Prof resigns following viral post

Dr. Paul Ewell resigned from his position as Professor of Management, Business, and Economics on Nov. 16 in the wake of widespread criticism over a Facebook post in which he accused supporters of Joe Biden of being “ignorant, anti-American, and anti-Christian.”

The post, which originally went up late Nov. 5 and was taken down the next day, garnered national attention Nov. 15 as President Donald Trump retweeted an NBC12 article about the post, commenting “Progress!” This post would amass 33 thousand retweets and 174 thousand likes as well as send Ewell’s name as high as the number 16 spot on the platform’s ‘Trending’ list. 

The Nov. 5 post, Ewell told the Chronicle, had been an angry lapse in judgement in the aftermath of a fight with two Democratic friends in private messages. With tensions around the election running high, Ewell said that one of the friends impugned his faith in their political argument. 

Ewell responded by writing the controversial Facebook post that questioned the patriotism and faith of those who voted for Biden in the election, and further accused them of corrupting the election, the youth and the country. He instructed anyone who voted for Biden to unfriend him on social media.

By midnight on Nov. 6, just hours after it went up, the post had begun to rocket between campus group chats and appear on students’ social media. Students and alumni began calling for Ewell’s firing or resignation.

Alumnus Thomas Mills wrote in an email to the Chronicle that “The issue is not that [Ewell] supports Trump or votes Republican. He is entitled to a political opinion just like everyone else in this country. The issue is how worrisome, disturbing almost, it is to see a professor and dean from Virginia Wesleyan so blatantly spew false and divisive rhetoric.”

Others expressed shock, including some of Ewell’s own students. “I have complete, one hundred percent confidence that if… I had posted something political that would have been controversial, he would have been the first to say, ‘Hey man, it’s just not a good look, that doesn’t represent what you’re a leader of,’” said Justin Robins, a student of Ewell’s who had worked closely with him in the Marlins Prestige Business Conference.

Ewell regretted the post almost immediately, he told the Chronicle in an interview on Nov. 9. “I spoke out of anger, which I should not have done…. I don’t believe what I said. I have friends and family who are Democrats and I love them dearly. I have apologized on both accounts profusely. I set a poor example in that post of what a Christian should be. I know that God has forgiven me and already died for my sins. I hope others will forgive me as well.”

On Nov. 6, the day after making his original post, Ewell took it down and made his Facebook private. In a subsequent post, he explained what had happened and apologized for his words.  “I have never seen a time in my life where there has been so much divisiveness and apparent hatred toward one-another.  If our country is to survive, we must stop this hatred and fighting and I’m stepping forward to say I want it to start with me… I am genuinely sorry for letting my anger get the best of me,” said the apology posted on Facebook.

That same morning, the University released the following statement on its social media pages: “The University is aware of a recent comment made on social media by a member of the campus community. These views and opinions are expressly the individual’s own. Civic engagement and religious freedom are at the core of the University’s values, and we remain an inclusive and caring community that empowers meaningful relationships through listening, understanding, and communication.”

As of this publishing, the post has over a thousand comments on Facebook, and hundreds of replies on Twitter. Many members of the Marlin community criticized the University and accused it of offering empty platitudes.

Mills said that, “The administration’s response has been lackluster, at best. It is wild to me that an institution that prides itself on acceptance, inclusion, and diversity would not vehemently deny the comments made by Mr. Ewell…. As far as I’m concerned, a pre-written Facebook post isn’t going to cut it.”

Ewell was a tenured professor with the University, and was protected by the policies outlined in the Faculty Handbook. “When faculty speak or write outside of their role as teachers and researchers, they will be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but they should take care to be accurate, exercise appropriate restraint, and show respect for the opinions of others. They should also make clear that they are not speaking for the institution,” the Handbook states.

The situation reached a boiling point on Sunday morning, when President Donald Trump retweeted coverage from the NBC12 team in Richmond.  As of 11 p.m. on Nov. 16, the post had over 33 thousand retweets and 174 thousand likes.

The university fielded furious calls from around the country on Sunday in the wake of new national attention, with callers demanding Ewell be removed and threatening to withhold donations. Some students suggested on social media that they were considering dropping out or leaving the school off their resume.

On Monday morning, the University announced that Dr. Ewell had tendered his resignation as both a dean and a professor. “While we respect Dr. Ewell’s right to free speech,” said the emailed announcement, “His comments, particularly coming from a Dean of the institution, contradict the values and culture that are such an integral part of who we are.” President Miller confirmed in an interview Tuesday evening that Ewell’s resignation was voluntary. 

Ewell will finish out the last few weeks of the semester for current students.  His advisees will be issued a new faculty advisor in coming weeks.

Miller spoke highly of Ewell, highlighting that Ewell himself was an alumnus of the University and had been “a productive member of the academic community” during his 12 years teaching here. He emphasized that the University was appreciative of his service, and wished him all the best moving forward.

Robins identified himself as sitting on the left side of the political spectrum, but said that the statements in Ewell’s post didn’t change what he thought of the professor himself. “He’s a great professor. I will say that, and I don’t think anyone who’s had him would disagree with that.”

Others in the Marlin community who knew Ewell personally spoke of him in similar terms. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that he immediately expressed remorse,” and took full responsibility for the post, said Dr. Craig Wansink, professor and Director of the Robert Nusbaum Center on campus. “It wouldn’t surprise me that faculty and students of his and colleagues… wish that he had just turned away from the keyboard that night.”

By Brianna Sandy