Dr. Elizabeth Weiss is a fully tenured professor of anthropology at San Jose State University.
When you speak with her, the passion she feels for her work as a scholar and a lecturer is reflected in her radiant smile.
She is well-spoken and calmer than you’d expect one to be while discussing how her university colleagues have tried to ostracize her.
Weiss specializes in osteology—the study of human skeletal remains. She holds strong views about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and other similar laws, which require laboratories and museums to hand over certain Native American remains to the tribes for reburial.
“I’m against reburying bones,” she says. “I think they can tell us a lot about the past.”
“I think they can be used to train forensic anthropologists. I think that they are a key resource for young anthropologists, for archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, and I think that we still have a lot to learn from skeletal remains. I also think that a collection is not something that you study once and then it can be repatriated, because as you build knowledge on the collection, it helps you ask deeper questions as you learn more about the collection.”
This is a stance from which she has never tried to hide; indeed, the university has praised her for her innovative and thought-provoking ideas. But they are views that many now have labeled “anti-indigenous” or even racist.
For most of her career, her research has been supported by her university colleagues. The university had even praised her as a prolific and rigorous scholar and lecturer. In 2019, she was awarded San Jose State’s College of Social Sciences’ Austen D. Warburton Award of Merit for excellence in scholarship.
But after the 2020 release of her book Repatriation and Erasing the Past, Dr. Weiss found herself at the center of controversy and a social outcast on campus as students, professors, and administrators branded her a racist and white supremacist.
She found it difficult to reconcile the administrators’ newfound condemnation with their longstanding support of her research. Her criticisms of NAGPRA were, after all, well-known. But the smear campaign against her was just beginning.
For 18 years, Weiss has served as the curator of the university’s collection of remains. But after the debacle began, the school changed the locks and prevented her from getting near the remains.
Worse still, the university did nothing to shield her from the mob. The school even went so far as to hold a Zoom meeting with the passive-aggressive title, “What to Do When a Tenured Professor is Branded a Racist,” as well as a series of “anti-racism” workshops where participants called for censoring her views.
When she asked if she could hold a counter-event to tell her own side of the story, the school denied her request. She was also threatened with disciplinary action and other forms of retaliation if she continued to espouse her views to her students.
While her opinions are certainly considered controversial by many, she had held them for years, during which she encountered no backlash, aside from other scholars disagreeing with her.
But academia has changed so drastically over the past several years, controversial views are no longer welcome.
Where dissenting opinions were once revered as a golden opportunity for civil discourse and a deep exploration of opposing ideas, colleges and universities have begun suppressing views that might be seen as offensive.
Expressing controversial views is not a cardinal sin. In fact, as a professor at a publicly funded school, she is well within her First Amendment rights to do so.
Professor Weiss has refused to capitulate to the mob and is now fighting for her First Amendment rights in court, with Pacific Legal Foundation’s assistance.
But by stifling her ability to share her extensive knowledge and opinions with her students, San Jose State University is doing much more than just violating her constitutional rights: It is neglecting its obligation to its students.
Young adult minds are curious and eager to form their own independent viewpoints of the world around them. Colleges and universities exist specifically to guide students on this journey by exposing them to a host of ideas and opinions from which they can make educated decisions and form their own personal views.
That process is currently being inhibited by the actions of San Jose State University administrators.
What is perhaps the most tragic aspect of this story is the fact that what is happening to Dr. Weiss is not limited to her alone.
It’s happening in colleges and universities across the country.