Professor J. Angelo Corlett is a philosophy professor who has won multiple teaching awards at San Diego State University (SDSU) for his teaching of classes like “Critical Thinking and Composition” and “Philosophy, Racism and Justice” classes. Those classes often raise the use of racial terminology, which Corlett references in class. After a complaint from students, however, he has been removed from two of his three classes without any prior opportunity to fully present his case and explain his pedagogy. What was particularly concerning was a university statement that such removals are not matters of free speech or academic freedom.
According to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the controversy began with someone who was not one of his students coming to his class: “On March 1 an unidentified Black student, who was not registered in Corlett’s critical thinking course, stopped by and repeatedly challenged Corlett’s mention of epithets, particularly one regarded as the most offensive slur against Black people.” (He was also later accused of using the word “rape” repeatedly in class).
Corlett, who is Latino, said that he tried to explain to the student why he uses such terms as part of classes on racism and engaged the class in that discussion. He said that, without notice or an opportunity to present such arguments to the university, he was told that same day that he was relieved of teaching duties for the “Critical Thinking and Composition” and “Philosophy, Racism and Justice” classes.
In his interview with The College Fix, Corlett explained that
“There is a crucial distinction between racIAL v. racIST words based on whether or not we intend racial animus. When a racIST epithet is USED, it means it is INTENDED to apply to a particular person or group in a hateful or disrespectful way. But when an epithet is merely MENTIONED, it is not at all racist and is a necessary means to explaining why we ought NOT to USE racist language, which is one of my main conclusions.”
In a piece titled “Offensiphobia,” Corlett explained this point in detail. He discussed the use-mention distinction “to explain why linguistic intent is crucial for the determination of what genuinely counts as being racist, sexist or otherwise offensive discourse.”
We have previously discussed cases where such terms were used or read in classes only to have faculty suspended or fired at Georgetown, Duquesne, John Marshall, Augsberg, Chicago, DePaul, Princeton, Kansas, and other schools., even where professors used redacted versions of the “n-word.”
What is striking about this account is the lack of due process afforded to Corlett before the action was taken by the Dean of Arts and Letters Monica Casper. That has become a common pattern for professors who find themselves publicly targeted and suspended before having an opportunity to fully present their cases.
The university insisted that this has been a long-standing problem with Professor Corlett. Specifically, Luke Wood, SDSU’s vice president for student affairs and campus diversity, told the San Diego Union-Tribune:
“We have had a number of students who have come forward and who’ve complained about their experience in professor Corlett’s classes.. This has happened this semester but has also been a routine experience. … We took that into account. … This is really a case of a faculty member who is being reassigned. This is not about free expression or academic freedom, but about teaching assignments.”
The last line was particularly concerning. SDSU is maintaining that removing a faculty member from his classes without a hearing or, in his view, cause, is “not about free expression or academic freedom.” I can understand SDSU contesting the merits of his defense but this is most certainly about both free speech and academic freedom.
The academic freedom element is particularly evident when a professor is removed for his teaching what he views as necessary and relevant material in his course. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to SDSU demanding Corlett’s immediate reinstatement for that reason. Some of Corlett’s students and colleagues have also supported him, according to The College Fix.
Yet, some disagree including hundreds on a petition posted on Change.org to have Corlett fired. San Diego State’s Associated Students group supports the actions against Corlett and accused him of using a specific anti-Black slur “over 60 times” and using the word “rape” for sexual violence.
Other faculty members have joined these critics, including Professor Frank Harris III, who teaches postsecondary education and co-directs the Community College Equity Assessment Lab at SDSU. In a tweet, he accused Corlett of taking “delight” in using racial slurs and attending his class was like repeatedly experiencing a “hate crime” for black students.
Professor Harris appears entirely unconcerned about the academic freedom elements to the case — elements that the university itself has refused to acknowledge.
“Freedom of expression is a tenet of higher education; is integral to the mission of the University and to its students, staff, and faculty; is a central and inviolate freedom to learn and teach; necessary for an educated populace; is a requisite to a free society; is incompatible with the suppression of opinions; is incompatible with prior restraint; encompasses forms of expression other than speech; and defends the expression we abhor as well as the expression we support.”
Professor Corlett was teaching a class on “expression[s] we abhor as well as the expression[s] we support.” SDSU then removed him and publicly said that such actions are not about free expression or academic freedom.
SDSU must make a critical decision in this case on whether it will even recognize academic freedom concerns in removing a professor due to his class material or pedagogical choices.
There is also a decision that must be made by the vast majority of SDSU faculty, who have remained conspicuously silent. We have previously discussed the intimidation of faculty members by these campaigns to tag and isolate individual professors.
Few professors want to risk such public humiliation and the loss of academic opportunities or standing that comes from such controversies. However, we now have a university claiming that the removal of a professor from his classes is not even a concern of academic freedom. There must be something that professors are prepared to resist; to say “enough.” One can disagree with Professor Corlett’s pedagogical choices but still object to how the university is handling (and framing) this controversy.
Professor Corlett has been very public about the content of his classes. Students can elect to take other faculty or classes in light of his pedagogical choices. He could not have been more clear in his earlier writings when he declared in his piece on “Offensiphobia” that “there is no moral or legal right to not be offended.” There is a right not to take his class and a right to protest his pedagogy and viewpoints. However, this is most certainly a fight about academic freedom.