CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek is back in the news in what people are calling a case of “self-cancellation.” After referring to herself as a “slaveholder” in a faculty meeting, Bilek announced her early retirement in response to what she called as momentary but serious lapse of judgment last year. We previously discussed Bilek’s troubling view of free speech after conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech.” Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. She has now effectively ended her own speech, at least as the Dean of CUNY. She has also sent herself into counseling to overcome her “biases.”
Last October, Bilek also made news when she insisted that a law student threatening to set a man’s Israeli Defense Forces sweatshirt on fire was simply “expressing her opinion.” The student was accused of not just making the threat but holding up a lit lighter. Critics asked if Bilek would have taken the same view with a sweater for other causes or groups.
Dean Bilek sent an email to the CUNY community announcing she would be quitting her job after the November incident. She explained that she referred to herself as a “slaveholder” in a discussion of a proposal that some believed would have a disparate impact on racial minorities. There is no transcript of the meeting or verbatim quote offered in the correspondence or coverage. Bilek wrote:
“In a misguided effort to draw an analogy to a model of reparations in order to place blame on myself, as Dean, for racial inequities at our school, I thoughtlessly referred to myself as the ‘slaveholder’ who should be held responsible. I realized it was wrong the minute I heard myself say it and couldn’t believe the word had come out of my mouth.”
It is also not clear why Bilek felt an apology would not be sufficient since she was using the term for self-criticism in dealing with what she viewed as inequities at the school for minority professors. Bilek is sending a message that intent is immaterial and that an apology is insufficient when addressing an unintended offense in the use of a word in a faculty meeting.
As we recently discussed, there is an increasingly common position that intent no longer matters if the use of terms are considered offensive, even when used as the basis for termination. Recently, a New York Times editor was fired for the use of the “n word” even though it was agreed that he was using it in response to a question and not as an intended slur. Veteran reporter Donald McNeil Jr., was fired after the newspaper bowed again to a cancelling campaign. does intent not matter, any utterance is potentially a one-strike offense. Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn declared in a memo that “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
Similarly, we have discussed professors investigated for using the “n-word” in classes for purely pedagogical reasons. Recently, faculty have been targeted for using the term as an acronym or using the censored version of the term. Not only did intent no longer matter, but neither did free speech or academic freedom in such cases.
The message sent by Bilek is that you can have a non-racial intent (indeed an intent to advance anti-racist policies) but that you should still resign even after an apology for the use of such a word. Four months after the use of this word in a faculty meeting, Bilek is saying that a resignation is needed to repair the harm that she caused.
In my career, I have seen occasional incidents of offensive language used by faculty. Professors like all people are imperfect. They make mistakes, including using ill-considered or offensive terms. There was a time when faculty could discuss such controversies and resolve (and learn from) them in good faith as part of a community. Over 20 years ago, I intervened in one such case with a professor after students complained. He was honestly shocked and apologized to the students. He worked hard to avoid any other sexist comments and the students told me that they were impressed and gladdened by his effort. Of course, that was before the rise of a cancel culture on our campuses.
Obviously, Bilek can hold herself to her own standards in both resigning and starting counseling sessions. Every academic can reach their own conclusions on whether they can continue to function in their positions after such a controversy. However, the concern is that many are likely to cite this resignation as a basis for demanding the resignations or terminations of faculty members who find themselves in similar positions. Indeed, such demands are common like the recent campaign to compel the resignation of University of Vermont Professor Aaron Kindsvatter after the making of a video arguing that antiracism program on campus amounted to racist treatment of white faculty and students.
Once again, if we are honest about calls to “talk about race,” we need to allow room for discussion, including unintended but offensive statements as part of those discussions. I have been a critic of Dean Bilek over her views of free speech. However, I do not believe she is a racist and I believe that she honestly and profoundly regrets her use of this word. We need to have some margin for error in our discussions and interactions. We need a dialogue rather than a diatribe if we are to come together as a nation and address racial justice issues.