Does the University of Kansas harbor a racist in its midst? That’s the implication of this story, from the Chronicle of Higher Education:
A professor at the University of Kansas at Lawrence is on leave while the university investigates a complaint accusing her of racially discriminatory behavior in class, the Lawrence Journal-World reports. Graduate students, meanwhile, are pursuing a social-media campaign demanding that she be fired.
Andrea M. Quenette, an assistant professor of communication studies, told the newspaper she was notified on Friday morning that five individuals had filed the complaint with the university’s Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access. She said she did not know the identities of those who had filed the complaint.
The Chronicle’s short story doesn’t precisely outline the allegations, so I went straight to the source — the students’ public complaint. According to this overwrought document, Quenette stands accused of using the “N word” — by noting that she does not see it at school — and of noting that some black students drop out of school not because of racism but because of poor academic performance:
On the morning of November 12, 2015, a question was posed by Communication Studies Masters student Abigail Kingsford in her COMS 930 class, a required seminar with the primary purpose of instilling best practices in graduate students teaching COMS 130 (public speaking) for the first time. She inquired, “In light of last night’s university-wide town hall meeting about race and discrimination on campus, what is the best approach to talk about that event and these issues with our students?”
We students in the class began discussing possible ways to bring these issues up in our classes when COMS 930 instructor Dr. Andrea Quenette abruptly interjected with deeply disturbing remarks. Those remarks began with her admitted lack of knowledge of how to talk about racism with her students because she is white. “As a white woman I just never have seen the racism…It’s not like I see ‘Nigger’ spray painted on walls…” she said.
As you can imagine, this utterance caused shock and disbelief. Her comments that followed were even more disparaging as they articulated not only her lack of awareness of racial discrimination and violence on this campus and elsewhere but an active denial of institutional, structural, and individual racism. This denial perpetuates racism in and of itself. After Ph.D. student Ian Beier presented strong evidence about low retention and graduation rates among Black students as being related to racism and a lack of institutional support, Dr. Quenette responded with, “Those students are not leaving school because they are physically threatened everyday but because of academic performance.” This statement reinforces several negative ideas: that violence against students of color is only physical, that students of color are less academically inclined and able, and that structural and institutional cultures, policies, and support systems have no role in shaping academic outcomes. Dr. Quenette’s discourse was uncomfortable, unhelpful, and blatantly discriminatory.
The letter then concludes with an extremist legal argument based on a misreading of a Supreme Court court case called Garcetti v. Ceballos – that because Quenette uttered her words as a public employee acting pursuant to her official duties, they’re not protected by the First Amendment. This argument — which the Supreme Court explicitly refused to adopt when professors are engaged in teaching or scholarship and has been decisively rejected by a number of lower courts — would mean that public university professors would have zero constitutional protections in the classroom or in their academic work. Here is their actual reasoning:
The goal of the course is to produce practitioners, so by imbuing racist language, remarks, and viewpoints into the pedagogy her students were meant to replicate, Dr. Quenette was training us to perpetrate acts and ideas violating the policies of the university. Therefore, her speech is not protected by the First Amendment and employer discipline for her remarks is not only legal, but necessary based on her breach of contract.
Amazing. Here’s a better quote, from Adams v. The Trustees of the University of North Carolina Wilmington (I represented professor Mike Adams). The university claimed that his scholarship — which included a number of essays that offended campus social-justice warriors on matters of race, sex, gender, etc. (he was once secretly investigated for “transphobia”) — was not constitutionally protected because it was part of his official duties as a state-employed academic. The Fourth Circuit disagreed:
Applying Garcetti to the academic work of a public university faculty member under the facts of this case could place beyond the reach of First Amendment protection many forms of public speech or service a professor engaged in during his employment. That would not appear to be what Garcetti intended, nor is it consistent with our long-standing recognition that no individual loses his ability to speak as a private citizen by virtue of public employment.
Under current precedent, professors enjoy broad academic freedom protections when engaged in discussions germane to the subject of the class and while advancing an academic message — even when the discussion is offensive to some students. Kansas would be well-advised to uphold the law. If it doesn’t, then it could soon find itself caught between angry graduate students and a federal court, and federal judges win those fights every time.