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Universities repeatedly discipline professors for referring to the n-word

Professors did not actually use the word in a racist manner

In recent months, numerous universities have disciplined professors for merely referring to a racial slur rather than outright using it. In some cases professors have been suspended from teaching classes, even though they had not directed the slur at any student or indeed anyone.

In four cases covered by The College Fix, professors referred to the word “nigger” or some form of it in purely academic contexts; those professors were subsequently suspended by their universities to varying degrees.

In one case last semester, professor Phil Adamo of Augsburg University referred to the word in class while discussing a book by James Baldwin, who himself uses the word numerous times in his writings. Adamo was suspended by the university following a series of complaints from students, who were upset at his usage of the word and that he had sent several articles about the word as a followup to in-class discussions.

The professor publicly defended himself during the controversy, stating that his use of the slur was “in an academic context, quoting from an author’s work.”

Rebecca John, a campus spokeswoman for Augsburg, disputed that Adamo was suspended for referring to the racial slur, saying there was “more to the story” than that.

“The actions the university took were *not* solely based on the use of the n-word in the classroom. The scenario involved a wide-ranging set of issues, which are confidential… The professor was not suspended for using the n-word in context in class. There is no ban on the use of any word in the classroom,” John told The College Fix.

John did not elaborate on the situation further. Adamo did not respond to requests for comment from The College Fix.

Barred from teaching some courses, prof defends himself

Similarly, professor Paul Zwier of the Emory University School of Law drew heavy criticism, and a student petition calling for his removal, after his use of the word “nigger” in class and during office hours while speaking with a student. Zwier, like Adamo, did not direct the word at any student; he rather referred to it while discussing law cases.

Following the references to the word, Zwier was placed on leave and barred from teaching required courses at the law school.

Reached via email, Zwier defended his usage of the word, citing numerous other individuals who have referred to it, including Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, Barack Obama, President Jimmy Carter, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Tara Westover, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others.

Zwier also noted that Emory University has used the word in at least one press release, describing a conference about a professor who wrote a book about the word. He also pointed out that an Emory anthropology professor used the word in the past without suffering professional consequences.

Zwier also shared with The Fix a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a campus watchdog group. In that letter, the organization wrote to the interim dean of the Emory law school that Zwier’s use of the word, “although deeply offensive to many members of Emory’s community, was germane to the academic discussion, and does not amount to hostile environment harassment.”

Though he defended his usage of the word to The Fix, Zwier in September apologized to the school, saying it was a “mistake” to say the word, and that it caused “harm” to the black community at Emory. He also agreed to participate in “sensitivity and unconscious bias training.”

Recently a retired Emory law professor filed several complaints against Emory for its treatment of Zwier. The professor is attempting to have the university placed on academic probation by two academic organizations.

Professor slammed for singing along to rap lyrics

Another case involved a professor who used the racial slur while singing along to a rap song that contained the word in its lyrics.

Adjunct professor Eric Triffin of Southern Connecticut State University was suspended following the incident after students became upset and the school’s Black Student Union president decried his behavior as racist.

Triffin failed to respond to requests for comment for this story, though at the time of his suspension he told The Fix that his suspension “seemed over reactive to me after my 32 unblemished years teaching” at the school.

Triffin, who said that his “good name has been put into question,” expressed regret that he was not consulted about the suspension prior to its taking place.

In a video response to the controversy, representatives of the Black Student Union declared: “We will not stand for the racist remarks that come from the faculty or any member of the SCSU community.” The students did not clarify how Triffin’s remarks were racist.

Cleared, but still denied tenure

The fourth case involved professor Andrea Quenette, who lost her place on a tenure track at the University of Kansas following her use of the slur in a class discussion about race.

Quenette, who could not be reached for comment, was reportedly attempting to make a point about her own lack of experience with racism. The professor allegedly said during class: “As a white woman I just never have seen the racism. … It’s not like I see ‘nigger’ spray painted on walls.”

In an open letter following the discussion, aggrieved students said that Quenette’s non-targeted reference of the word caused “shock and disbelief.” The students claimed that “legal precedent indicates that Dr. Quenette’s speech is not protected by the First Amendment

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education publicly defended Quenette, stating that she was well within her rights to use the word as she did. “Quenette’s comments were not intended to insult or denigrate her students but were instead intended to demonstrate the limits of her knowledge and perceptions of racism in society,” the organization said.

“It’s alarming—not to mention ironic—that a group of graduate students has called on the university to punish a professor for constitutionally protected speech when such a reaction would, in turn, decimate the freedoms necessary to pursue their own careers as academics,” FIRE added.

Quenette was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing but was not re-appointed to her tenure track position. According to her LinkedIn page, Quenette left the University of Kansas a year later; she now teaches at Indiana University East.

MORE: Students upset that university cleared instructor for using n-word

MORE: Campus in turmoil after some people reference a racial slur

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About the Author
Matthew Stein -- Swarthmore College