Emory University University is now the focus of the national debate over the conflict between academic freedom and university rules against the use of racial slurs, even as part of academic work. Professor Paul Zwier is currently on suspension over he was accused of using the “n-word” in the course of a class and later in a meeting about the controversy. He first used the word to discuss who the word “negro” was likely used in a case as a sanitized version of the slur. Students complained and charges were brought, including an allegation that Zwier used the word again in an office discussion with a student on the incident. This month, a report from the Office of Equity and Inclusion that recommended Zwier be suspended for up to two more years due to his usage of the racial slur.
We have previously discussed these controversy over the use of the racial slur. In many cases, the word is used in in hypotheticals or as part of a course on hate speech. In other cases, it is part of a work of literature and the professor is simply reading the work or discussing its content. In my view such use is entirely a matter of free speech and academic freedom. 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. is refusing to disclose the fate of an embattled law professor who has faced repeated sanctions for twice referring to a racial slur over the past year.
Zwier has been fighting for his right to resume teaching. Emory has been less than open about its treatment of Zwier and the important issues of academic freedom raised in the controversy. He has been hit with a suspension from teaching and an exclusion for teaching any mandatory course. Students are petitioning to get him fired.
When a student came to Zwier’s office after the classroom usage of the term, Zwier used the word because it was used to label his own father who marched for civil rights during the desegregation movement. The student immediately complained to the law school.
In the petition, the Emory Law Black Law Students Association
and Emory Law Student Bar Association demand Zwier’s termination, staing that “we cannot and will not tolerate such blatant disregard for our safety and emotional well-being.”
Emory could have used this case for a discussion of the protections afforded academic freedom and the countervailing interests of protecting students from offensive content. I have long been an advocate for both free speech and academic freedom. In this and other cases, I tend to defer to the academic if there is a good-faith justification for the use of the slur. I do not however believe that one should use such terms gratuitously or unnecessarily when they are not connected to a piece of literature or case or lesson plan. This is a painful and marginalizing terms for our students. The question comes down to one of content and academic purpose. That is why UChicago did the right thing in support Stone. Emory has raged all sides with its lack of clarity and standards in the controversy. Furthermore, the Senate Faculty appears cowed by the controversy in not demanding greater transparency and clarity.