UH needs to stop tolerating radical extremist faculty members

Students protest Matt Walsh, a speaker Dr. Nanda brought to campus

Students protesting Matt Walsh, the anti-transgender speaker that Dr. Nanda invited to campus on Oct. 13, 2022. | Atirikta Kumar/The Cougar

The University likes to pride itself on its commitment to “free speech” and “diversity of thought.” While this commitment is admirable, the University has demonstrated a frustrating double standard, suppressing some viewpoints while maintaining faculty that regularly promotes shockingly radical ideas.

For an example of this, no need to look further than a rather peculiar gathering that took place a few years ago.

In August 2021, hundreds of self-professed “patriots” gathered in Frisco, Texas for the annual Reckoning Fest. As attendees shared food and discussed politics between speakers, a lone figure took the stage.

She was introduced as Dr. Seema Nanda, an adjunct clinical professor who taught optometry at the University. While other speakers had put on a variety of stunning performances, she said she preferred a simpler option: poetry. 

As the audience politely applauded and then eventually quieted down, Dr. Nanda cleared her throat and began reading the poem, a self-titled piece called “Patriots Ignored”  that loosely mimicked Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”

“Suddenly there came a tapping, as patriots gently rapping, rapping at the Capitol door,” she read with conviction. “Tis some visitors requesting entrance to the floor, only this and nothing more.” 

Nanda’s poem was politically charged, to say the least, taking aim at everything from “the mobs of BLM” to her frustration with the fact that insurrectionists at the Capitol had been arrested simply for “going against the status quo.”

While a pro-Jan. 6 insurrection parody of a classic poem might seem out of place to an ordinary person, Dr. Nanda’s reading was actually one of the tamer acts of the night. 

In fact, the very next act that followed was greeted with applause as they performed a song from a pro-QAnon musical. “False Flag,” as the song was titled, got the audience to their feet as the performer sang about the Sandy Hook shooting being a hoax.

Events like Reckoning Fest occur more frequently than the average person might be aware of. They tend to host speakers promoting everything from the idea that presidents drink the blood of children to conspiracies that John F. Kennedy is still alive. 

And while Dr. Nanda’s day job as a UH optometry professor and faculty advisor for the Young Conservatives of Texas on campus is relatively tame, her nights are frequently spent at events like these. 

According to one source, Dr. Nanda has served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, done extensive activist work opposing the COVID-19 vaccine and has spoken at hundreds of events including rallies in support of Jan. 6 prisoners.

Though she tends to speak most frequently about the negative effects of the COVID-19 vaccines, Dr. Nanda has spoken on everything from the idea that late-term abortions are meant to harvest body parts to promoting Texas’ secession from the United States.

While she is fairly open about her more moderate positions, Dr. Nanda firmly believes that professors should not push their ideology on students. 

“You’re here to learn, so if a professor starts deviating into ideology you need to get them back on track,” she said in an interview with Campus Reform. “Everyone is allowed to be who you are, but don’t push your philosophy on me.”

To Dr. Nanda, the chance to mentor students on campus was a “gift from god.” She said that one of her students approached her at a CPAC convention in Dallas, complaining that it was hard to find an advisor for the YCT chapter they were trying to start.

Nanda took the job, both because she wanted to help connect students on campus to the conservative community in Houston and out of a desire to mentor students to a greater degree than just in the classroom. 

“My goal was to help them expand and grow. I had them plant the seed, now it’s my turn to watch them fertilize and bloom,” Dr. Nanda said. 

But to some students on campus, that seed has bloomed into something hideous. As the YCT’s faculty advisor, she played a large part in providing the connections needed to bring speakers such as Matt Walsh to campus. 

Walsh, who has at points described himself as a “theocratic fascist” tends to attract protests when he speaks, largely due to what some students have described as “deeply harmful transphobic rhetoric.”

For Landon Richie, a student and trans rights activist on campus, Walsh’s presence represented more than just a commitment to free speech. It represented an attack on their very identity.

“There was a real anger from the students here, and a lot of frustration came with it,” Richie said. “We were frustrated that the university would allow this transphobic speaker on campus amidst an already volatile period for trans people.”

