We have been discussing the worrisome trend of professors being subjected to investigations and discipline for “micro aggressions” or hostile environment in classrooms. These actions raise serious concerns over academic freedom. One such case involves University of Kansas Assistant communication studies professor Andrea Quenette. Quenette was subjected to a four-month investigation after using a racial slur in class as part of her lecture. Now, she has been cleared of the offense but she is still being asked to comply with special training and remedial actions.
Quenette was put on paid leave in November after eight graduate students filed a discrimination complaint against her. Quenette explained that the n-word was used in the course of retelling a factual event that occurred at another campus. The discussion followed a heated, campus-wide town hall forum on race and she was responding to a student’s question about how to best talk about the event and racial issues with other students. She said that it was difficult to address such issues as a white woman but said that KU was better than other schools where she had seen racial slurs written on the walls including the n-word. The graduate students proceeded to file a complaint that object that “Dr. Quenette’s deployment of racially violent rhetoric not only creates a non-inclusive environment in opposition to one of the University of Kansas’ core tenets, but actively destroys the very possibility of realizing those values and goals.” So a teacher discussing historic racism cannot use the terms deemed offensive in class? Her comments were clearly not meant with racial animus but the opposite. Yet, Jyleesa Hampton, a first-year communications graduate student insisted that the important thing is not how such words are intended but how they are received.
Now here is the unclear element in the KU investigation. Quenette was cleared of racism and harassment. She was found to have used the word as part of an educational purpose. Yet, the university recommended that Quenette undergo cultural competency training, re-evaluate orientation curriculum to include more diversity support and pair up with a faculty member. The school also recommended possibly reassigning duties within the communications department. That is the response to an complaint that was rejected in terms of a violation of the school rules.
What is particularly disturbing is that Quenette was subject to such a long investigation after a letter was issued that clearly objected to her views as an academic. The open letter included the following objections:
“As you can imagine, this utterance caused shock and disbelief. Her comments that followed were even more disparaging as they articulated not only her lack of awareness of racial discrimination and violence on this campus and elsewhere but an active denial of institutional, structural and individual racism. This denial perpetuates racism in and of itself. After Ph.D. student Ian Beier presented strong evidence about low retention and graduation rates among black students as being related to racism and a lack of institutional support, Dr. Quenette responded with, ‘Those students are not leaving school because they are physically threatened every day but because of academic performance.’ This statement reinforces several negative ideas: that violence against students of color is only physical, that students of color are less academically inclined and able, and that structural and institutional cultures, policies and support systems have no role in shaping academic outcomes. Dr. Quenette’s discourse was uncomfortable, unhelpful and blatantly discriminatory.”
I have no problem with students challenging the view that black students are being forced out of school due to their race as opposed to their academic performance. However, the students appear unwilling to accept that anyone could hold any opposing view or that such views can be voiced in the context of a class committed to discussing the issue. That is both troubling in terms of the views of these students but also the trend on college and universities campuses.