In Minnesota, Augsburg University has reportedly stripped Professor Phillip Adamo of his directorship of the honors program after he used the n-word in a class discussion of a passage (using the word) from James Baldwin. In the meantime, at the University of Chicago (my alma mater) Professor Geoffrey Stone is under fire for the same alleged offense in a classroom. Unlike Augsburg, however, UChicago has continued its staunch defense of free speech and academic freedom in support of Stone.
In the Adamo case, the class was reading from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time when a student read a passage that included the word. Students immediately objected and Adamo asked them whether it was better to use “the euphemistic phrase ‘the N-word’” or use the actual text of the famed author. That did not go over well with some students who demanded punishment for the History professor. Adamo has previously won teaching awards, including the Minnesota Professor of the Year for 2015 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
Rather than support academic freedom, Augsburg suspended Adamo while performing an “ongoing inclusivity review.” Now it has stripped him of his position as director of the honors program. What is missing is an explanation of what he did wrong or sanctionable. The Echo reported that Adamo has been taken out of honors courses. Moreover, Brandon Williams, student government president, praised the administration for its “promised review of a number of Faculty Handbook points, such as those involving changes to the definition of academic freedom.” That sounds ominous. Academic freedom is well understood, just not universally accepted. If this account is accurate, this is a core issue of academic freedom.
At UChicago, there is a boycott being organized by five “racial and ethnic affinity groups” to stop participation in the Admitted Students Weekend. Their grievance? UChicago has stayed faithful to the core values of free speech and academic freedom. The widely respected law professor Geoffrey Stone used the n-word in his Constitutional Law II: Freedom of Speech class. They were discussed the “fighting words” exception to First Amendment-protected speech. Rather than attempt to understand his pedagogical purpose, students sought to punish Stone for using the word despite the clearly academic purpose.
The Black Law Students Association complained to Dean Thomas Miles in a letter that is chilling in its utter dismissal of core values of free speech. They declared:
“Cloaked in First Amendment rhetoric, the University of Chicago has prided itself on being one of the few, if not the only, law schools that permit professors to include racial slurs as part of their curriculum. We understand the contours of Freedom of Speech and the value it can add to the marketplace of ideas. However, free speech is not free, and as it is currently applied, the University’s free speech policy, the “Chicago Principles,” leaves Black students bearing the costs.”
I am not convinced that these students understand or at least accept “the contours of Freedom of Speech,” let alone academic freedom. All students benefit from a world-class institution that has built its reputation on the foundation of free exchange of ideas and values. They conclude by saying
“We did not pay thousands of dollars to attend an institution that takes a passive role in responding to structural injustices at the expense of our educational liberties. We feel overextended, unappreciated, and quite frankly, exploited.”
Restricting free speech and academic freedom is not an exercise of “educational liberty.” It is an exercise of censorship and intolerance. That fact that these students fail to appreciate or recognize the difference is chilling.
Fortunately, UChicago has stood against the tide of speech controls and sanctions sweeping over American educational institutions. It have steadfastly stood by Stone, as it should.