By Any Other Name

by Akim Reinhardt

Van Bokkelen Hall Directions & Parking | Towson University
Van Bokkelen Hall

There is a building on the Towson University campus called Van Bokkelen Hall. In that building, one of the rooms has recently been renamed for Richard E. Vatz. I don’t know who Van Bokkelen was (I should probably look into that), but I can tell you who Vatz is.

Professor Richard E. Vatz has been at Towson University more than twice as long as I have, and I’ve been there over twenty years. When I first met Vatz, he struck me as a fairly harmless, banal right winger. He was a type. Fashioning himself a Socatic gadfly, he complained about the school and state bureaucracy (Towson is a public university). He warned against faculty unionization (it’s actually against the law for professors to unionize in Maryland). He was a free speech advocate who cut against academia’s grain in his conversations and later in his uninspiring blog posts. I found him to be entirely unimpressive. But the university was big enough that I was able to largely ignore him, despite his efforts to be a presence and a “character.”

Then it got serious.

First he made himself the faculty sponsor of a hardcore racist student club: Matthew Heimbach’s White Student Union. A history major, Heimbach was a student in one of my classes. He was smart. He was articulate. He was over-the-top polite. And he was a very committed White nationalist. Because of this, and because being such a person on a college campus was such an oddity in pre-Trumpist America, Heimbach garnered his fair share of press. CNN, the New York Times, and some other major outlets all indulged him with interviews and coverage, holding him up as a curio.

Richard Vatz sponsored Heimbach’s White Student Union. This made it an official Towson University student organization, which it could not be without faculty sponsorship. Their activities included things like campus safety patrols. You don’t need to read too hard between the lines to understand just whom Heimbach and his cronies thought were the threat.

Vatz is Jewish. There is a way in which you could read his actions as an intellectually bold and ultimately admirable commitment to free speech. Perhaps like the Jewish ACLU lawyers who represented the Nazi Party’s right to march in Skokie, Illinois back in the 1978. I’m sure Vatz saw himself that way. Indeed, I’d be surprised if he never once mentioned Skokie while justifying his actions.

However, I did not see Richard Vatz as a noble free speech warrior, or as a parallel to the 1970s ACLU. For starters, I didn’t think he was very smart about it. I got no sense that he really comprehended the issues with depth. He always struck me as a shallow ideologue, and I couldn’t imagine that he fully understood or appreciated what he was doing. And I think that matters. There’s a difference between carefully making a thoughtful, principled stance on an unpopular and even dangerous issue, versus spouting cliches while you help open the floodgates.

To be fair, I didn’t engage Vatz directly on the issue; mostly I just listened to him prattle from afar and read some of his musings. Perhaps he’s a deeper thinker than I’m giving him credit for.

Either way, his ultimately ill-advised connection to white nationalism might’ve ended there if Heimbach’s notoriety had ended there, as I suspected it would; after all, you’re not such a novelty once you leave a blue state liberal arts college. Then you’re just another racist, and who gives a shit?

But then came Donald Trump, and Heimbach got some more wind in his sails, having married the daughter of a nationally recognized racist white nationalist and initially supporting Trump. There he was, shoving a black woman at a Trump rally. There he was, waving a tiki torch in Charlottesville, Virginia. Donald Trump was fanning the flames of white nationalist racism, and Matthew Heimbach emerged from the smoke.

Eventually it went pear-shaped for Heimbach. He got excommunicated from the Antioch (Eastern) Orthodox Church for being a racist. The United Kingdom banned him from entering its borders for the same reason. Back home, he got arrested for repeatedly shoving that woman at the rally (suspended sentence, fine, anger management, and a little time for violating the terms of his sentence). He got sued for his role in Charlottesville. He got arrested again in a domestic squabble.

Of course, Heimbach’s post-Towson ups and downs are not the point. It’s that America was now awash in right wing authoritarianism, and it was time to adjust. If you truly value free speech, then take a stance against the right wing censors and book burners, not the specter of politically correct thought police. It should be readily obvious to any rational, reasonably objective person that there is an enormous difference between laws, executive orders, and political decrees in states such as Florida and Tennessee that ban academically sound course content from kindergarten all the way through graduate school, and activists who supposedly get upset if you say “Latino” or “Latina” instead of “Latinx.” And even if you’re not going to actively protest the legal censorship of school curricula by right wing authoritarian politicians and officials, at the very least, do not actively promote right wing authoritarianism and white ethnonationalism.

Heimbach me once, shame on you . . . and, cue Richard Vatz.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before he was soon up to his old, predictable tricks. Despite everything that had gone on, he agreed to serve as the faculty sponsor for a Towson University chapter of Turning Point USA, the odious ultra right wing youth group awash in racism and homophobia.

ABC News 1977
Protestors at 1978 Nazi rally in Skokie, IL (ABC News)

Vatz must have had some understanding that it was a different moment than when he had sponsored Heimbach’s white nationalists nearly a decade earlier. This time he said he would only sponsor the group so long as they did not engage in hate.

He was not true to his word.

Leaked messages revealed Towson’s Turning Point members happily spouting racist and homophobic slurs. Time to do what he said and cut them loose, right?

