Professor’s use of N-word raises questions over academic freedom, inclusivity

Ryan Moore, Editor-in-Chief

Ten student leaders in the Honors Program extended their support to all honors students on Oct. 31 when Honors Program director and professor Phil Adamo used the N-word in class. The email describes the situation as “hurtful and malicious.”  

Reports of the use of the word in a class discussion emerged after the morning session of Honors 120: The Scholar Citizen on Oct. 30. Adamo stated, “To be clear, I used the word, not the epithet, once to introduce the word and the discussion around the word.”  Adamo describes asking whether or not quoting from an author’s work was the appropriate context to use the word if the author had used it.

Use of the slur occurred when discussing “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin. Ethan Quezada, a first-year representative and student in the morning class, reported, “[Phil] said, ‘Are we going to use the word N-word?’ without censoring himself.” Quezada spoke to the way in which the slur was used in class, “He both used the word as a quote, but also in his own context.” Christa Kelly, another student in the morning session, says the slur was used three times total by Adamo during her class session.


Salwa Hassam, a first-year representative and student in the afternoon session explained, “He read an exact quote from page four [of Baldwin]… he then read it replacing the slur and said, ‘isn’t it much less impactful if we say ‘N-word’?’” Multiple students expressed discomfort. Hassam, one of two people in the class of 17 that identify as a person of color, stated she felt compelled to speak. Adamo sent two articles to the classes titled “Good teachers use the N-word” and “In Defense of a Loaded Word.” In reaction, Quezada said, “Despite the class deciding — as a class — we weren’t going to use that word, he sent the articles after class in order to push his own agenda and views with a biased stance.” Adamo contends this was not his intent, “A reading of the articles should show that they did not reflect a unified point of view, and certainly not a point of view that advocated the words use.”

On Nov. 1, a group of concerned Honors students went to the afternoon HON120 unannounced to confront Adamo and support students in the class. According to Adamo, Citlaly Escobar a sophmore in the Honors Program suggested Phil leave the room so that the students could discuss the incident. Students also requested that the guests leave as well. A conversation occurred with Adamo, Escobar and the other guests in the hall. Escobar posted a video to Facebook of her and other representatives questioning Adamo on his use of the word; the video has over 5,300 views.

“I am also sorry that this has become a bigger issue, that could potentially damage the Honors Program, causing rifts that may be difficult to repair,” Adamo wrote that evening in an email to Honors students. “If reparation is a possibility, I sincerely want to do my part to help make that happen.”

Student concern of the program overall led to a meeting Friday with presidents of the program’s four houses, the two first-year representatives and student workers for the honors desk, members of administration, Jennifer Simon, director of American Indian student services, Joanne Reeck, chief diversity officer, and professor Matthew Maruggi. Students were informed that Adamo would not be present for HON120 on Tuesday, and Interim Dean of Arts & Sciences David Matz would lead optional discussion. Following the meeting, Provost Karen Kaivola and Matz responded with a letter to Honors students on Nov. 4, “we received reports suggesting that these incidents may be part of a broader pattern — a pattern that raises questions and concerns about whether the culture of the Honors Program is as inclusive as it should be.”

In a University statement President Paul Pribbenow is quoted: “Like many other colleges and universities across the nation, we are grappling today with a seeming conflict between academic freedom and fostering inclusive learning environments,” Augsburg University President Paul Pribbenow said. “But I believe that Augsburg, of all places, is a community where we can work to find ways to preserve both of those values without compromising either. It will take work and commitment, and we are dedicated to continuing these efforts.”

This article was originally published in the Nov. 9, 2018 issue. 

For the protection of sources, do not contact anyone mentioned in this article directly.

Timeline designed by Megan Johnson. And featured image was taken by Kristian Evans.