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Students demand accountability after discovering history teaching fellow’s white nationalist writings

Boston University Department of History Building
Boston University’s Department of History. Students demanded accountability after former Ph.D. student and teaching fellow Benjamin Welton was exposed for allegedly publishing several forms of white nationalist content under pen names by the HuffPost May 26. SOPHIE PARK/ DFP FILE

Boston University students demanded the University’s administration and history department re-evaluate the grades received from a teaching fellow and former BU Ph.D. student after the fellow was exposed as the writer of white nationalist content online written under various pseudonyms.

The students issued the demand in an open letter posted on Instagram Sunday and a petition posted Tuesday. 

Benjamin Welton allegedly wrote numerous white supremacist, misogynistic and xenophobic articles and books under four pen names over the course of several years, the HuffPost reported in an exposé published last Wednesday. 

Until recently, he was enrolled as a history Ph.D. student in the College of Arts and Sciences and worked as a teaching fellow in the classes HI 151 “The Emerging United States to 1865” and IR 349 “History of International Relations, 1900-1945” under professors Brendan McConville and Michael McGuire, respectively. 

Welton oversaw and graded dozens of papers and coursework during his time as a teaching fellow. His profile was removed from the BU History website last Tuesday.

Welton did not respond to a request for comment. 

The history department released a statement Wednesday morning confirming Welton had “departed” from the program and that the department had been unaware of his activities.

The statement also said the department is currently reviewing the grades of affected students. 

“We want to thank those courageous students who have come forward to raise their concerns and will communicate directly with those students about our investigation,” the statement read.

BU spokesperson Colin Riley confirmed Welton is no longer enrolled in the University. He also noted Ph.D. students have a service requirement — usually in the form of teaching fellowships — as part of their enrollment. 

Riley declined to comment further, citing federal privacy regulations. 

One of the writers of the open letter, a student who asked to remain anonymous due to a fear of retaliation, said Welton was one of two TF’s in HI 151 when they took the class in Fall 2019 — a class of about 100 students. 

The student said when they initially reached out to the history department inquiring about a re-evaluation the day the open letter was written, they worried BU’s policy for undergraduate grade grievances — which requires students to file “within six weeks of the official posting of the grade” —  might complicate matters. 

The petition, which was written before the department’s statement saying they would work to re-evaluate grades, writes that BU should “revisit” this policy and that affected students were open to options such as credit or no-credit, an ‘A’ or letter-grade raise, resubmission of papers and exams for outside review and/or the establishment of a system to review grades given under “extenuating circumstances.”

The anonymous student said they acknowledge the difficulties in coming up with a fair solution in regards to revising grades, but added that an option such as students having to retake these classes would put “an undue burden” on them.

Hayley Thompson, a rising junior in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development and one of the open letter’s writers, said Welton would disproportionately distribute grades when she had him as a TF in the Fall of 2019 for HI 151. 

“The only people who generally got really high grades were either history majors or they were White men,” she said. “Everyone else pretty much did not get an ‘A’ despite trying so hard.”

Thompson added that while she did not attend Welton’s office hours herself, she did know of classmates who did, to no avail.

“They were so mad whenever we got papers back because of their grades being so low,” she said, “and it was like barely passing grades.”

Nina Silber, chair of the history department, wrote in an email she has made inquiries in the Dean’s office about the process of changing grades. 

“The BU History department condemns, in the strongest possible terms, all expressions of white nationalism, racism, and misogyny and we are actively working to make sure we translate those principles into ongoing practice,” she added.

Grace Link, a 2021 CAS graduate, had Welton as her sole TF for IR 349 — a class of at least 100 students — during the Spring 2019 semester. 

“He always wanted to do his own thing separate from the class,” she said. “He would just lead his own teaching session, and it was just simply not related at all to what we were learning in lecture.”

Link said Welton was a harsh grader compared to her other international relations courses and often graded based on specifics covered in his tangential discussions rather than what the professor had taught in lectures.

In an email, IR 349 professor McGuire wrote whenever he is assigned a teaching fellow or grading assistant he offers students the opportunity to appeal their grade to him if they believe it was unjust or did not receive satisfactory feedback. 

“As one who is half-Mexican in heritage and culture,” he noted, “I have always believed in offering a just system of student evaluation that provides undergraduates with opportunities to address with me any concern of academic injustice.”

McGuire declined to comment on Welton, citing federal privacy regulations.

Carly McCreary, a CAS senior, said it’s fair to believe Welton’s lessons, grade assignments and assessments were impacted by his beliefs.

“A lot of people forget that we are paying for our education,” she said, “and I think in the case that our educators have some pretty despicable values and agendas, that does compromise our learning experience.”

McCreary added she had Welton as a TF in IR 349 in Spring 2019 and remembers him as being “normal and pretty knowledgeable.”

One of Welton’s pieces published under the pseudonym Jake Bowyer names immigrants from developing nations as the cause of rape on college campuses. Given this, Thompson said it would be especially unfair to leave the grades of immigrants and people of color as is.

“It would just show that [BU] generally [doesn’t] care about the comfort of their students that aren’t white and male with wealth,” she said. 

The anonymous student said they want to emphasize that Welton is not an isolated case, but a product of a systemic issue within all academia. 

“It is not just Benjamin Welton,” they said. 

So far, the open letter has received over 3,500 likes on Instagram, and the petition has yielded close to 300 signatures, with more than 60 donors. 

The student said they and many other classmates wrote detailed critiques of Welton on their end-of-semester course evaluations but never saw any consequences.

“I’m genuinely so tired of having my future and my grades and my GPA dependent on all of these people that just don’t respect me and don’t respect so many of their students,” the student said.

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