Melissa Hargrove, who teaches Africana Studies and researches the hip-hop movement, is the latest academic to face a campaign for termination after she was accused of using the “n-word” in a class at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. For the last month, the university has been struggling with the controversy. In her class, Hargrove was using an acronym and discussing a song with the same word from rapper Tupac. The university ordered her into mandatory training but students want her fired.
According to a statement from Shayla Nunnally, the chair of the department, Hargrove wrote the word but underneath made it clear that it was an acronym for “Never Ignorant About Getting Goals Accomplished.” In talking about Tupac’s songs, she also used another acronym: “The Hate U Give Little Infants F (the ‘f-word’).”
The school apologized and ordered the training of Hargrove. The department held sessions with students to address the controversy. However, the student government insisted on her being fired for not just racism but causing “generational trauma”:
Professor Hargrove is infamous among students for traumatizing Black students by eschewing appropriate teaching methods and instead dragging students through generational trauma that persists to this day. Dr. Hargrove create a hostile and racist learning environment for years, making her horrendous actions disappointing — but not surprising — to this student body….
A professor who is a best ignorant to what she inflicts does not belong in her coveted position. She should not have been supported by any faculty or the administration. Through her direct actions, she is reaffirming racism and anti-Blackness at this university and beyond. At this point the time to be “called in” has passed, and the time for removal has come.
The students do not explain the “generational trauma” or the alleged past misconduct.
As will come as little surprise to many on this blog, I view the effort as an attack on both academic freedom and free speech. One can disagree with the content of a class without ascribing a racist motive or reaffirming racism. I have seen nothing to suggest that Professor Hargrove is a racist or reaffirmed a racism messaging in the class.
I am actually more concerned with the university’s position. In a later statement, the university states “even given this context, we acknowledge that people will disagree about whether writing that word on the board, in any form, can ever be an effective teaching tool.” Yet, it has stated that Hargrove did not use the word as a slur but as an acronym in a class on a song that uses the term. If that is the case, why was she sent into re-training and what did the university view as wrong in her class? There should be clarity on such a point if a professor is being publicly sent into a re-training program. Is Hargrove barred from using the acronym or discussing the title or lyrics of a song that is the focus of the class?
Uncertainty and ambiguity is the death of both free speech and academic freedom. If the university is going to order mandatory training, it should be clear for other faculty as to the bright line concerning such material.