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White professor under ‘discrimination’ investigation for quoting black author

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Union reluctant to defend her academic freedom

White academics, beware: Elevating the work of black authors can get you in trouble. And your union may refuse to help.

Laurie Sheck of The New School, an elite multidisciplinary university in New York, is the latest professor to be investigated for quoting the N-word in an academic context, not as a slur.

The novelist and Pulitzer Prize finalist is already getting help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has warned The New School that it has no authority under its own policies to investigate Sheck, based on the allegations against her.

Sheck’s faux pas was telling her creative writing graduate students that black author James Baldwin used the unedited six-letter N-word in his writing, and that the word would appear in “future class texts,” she told Inside Higher Ed. Baldwin even said it on Dick Cavett’s broadcast show.

She brought it up in a discussion about Baldwin to note that the word was sanitized into “negro” for a 2016 documentary on Baldwin. “As writers, words are all we have,” she recounted telling students. “And we have to give [Baldwin] credit that he used the word he did on purpose.”

A white student objected, saying a professor told her as an undergraduate that “white people are never to use the term, under any circumstances.”

Nothing further happened until the end of the semester, when the student gave a surprise presentation about racism at The New School, including Sheck’s Baldwin quote. She was so riled up that she “did not allow fellow students to ask questions or challenge statements,” Inside Higher Ed paraphrased Sheck.

MORE: Universities repeatedly discipline profs for referring to n-word

The administration called Sheck (left) into a meeting in June that she wasn’t allowed to record – a union representative was taking notes – and has yet to show her any written record of an investigation. She believes she’s still under investigation.

The general counsel called the meeting to discuss “student complaints about Sheck’s conduct under the college’s discrimination policy” and threatened to punish her if she told students.

The administration would have also violated its own policy by investigating a complaint that was filed more than 60 days after the N-word incident, which was early in the semester, according to Sheck.

Her faculty union is affiliated with the United Auto Workers, and a representative emailed her before the meeting that she is “an employee who has an obligation to follow the directions of your employer.”

The rep suggested taking a “conciliatory position” rather than defend her academic freedom as guaranteed by The New School, saying that “public opinion has changed on this issue.”

Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, FIRE’s director of litigation, told Inside Higher Ed that Sheck’s speech in the class did “not rise to the level of a hostile environment” that The New School would be required to investigate as a condition of federal funding. Hence, it has no authority under its discrimination policies to investigate.

Never gave her details of complaints – or even notes from meeting

Given the union’s refusal to defend a member, FIRE went to bat for Sheck instead.

In a July 17 letter to New School President David Van Zandt that it made public Wednesday, the civil-liberties group said the university was not only violating its own “governing policies and binding commitments” but apparently flouting its own disciplinary procedures.

The institution, which turned 100 last year, is not living up to its stated “core values” of “academic freedom, tolerance, and experimentation,” wrote Will Creeley, FIRE’s senior vice president of legal and public advocacy.

FIRE’s letter fills in many details unmentioned by Inside Higher Ed. Sheck has been on the “core faculty” of the Master of Fine Arts Writing Program since 2000, and the course that got her in trouble was a “graduate literature seminar titled ‘Audacious Approaches (The Writer as Curator).'”

Its focus was “[w]riting as radical questioning,” particularly the work of “African-American authors that grapple with racial discrimination,” and Sheck warned students from the start that they would be “unsettled” by the course.

When they got to Baldwin, Sheck explicitly quoted him unedited because the author had complained that Americans had “modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history.” The white student who complained about her use of the N-word had also complained that the writing program was “too white.”

The administration letter she received from Director of Labor Relations Geycel Best said the meeting about her conduct would include Kevin Williams, dean of students, and Stephanie Szitanyi, assistant dean of part-time faculty. (Sheck is part-time faculty.)

MORE: Augsburg U. suspends prof for using N-word in context

It promised to give her “details regarding the complaints when we meet,” but FIRE’s letter gives no indication the officials ever filled her in:

During the meeting, Sheck surmised that a complaint of racial discrimination had been filed by the female student, who is white, and concerned the Baldwin discussion. [She believes the student’s friend was the co-complainant, creating the plural “complaints.”] Best and Williams asked Sheck to explain her pedagogical decision-making. Among other questions, they specifically asked about Sheck’s choice of reading assignments, the possible use of a “trigger warning,” and how she had prepared her graduate students for the material they would discuss in the seminar, including Baldwin’s essay.

