Letter to the Editor: Honors representatives defend students’ right to inclusive learning environment

Winston Heckt, Staff Writer

The issue that came to our attention following professor Adamo’s use of the N-word is this: Is Augsburg actually a welcoming and inclusive environment for its diverse student population? For years, students in the Honors program who identify as members of marginalized communities have felt unheard, tokenized, dismissed, invalidated and unsafe.

Whether intended or not, there are faculty members who have fostered these sentiments in the program’s students of color. While this incident has created a university-wide discussion, these experiences are probably not exclusive to the program.

As elected representatives of the students in the Honors program, we have an obligation to advocate for their right to a safe learning environment that can foster their educational development. As of right now, students of color who came to Augsburg to learn in an inclusive and diverse atmosphere and chose to participate in the university’s highest level of academic rigor have found this promise of inclusion to be more of an illusion. The mission statement of the honors program states that it “fosters a diverse and welcoming community that cultivates joyful curiosity, academic excellence and a commitment to service in local and global contexts.” How is a white professor defending his perceived right to use a racial slur in the year 2018 — especially after Black students vocalized discomfort with the use of the slur — indicative of a welcoming, inclusive environment for Black students? How can Black students be expected to have “joyful curiosity” and perform with “academic excellence” when they have to educate their peers and professors about the trauma the N-word conjures for them?

In an email professor Adamo sent out to the Honors program in response to the incidents in class, he wrote, “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.” This demonstrates the lack of understanding around this issue that Adamo and other faculty and students have expressed and that President Pribbenow touched on when he stated, “We are grappling today with a seeming conflict between academic freedom and fostering inclusive learning environments.” We believe that academic freedom and a safe, inclusive learning environment are not at odds. We don’t want Augsburg’s classrooms to be a place where “taboo topics” can’t be discussed; we simply ask that these important discussions are conducted with the nuance and care they require and that the inherent power dynamics between professors and students, and between white folks and Black folks, are taken into consideration. As stated in Section 2.3 on page 11 of the Faculty Handbook, “Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.” Students in the Honors program have told us that they don’t feel safe expressing their perspectives or to even attend certain classes at all. This isn’t just some sensitive people feeling uncomfortable in class then overreacting; this isn’t just one professor; this isn’t an isolated incident; this is racial trauma being continually perpetuated in the classrooms of the most diverse private university in the state of Minnesota. How can students have freedom in learning when they don’t feel safe in class?

In the days following professor Adamo’s use of the racial slur, more incidents and issues have been brought to our attention beyond the scope of the N-word. It is our hope that moving forward the Augsburg community can work together to address these issues and find restorative justice. We thank those faculty, students, staff and alumni who have expressed their support for what we’re trying to accomplish, and we ask those who feel hesitant to examine themselves and ask, “Why doesn’t the use of racial slurs at Augsburg affect my mental well-being and ability to learn or teach, and why aren’t I taking action against the use of slurs in my community?”

Signed, The Honors Representatives Taking Action for Racial Inclusivity

This article was originally published in the Nov. 16, 2018 issue.