Arts Professor Shellyne Rodriguez Fired After Confrontation With Anti-Abortion Group

Artist Shellyne Rodriguez was fired from her role as an adjunct professor at New York’s Hunter College in the fallout of a confrontation with anti-abortion activists on campus. On May 2, Rodriguez was filmed approaching members of the Students For Life of America organization who were tabling at Hunter’s Upper Manhattan campus and vocally protesting and disheveling the display, which included several rubber fetus models and pamphlets. As the video circulated on social media, Rodriguez said, she became the target of “vile and hateful emails, texts, and voicemails,” culminating in an unannounced visit from a New York Post reporter this week that resulted in a tense altercation.

In early May, after confronting the Students For Life of America members on campus, Rodriguez was summoned to the provost’s office and questioned by the Hunter College provost and dean of diversity and campus relations, who asked her to apologize to her students for her use of profanity and for disturbing the anti-abortion display. Rodriguez says she complied with the university’s request and issued an apology, but Students for Life of America continued to circulate the video and “mobilized their members and supporters to attack [her].”

Then, on the morning of Tuesday, May 23, New York Post reporter Reuven Fenton showed up at Rodriguez’s apartment in the Bronx seeking an impromptu interview. According to Rodriguez, Fenton and his crew entered the building without ringing the intercom and pounded on Rodriguez’s door. Rodriguez reportedly told Fenton through the closed door to “get the f–k away” and threatened to attack him with a machete. Fenton and his accompanying documentation crew recorded Rodriguez eventually opening the door to her apartment and taking a blade up to Fenton’s neck before retreating and locking the door behind her. Additional dash-cam footage released by the Post shows Rodriguez following Fenton and his team out of the building and onto the street with the machete in her hand and chasing a photographer around a car.

Rodriguez says the online harassment she experienced in the weeks prior to this incident led her to believe she was in life-threatening danger. Hateful messages sent to Rodriguez in the days after the confrontation with the pro-life group, several screenshots of which were reviewed by Hyperallergic and reproduced below, included racial and sexual slurs and threats of death and physical violence. 

“All this has taken a toll on my mental health, robbing me of my sense of safety, and creating reasonable fear that they would show up at my home to cause me physical harm, as has happened with so many other women who have similarly had their personal info exposed as a form of politically motivated harassment,” Rodriguez said in a statement shared with Hyperallergic.

Screenshots of emails received by Shellyne Rodriguez after she confronted anti-abortion activists. These screenshots have been edited to blur out senders’ identifying information and racial slurs. (courtesy Shellyne Rodriguez)

The May 2 video of Rodriguez protesting the anti-abortion table was widely circulated in The College Fix and other right-wing websites that have been flagged by independent groups monitoring news outlets contributing to the targeted harassment of faculty in US universities. Students for Life of America’s board of directors comprises representatives from several conservative groups, including the Federalist Society, which has been instrumental in the appointment of right-leaning judges to the Supreme Court; the American Life League, one of the nation’s oldest Catholic pro-life nonprofits; and the ​​Republican National Committee, among others.

“As much as this incident has stakes for my life, it is ultimately just one part of a broader political struggle taking place across the country,” Rodriguez said. “Right-wing media organizations are weaponizing and sensationalizing this case to further their agenda, and using me as a prism through which to project their attacks on women, trans people, Black people, Latinx people, migrants, and beyond.”

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, Vince DiMiceli, Hunter’s assistant vice president of communications, provided the following statement: “Hunter College strongly condemns the unacceptable actions of Shellyne Rodriguez and has taken immediate action. Rodriguez has been relieved of her duties at Hunter College effective immediately, and will not be returning to teach at the school.” Rodriguez is also an adjunct professor at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan. A spokesperson for SVA told Hyperallergic that while Rodriguez is not currently teaching any courses, the school is “assessing to determine any potential next steps.”

In the wake of the fallout after the May 2 confrontation, Rodriguez was met with an outpouring of support from members of the Hunter community, including the student- and faculty-led group CUNY for Abortion Rights, which circulated a petition in her support. “Her actions to shut down the tabling were fully justified, and are part of a long and celebrated CUNY legacy of confronting groups such as military recruiters who disseminate misleading information,” the petition read.

Others have expressed solidarity with Rodriguez on social media. New York-based artist Danielle De Jesus, with whom Rodriguez had a two-person exhibition at Calderón Gallery in 2021, offered a personal perspective when reached by Hyperallergic for her reactions to Rodriguez’s dismissal.

“Shellyne [Rodriguez] and I met through the movement for Puerto Rican liberation, and she has quickly become somewhat of a mentor to me,” De Jesus said. “She’s helped me become level-headed when the art world begins to feel heavy on me, but most importantly, she reminds me that I’m not alone. Being a Nuyorican from the hood in NYC, it’s easy to feel like you don’t quite fit into the art world’s idea of a fine artist, but Shellyne has taught me that it’s okay, because we don’t want to fit in a box, anyway.” 

A longtime artist and activist based in the Bronx, Rodriguez received her MFA in Studio Art at Hunter College in 2014 and worked there as an adjunct professor since 2017. Rodriguez is known for her local activism and interdisciplinary art practice that call attention to her lifelong South Bronx community’s modes of survival, decolonization, and resistance to subjugation and erasure through displacement and state-sanctioned violence. In 2020, Rodriguez produced a series of paintings and drawings that expanded the definition of “essential workers” to include the activists and organizers who were protecting her community during an uptick in police presence following an incident in which NYPD drew their guns at 19-year-old Adrian Napier in a subway car for hopping a turnstile. This spring, she was one of five honorees recognized at the anniversary celebration of the Latinx Project at New York University, an initiative that promotes the work of US-based artists of Latin American and Caribbean descent. Earlier this year, Rodriguez had her first solo exhibition at PPOW Gallery in Manhattan, featuring 22 colored pencil drawings documenting the diversity and solidarity of her community and its assets.

Wendy Olsoff, co-founder of PPOW, condemned the “attack of Shellyne Rodriguez by the right.” She added that the recent events remind her of past defamatory campaigns against artists by conservative groups, such as the reactionary American Family Association’s (AFA) attempts to block public funding of artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz’s 1990 exhibition Tongues of Flames.

“Now I feel like nothing has changed and, in fact, the strategies of these organizations have gotten more sophisticated,” Olsoff told Hyperallergic. “Now all organizations like the AFA have to do is manipulate an iPhone video and characterize Rodriguez as an insane gay black woman professor. With the click of a button, their hateful message of fear, violence, racism, sexism, and homophobia can be sent across the country and the world — meant to target people of color, the LGBTQAI+, women’s rights and anyone who doesn’t fall in line with their agenda.”

Editor’s note 5/24/23 7:18pm EDT: This article has been updated with a statement from Wendy Olsoff, co-founder of PPOW Gallery.

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