I think it is proof that your articles have made a huge impact that is making a range of people uncomfortable. Unfortunately, their reaction is to attack you instead of looking in the mirror.

    As an African American man and scholar, I’m most infuriated by Robert Lee Mitchell 1) People frequently attempting to minimize HBCUs are often guilty on some level about their educational choices and how they relate to black community. Instead of interrogating and accepting their life’s decisions, they try to debase the institutions as if it will resolve their internal conflict. But it won’t. Admittedly, this is anecdotal info, but my point is he has no right to project his insecurities onto your hard work and personal life. 2) One person commented that this guy’s chauvinism and skills may bar him from the most elite job prospects but not from getting a job in his field altogether. True, too many spaces will still give this chauvinism a pass. However, one year in an MA program does not indicate he has “skills” to go with his hostility. Add that lack of skills to an absolutely inflated ego, to easily accessible proof that he’ll publicly disrespect those ranked higher than him—it’s pretty clear he’s narrowing his opportunities drastically. 3) Most importantly, this guy’s a coward who targets women for the spotlight. I doubt he has attacked any men like this or has stood up for black women when they’ve needed support. If he remains in academia and receives (or his about to receive) opportunities in which I have some influence, I will be sure to share this incident with all involved. He’s counting on the idea that the racists, chauvinists, and economic elites are the only gatekeepers out there. He’s sorely mistaken…

  19. Missed this altogether ~ still sounds more like bizarre fiction than reality. When I asked Maria Maisto if you were the same Tressie I saw listed on the original NFM organizing committee and if so, I wished you were still on, she asked if I’d been following this. So I looked at Lee’s piece and came here.

    I can contemplate social media incivility ~ mean trolls, wannabe cyber bullies ~ and the implications for civil discourse online and personal power trips. Then I can write about it. More concretely, I can and will help spread the information about the legal fund.

  20. For what it’s worth, your story gives me strength to fight a fight I need to fight in my own tenure/promotion process. Thank you for sharing your story. You have truth on your side, and that is what will ultimately win out.

  21. I think something terrible happened to Mr. Mitchell when he was a child and something about you or what you wrote triggered him to project his anger and feelings onto you. I don’t think it really has anything to do with you or your work, yet I know his actions are impacting you negatively. I am so glad people are reaching out in support of you and wish I could also. Best Wishes.

  22. I’ve been following this for a few days, but I’ve been too busy to comment until now. The ironic thing is that you’re right. I was told by a very senior scholar that nobody looks at your grades. Your scholarship is what matters most. This thinking exhibits itself as one of the most pronounced areas of disparity. In my opinion, our fellow students of color place too much weight in class attendance and course completion and not enough in presenting and publication. When white students are the stars of the department because of their scholarship, many students of color are perplexed by the intellectual acumen of the stars; i.e., ‘how did the white girl who’s no smarter than me get to this level?’ Because while you were at home overreading the assignments, she was presenting at the national conference having coffee with Star Scholar X.

    1. Okay, not sure how this got into a white/black thing.
      The vast majority of my students, of all description, go into the private sector. Nobody gives a damn about grades, it’s portfolio performance that counts. And perceived future value. And the employment statistics show no color preference.
      Having said that, Tressie appears to have encountered a troll who needs a good smack in the teeth.

      1. This is how it’s a “white/black thing”. Robert called her an “affirmative action admit” because of her statement about grades. The irony is that the focus on grades as opposed to professional performance is a barrier that keeps some black graduate students from gaining prestige in their departments. Many are so focused on classwork and curriculum “on paper” that they miss the parts of the required curricula that aren’t “on paper” (conferences, departmental talks, publications) which are often the more important measures of currency in the academy. White students (generally) often pick this up a bit easier as they are more likely to have experience interpreting the passive suggestions of their professors as implied action steps. Black students are less likely to pick this up and try to make up for it by spending too much time reading the assigned literature, making their classwork “look good”, and over dressing for the class presentation. (I may be accused of overgeneralizing here, but hopefully people get the idea.) Robert’s stance actually serves to distance him from professional success that he accuses Tressie of not having. That’s the irony.

  23. I’m so sorry you have to deal with such abuse. Know that your work is valuable–that you are fighting the good fight, in your work and in this situation as well.

  24. My advice is taken from the words of Iyanla Vanzant…”When you see crazy coming, cross the street.” I’m also reminded of Michael Jackson’s response when one of his friends asked why he didn’t sue for everything printed false about him, to which he replied that if he were to do that, he would be in court every day of his life. As intellectuals, we do live public lives and, as a result, our lives and reputations are prone to much distortion just as much as they are celebration. Our choice is whether we going to invest energy in such distortions, or are we going to practice nonattachment and compassion/forgiveness to those who just don’t know any better.

      1. Natalie, I got the site to work (maybe it was having a bad day when I tried twice before), but when I read the terms and conditions it said that there was a 5% service fee (seems exorbitant). Can I just send you a check?
        Tressie should have my email address so you can contact me directly.

        1. Hi Chris!

          Okay, super!

          Yeah, I completely agree about the fees… Depending on the crowdsourcing website, they charge between 5% and 9%! Even if you just have people paypal you, paypal charges 3.7%… Honestly, I briefly thought about starting my own free one while setting this up for Tressie…

          But yes, thank you so much for your support on this. I’ll make sure Tressie sees this thread and get in communication with you!


  25. Tressie, this is just appalling. I hadn’t realized what was going on with the start of the semester and the baby’s jet lag. But I will certainly donate to your fund and would be happy to take part in any other action that clears your name and makes it crystal clear to wannabe academics that this kind of behavior has very real consequences.

    I can tell you that if either of these individuals cares to apply for a job at the university where I work, I will be more than happy to provide my opinion regarding their fitness for the position.

  26. Tressie, I don’t know you, but I just saw the story about what happened to you pop up in my TL today and I was so disappointed and appalled. I want to extend my support and encouragement during this incredibly challenging time.


  27. I am a UK white woman non academic reading your post from a link, I enjoyed reading the initial info on ‘ becoming visible’ but the response you received from that man sounds awful. What a rude abusive person. It is easy to put people into a box with a label, but that does not mean it truly describes them. What is it about social media that seems to permit such astonishing verbal attacks? Sad. However for every person like that there are plenty of people who can recognise and share the knowledge you are distributing. Thank you and please keep it up!

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