Sheck told the officials that the “presumptive complainant and the friend” showed no signs of offense after the Baldwin incident, having “indicated their excitement and engagement with the assigned readings throughout the semester in their weekly response papers.” Sheck also noted she’s the mother of a nonwhite child and had advised “students of color and students from the LGBTQ community” in her academic career.

Their only response was giving Sheck guidelines for “dealing with issues of sexual harassment and discrimination.” The New School has yet to give Sheck “further information about the complaint or the institution’s timeline for its review,” Creeley wrote.

In a footnote, Creeley mentions an “apparently unwritten policy” used by Best to prevent Sheck from recording the meeting: She brought a union rep with her. Best also has yet to give Sheck her own notes as promised.

Sanitizing of Baldwin’s quote for ‘white liberals’ is hotly disputed among critics 

Creeley methodically reminds the president that multiple New School policies prohibit it from controlling Sheck’s curriculum or punishing her for academic matters, including an “artistic expression” policy and its collective bargaining agreement with faculty. It has a “legal and moral duty” to honor its promises to faculty.

The claim that she discriminated against students is simply not credible, he says:

Given the subject matter of the graduate seminar, the contours of the discussion, and the fact that the expression at issue is an isolated and germane quotation of one of our nation’s most consequential writers, there can be no question that Professor Sheck’s classroom expression is protected by basic precepts of academic freedom and The New School’s own policies.

Her decision to talk about Baldwin’s use of the unedited N-word was crucial to the classroom discussion of the sanitized title of the documentary about him, Creeley wrote. He cites other writers who criticized the documentary for sanitizing Baldwin, including one who speculates that “Negro” was used to make “liberal white people” feel comfortable.

Under New School policy, Sheck can’t be punished for quoting Baldwin because she did not “deliberately insult, stigmatize, threaten, or intimidate any student, nor did she directly address
the quotation to any specific student or group of students,” the letter informed Van Zandt.

In contrast, The New School has very much harmed Sheck and issued a warning that her colleagues may be next:

Subjecting a faculty member to a disciplinary investigation for a classroom discussion of potentially offensive but obviously relevant material signals to faculty that The New School’s policies offer no actual protection and that self-censorship is necessary. Forcing a faculty member to attend a mandatory meeting to answer for her protected pedagogical decisions betrays The New School’s self-conception …

MORE: Prof placed on paid leave (again) for referring to racial slur

Creeley demanded an explanation from The New School on when it received complaints about Sheck. Its policy requires complainants to observe a 60-day window, and exceptions are only granted for “good cause.”

The Baldwin incident occurred more than 60 days before Sheck received the meeting email from the general counsel, and Sheck has never been informed that the “good cause” exception was invoked. “The failure to explain this apparent deviation from policy to Sheck is fundamentally unfair,” Creeley wrote:

Keeping Sheck in the dark about her alleged misconduct—much less the identity of her accuser(s)—denies her an opportunity to provide a complete defense against accusations, leaves her to guess as to her ability to teach her class without the threat of investigation and discipline in the future, and sends a clear message to her and her peers that teaching relevant materials that may offend some students is a risky proposition. The resulting chill on faculty speech is unacceptable.

In keeping with common responses to FIRE by colleges that have drawn warning letters, The New School’s response letter refused to engage with FIRE. Chief Legal Officer Jerry Cutler wrote:

The New School is proud to be a place that embraces rigorous academic inquiry, diverse perspectives, and respectful debate. With regard to the matter involving Professor Sheck, ACT-UAW is the bargaining representative for part-time faculty members at The New School. It therefore has the exclusive authority to act on their behalf in employment matters. Additionally, and as a general principle, the university maintains confidentiality regarding personnel issues.

In a press release by FIRE, Sheck accused her institution of indulging in the “culture of intimidation, name-calling, and a disrespect for and misunderstanding of genuine intellectual curiosity and striving,” rather than fighting it. (The release links to several articles on the sanitizing of Baldwin, showing it’s an active academic debate.)

The New School implied to Inside Higher Ed that it was bound to investigate Sheck because “mutual respect and fairness remain fundamental values expected from every member of our community.”

Read the article.

UPDATE: The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released its letter to The New School following the Inside Higher Ed report. It also issued a press release. They have been incorporated.

MORE: Black law prof denounces ‘farce’ of punishing faculty for n-word quotes

IMAGE: NOBUHIRO ASADA/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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