Nope. Vatz met with them. They were oh so sorry. These young men deserved a second chance. He stayed on as their faculty sponsor. Now he wasn’t just keeping them official; he was also inadvertently doing PR.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that Richard Vatz doesn’t have a right to sponsor racists. Of course he does. That’s what free speech is all about: protecting reprehensible speech, not just the speech you agree with. And this is a perfect example of why professors have tenure: so they can take unpopular stances they feel are important, and not face political reprisals. I’d probably agree with Vatz on numerous points about the culture of emotional “safety” currently sullying schools, and the recent unconscionable firing of an adjunct art history professor at Hamline University who, even though she explained and prepared the class for it in numerous ways, was nevertheless canned for showing a famous medieval painting of the prophet Mohammad.

I’m not here to paint Richard Vatz as the enemy. But I also reject the notion that he’s some brilliant man of principles. Rather, he seems to be in over his head and is worthy of criticism. For if Vatz has every right to support these racist organizations and people, even during a time of right wing racism and authoritarianism threatening democracies around the world, which he does, then I have every right to say he’s a moron for doing so, and to point out that he’s not the valiant free speech crusader he believes himself to be, but a dupe.

I don’t think Richard Vatz is an evil racist. So far as I can tell, he’s just a chump, blindly pointing to his principles as he supports something he opposes while American democracy stumbles in the face of right wing authoritarianism. I’d actually rather have a conversation with Heimbach than I would with Vatz. I might disagree vociferously with Heimbach, who now calls himself a pro-white National Bolshevik, whatever that is (probably something about Jewish bankers). But for all his many, many faults, at least I know that Heimbach’s curious and wants to genuinely confront difficult questions about social structures. Whereas Vatz has always struck me as someone who has all the answers. Or at least too many of them.

But that being said, no, I wouldn’t sponsor Heimbach’s White Student Union, or Turning Point USA. Probably not ever, and most certainly not in the Age of Trump. Because there’s a difference between having honest discussions with people you deeply disagree with, and giving them a megaphone. Heimbach has a right to say things in public. I support that right. I’ll even engage him if it feels honest. And he has a right to publish and march (if he’s not being violent). But I’m not going to personally facilitate his hateful ideas by lending him my professional connections. I have no obligation to do that and I won’t.

And again, let’s be clear. Unlike Matt Heimbach, I don’t think Richard Vatz is dangerous. But I also don’t think he has a real sense of what is and isn’t dangerous. And in our current times, that’s the big problem driving America towards the authoritarian ditch. Vatz isn’t special; he’s symptomatic of many people who can’t recognize right wing ethnonational authoritarianism for what it is really is, how it functions, and the very real and serious dangers it presents.

It may not seem very sporting or collegial of me to kick Richard Vatz on his way out the door (he’s retiring). And truthfully, it never would have occurred to me if his denouement had not been donating money to the school over the years, orchestrating to have his favorite classroom named after himself, and then denying he bought the room’s naming rights. He clearly wants to be publicly celebrated, and so I’m speaking up, as are others.

And then there’s the other odd piece of timing. This all coincides with our school president, Kim Schatzel, also leaving the university any day now. Though unlike Vatz, she’s not retiring; rather, she’s assuming the presidency of the University of Louisville.

While she was here, Schatzel rang the Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity bell incessantly. She created new Diversity offices, oversaw the fashioning of new policies, and used any local, regional, or national tragedy as an excuse to send out long, campus-wide emails trumpeting her commitment to diversity and everyone’s psychological and/or emotional safety. At least prior university presidents had the good graces not to spam us.

While I never met Pres. Shatzel, what I’ll remember most about her tenure at Towson University is her unending promotion of Diversity/Inclusion/Equity/“Safety,” and the gobs of money she threw at various sports programs and facilities that very few students (much less faculty or staff) seem to care the least bit about.

And now, in her waning days as president, one of her last acts was to effectively ignore the protests against the naming of Vatz’s room, and even a direct letter from 20 faculty members in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology & Audiology, who teach in Van Bokkelen, and the room in question, and very much do not want it associated with the name Richard E. Vatz.

I’d say the irony is rich, but taking money has always been a college president’s #1 job, no matter what they say about DEI or sports or anything else. And either way, Schatzel’s already had one foot out the door when this went down; whatever genuine concerns she may have had (about which I have my personal doubts) were compromised. So the Richard E. Vatz Room in Van Bokkelen Hall it is.

Photo: The Baltimore Banner
Student Protest of Richard E. Vatz Room naming at Towson University. Photo: The Baltimore Banner

Maybe I’m just cynical.

No maybe about it. I’m definitely cynical. And I wish Prof. Vatz were just a little more cynical too. Because democracy doesn’t die in darkness, as the popular but wildly misguided slogan proclaims. It dies in broad daylight. It dies when democratic norms erode right before our very eyes.

In 1970s America, when half the populace still remembered World War II and really fuckin’ hating Nazis was the firmly established norm, standing up for a small, fringe neo-Nazi group’s 1st amendment right to have their parade while everyone boos and curses them was a brave, admirable, principled, and very difficult stance. At that time and place, it’s some real complex, fine-line stuff worthy of serious debate and contemplation.

But offering official sanction and funding to racist white nationalists during the era of Trumpism is not brave or admirable or smart. At best, it’s profoundly naive.

And maybe some faculty feel that teaching in the Richard E. Vatz room is now a sign of dishonor, something to be avoided, the room besmirched by his name. But as a Historian, I see it as an opportunity. Tell me students, who was Richard Vatz and why was this room named for him?

Akim Reinhardt’s website is