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Volokh Conspiracy

Professor at Augsburg University (Minnesota) Suspended for Classroom Discussion About Quoting the Word "Nigger"

The discussion stemmed from a student's reading a sentence in class from James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time.


Randy Kennedy, a noted scholar on race and the law at Harvard Law School, and the author of Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, published this excellent article Friday in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and graciously agreed to let me reprint it:

A series of dismaying events has transpired at Augsburg University, in Minneapolis. According to several undisputed news reports, it began in October, when a student read a sentence in class from James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time: "You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger."

Airing the N-word caused a commotion. The professor leading the class, Philip Adamo, asked the students if they felt it was appropriate to voice the word Baldwin had written. In doing so, Adamo repeated the word. Later, he sent to the class two essays on the politics of the N-word. The next day, some students asked Adamo to leave the classroom while they discussed the lingering controversy. They were joined by other students who were not enrolled in the course. He complied with their request. Later, after a flurry of emails in which Adamo continued to try to explain himself, the university removed him from the course. He has since been suspended, pending the outcome of a formal review.

This dispiriting farce discredits those who have played a role in it and undermines Augsburg's claim to be a serious institution of higher learning.

First, there are the students who complained that they had been shocked, hurt, and made to feel unsafe by the professor's "use" of the N-word. How can anyone sensibly think that Adamo was "using" the N-word, in the sense of deploying it destructively? As Adamo stated in his own defense, there is "a distinction between use and mention. To use the word to inflict … harm is unacceptable. To mention the word in a discussion of how the word is used is necessary for honest discourse."

This is not a case of a professor calling someone "nigger." This is a case of a professor exploring the thinking and expression of a writer who voiced the word to challenge racism. This is not a case of a professor negligently throwing about a term that's long been deployed to terrorize, shame, and denigrate African-Americans. This is a case of a professor who, attentive to the sensibilities of his students, sought to encourage reflection about their anxieties and beliefs.

None of those distinctions require deep insight. They should be obvious. Students unable to appreciate them are students unprepared for university life.

Second, although Adamo initially did nothing wrong, he compromised himself when he allowed himself to be cowed by the students, who prevailed upon him to abandon his classroom. He should never have left it. He should have invoked his authority as a professor. There is a reason he was leading the class: He knows more about the subject at hand than his students do. That is a justifiable basis on which to pull rank, to insist on a display of at least minimal respect. By caving, Adamo elicited neither sympathy nor understanding, but contempt.

Adamo further compromised himself in a subsequent letter that reads like parody. The classroom, he wrote, "is a place where any and every topic can be explored, even those topics considered to be taboo. That is how I understand academic freedom, which is a precious thing to me and other professors. It is the currency that allows us to speak truth to power." So far, so good.

But in the next breath, Adamo betrayed his expressed commitment to intellectual freedom and adventurousness by suggesting that it stems only from his "privileged position": "I am now struggling to understand how it may be better not to explore some taboo topics, and to weigh the consequences of absolute academic freedom versus outcomes that lead to hurt, racial trauma, and loss of trust."

Such talk is misplaced in the context of a perfectly responsible classroom discussion of James Baldwin's rhetoric. Adamo's genuflection to that prattle stupidly empowers those who have shabbily mistreated him.

Some professors at Augsburg have repudiated an academic-freedom defense of Adamo. Their open letter contains two sentences, in particular, that illustrate vividly the embrace of anti-intellectualism and illiberal conformity that is sadly ascendant in all too many precincts of academia. "We believe," they wrote, "that further conversations about academic freedom can only take place after we acknowledge that harm has been done to these students."

In other words, discussion of a central pillar of the academic enterprise must be put on hold until everyone agrees to the highly contestable claim that "harm" has been done.

Their next point is all too predictable. They want the university to "require meaningful and challenging diversity, equity, and justice training for all faculty." One can confidently predict that the "training" they have in mind will be devoid of pluralism and debate, despite their putative commitment to "diversity" and "inclusion."

By all appearances, those who have most betrayed academic ideals at Augsburg are the president, Paul C. Pribbenow, and the provost, Karen Kaivola. They are the ones who punished Adamo. They are the ones who allowed a perfectly acceptable pedagogical decision to be turned into an academic crime. They are the ones who have, in their published statements thus far, neglected to say anything critical about the students who encroached upon a professor's classroom. They are the leaders who, in a moment of crisis, have failed miserably to educate their campus about the aims and priorities, freedoms and limitations that should be part and parcel of life at a serious university.