Campus life these days is fraught with racial strife. Much of the time this strife takes the form of a protest or a silly petition. Other times—as was recently the case at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville—it can result in someone losing her job.
At UT Knoxville this past spring semester, reports Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed, a question on a test related to slavery eventually led to a professor’s being fired. The ordeal began in February, where a black student, Kayla Parker, answered a question on a quiz related to familial bonds among black American slaves. Parker believed that the historical record shows that “black family bonds were destroyed by the abuses of slave owners, who regularly sold off family members to other slave owners.” The professor, Judy Morelock, marked Parker’s answer as incorrect, writing that she should have chosen an alternate answer: “Most slave families were headed by two parents.”
Parker disputed that interpretation, believing that Morelock was “whitewashing” the historical record on slavery. What followed was a bizarre months-long ordeal that spilled over to the Internet and eventually ended with Morelock’s termination at UT Knoxville. At one point, Morelock offered to let Parker “lecture the class on the topic,” a challenge that Parker ended up accepting (“because,” she claims, “I have had enough of white people defining my history, especially inaccurately”). Morelock eventually began posting what appeared to be thinly-veiled threats against Parker on the former’s Facebook page, writing, for instance, “after she graduates, all bets are off.” (Morelock, Flaherty writes, claims “some of” the comments were in fact not about Parker.)
Parker says she was removed from the class and otherwise supported by administrators, while Morelock allegedly offered a two-part coup de grâce: a final email to the family sociology class saying she’d likely be terminated without an opportunity to defend herself because a student had impugned her character in a formal complaint, and a vulgar Facebook meme involving a gift-wrapped dildo Parker says was directed at her (Morelock denies this).
Over all, Parker accuses Morelock of being a false ally to people of color. “She wears a safety pin so everyone knows she’s an ally for minorities,” reads the blog post. “She regularly discusses her love for the Obamas, the Black Lives Matter movement and her admonishment for this current administration. However, I would soon realize that nothing would shake her more than a confident black woman contradicting her in front of a classroom of her own students.”
Tennessee’s sociology chair declined to comment on the matter, saying that would violate federal student privacy laws. Karen Ann Simsen, a university spokeswoman, said she couldn’t address Parker’s comments for the same reason. But she said Morelock was notified last summer that her year-to-year contract would not be renewed for this coming fall, as the sociology department is “phasing out a few of the courses she teaches from the curriculum” and using more doctoral students to teach undergraduates.
In April, Simsen said, “we exercised the option outlined in our Faculty Handbook of ending her contract early” by paying her remaining salary though July.
Morelock claims she is unable to speak to media about the issue for fear of losing her payout from UT Knoxville.
Perhaps most ironically, two history professors admit that Morelock’s test question didn’t really make a whole lot of sense: Brenda Stevenson at UCLA said neither Parker’s nor Morelock’s answer of the disputed question is completely true (though Parker’s was closer), while the University of Arizona’s Jerome Dotson said the question was “poorly worded over all, in that no response fairly represents the antebellum slave family.”
Let this be a lesson to professors everywhere: write your test questions carefully, and—barring that—if a student disputes a question with you, don’t go write about her on Facebook.