Theatre Professor Allowed to Return to Teaching after Suspension For Suggesting Students Should Have Thicker Skins

Coastal Carolina University theater professor Steven Earnest. (Steven Earnest)

A Coastal Carolina University theatre professor — whom the university effectively suspended after he suggested that a misunderstanding on campus was not a big deal — will be allowed to return to his teaching duties next semester, the school announced.

The university confirmed on November 18 that Steven Earnest, who has been teaching at the school for 16 years, is on the schedule for the spring semester and claimed that his suspension was not punitive and “based on University need” only.

The controversy began with a September 16 incident in which students discovered a list of names on a classroom whiteboard. The students, realizing that the names all belonged to students of color, quickly assumed that racial foul play was behind the list, and they organized a protest.

However, a prompt investigation by the university revealed that the list had come out of a discussion between a visiting artist and two students of color who said they were hoping to connect with other non-white students on campus. The trio wrote down the names of other students of color who might wish to form a group to discuss their shared experiences.

The committee explained the misunderstanding in an email to campus but wanted to make clear that the investigation — which revealed the whole to-do had been over nothing — “in no way undermines the feelings that any of you feel about this incident.”

“It should have never happened and the DEI committee will be discussing with faculty and students the gravity of the situation and how to handle these requests in the future,” the email said.

Earnest dared to question that pandering attitude, writing back: “Sorry but I don’t think it’s a big deal.”

“I’m just sad people get their feelings hurt so easily,” he said. “And they are going into theater?”

Earnest, who has been an actor for 30 years, told National Review his comment came from the mindset that, if you’re going to be an actor, “you’re going to get your feelings hurt every day.”

“I’ve always stressed that people have to have a little bit of a tough exoskeleton to even think about going into something like performing in theater,” he said.

The university’s announcement comes after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education called on the school to reinstate Earnest after Claudia Bornholdt, dean of Coastal Carolina’s College of Humanities and Fine Arts told the professor not to come to his classes and to send her his syllabus on September 20.

While CCU has claimed that Earnest agreed to the suspension from the classroom, both the professor and his attorney have refuted the school’s claims.

The decision is an about face from a November 11 email to Earnest’s attorney, in which a representative of the university said CCU was then “focused on two potential courses of action, both leading to Dr. Earnest voluntarily moving on from CCU.” 

Daniel Ennis, CCU Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, said in a statement announcing the decision that “consideration of whether the professor’s comments are protected free speech is a misplaced distraction to the real issue CCU faced – a major disruption to the academic environment.”

“Balancing the rights of the faculty member to free expression and the rights of the students to learn in an environment free of intimidation obliged CCU to assess the severity of the professor’s actions and to restore conditions under which students could learn,” the statement added.

Ennis continued: “Through the course of due process, CCU has determined that this individual’s behavior does not warrant disciplinary employment action,” and added that the schools expects that “many, particularly its theatre students, will not agree with this outcome.”

“The University will continue to support and engage the students and other constituents in ways that we believe will help us all understand how different perspectives can and must exist within an academic setting,” he added.

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