While Dr. Nanda rejected the idea that Walsh’s presence could be considered harmful to students from marginalized populations, she noted that her goal in bringing speakers like him to campus was to spark controversy.

Senior investigative reporter Michael Edison-Hayden with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that the presence of speakers like Walsh is rarely intended to actually start productive conversations, despite what they might claim. 

“Extremists like Matt Walsh do what they do to promote their own careers; they’re not really interested in edifying anyone,” Edison-Hayden said. “What they’re doing is using the reflexive nature of people getting offended to promote their careers.”

Walsh’s presence did indeed spark controversy, as Richie and other LGBTQ+ activists on the campus mobilized dozens of students to protest outside where he was speaking. 

While the protesters represented a significantly sized force, student activists expressed dismay that Walsh was still able to attract a large number of people to attend the event.

“The fact that it had the reach to draw in such a massive outside community was really hard for a lot of students to grapple with,” said Richie. “Students weren’t just angry; they were afraid of what might happen if his rhetoric was uplifted by the university.”

To Edison-Hayden, Walsh is a clear byproduct of an extreme far-right shift amongst certain conservative movements. He noted that Turning Point USA and other related groups have become inundated with white nationalist ideas in recent years.

“Once Trump emerged as the nominee, almost everything in the Republican party started to change because he ran on this racist, anti-immigrant position. More extremists came out of the woodwork, and that was also true on college campuses,” Edison-Hayden said.

Dr. Nanda’s reach goes beyond just UH. In fact, she’s been affiliated with controversial speakers on several campuses. At one event, hosted by YCT at Sam Houston State University, she spoke alongside anti-trans rights activist Kelly Neidert.

Neidert, who has also self-described as a “Christian fascist” at points, has attracted controversy for the various “anti-drag” protests she’s organized alongside her organization, Protect Texas Kids. 

The anti-drag protests, including several that took place in Houston, have attracted far-right militia groups, neo-nazis and groups like the Proud Boys. Several of these protests have ended with violent clashes between protestors and counter-protesters.

While Neidert and other organizers have disavowed the presence of neonazis, both Kelly and her brother Jake have previously tweeted about “rounding up drag queens” for public execution. 

When asked about Dr. Nanda’s affiliations and public statements, the University did not respond for comment, nor did Dr. Nanda. In regards to Walsh’s presence, the University expressed a desire to “uphold free speech.”

But to many on campus, the dedication to “free speech” doesn’t extend to everyone. In January, a group of social work students protested the ousting of the dean of UH’s Graduate School of Social Work. 

The former dean of the program, Alan Detlaff, was an outspoken critic of police involvement in social work and a committed advocate for abolition. Internally, some faculty and students suspected he was let go for ideological reasons. 

“We feel excluded from the process,” said GCSW associate professor Mclain Sampson in an interview with The Cougar. “To see him be demoted, so unilaterally, sends a chilling message to us all.”

Even beyond the school of Social Work, both students and faculty that hold liberal positions on Texas campuses have felt significantly strained as of late. 

In the wake of Senate Bill 17, students expressed outrage and grief as the LGBTQ+ Resource Center and the Center for Diversity and Inclusion were dismantled to comply with state law. 

To many, the bolstering of conservative speech while left-wing “extremists” are censored speaks to a frustrating double standard on the University’s part. 

“On the right, these groups aren’t really advocating for policy, they’re just looking to tear down marginalized communities,” said Edison-Hayden. “They’re a small and vocal minority, but they’re always looking to take more power.”

As of the writing of this article, Dr. Nanda is still listed as an adjunct professor on her website and she still serves as the faculty advisor for the Young Conservatives, who did not respond to requests for comment.

Nanda’s various speeches at events that paint Sandy Hook victims as “crisis actors” and calls for insurrection are still publicly viewable on Rumble. To LGBTQ+ students, in particular, this rings as a blatant betrayal on the University’s part.

“A university’s values are communicated by who they hire and who they don’t,” said Richie. “It makes me as a trans student wonder where the university stands when it comes to protecting students like me.”

Malachi Key is a journalism senior who can be reached at [email protected]

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