Faculty respond to professor’s use of N-word by calling for institutional change around racial justice

Sarah Groeneveld Kenney, Mzenga Wanyama & Sarah Combellick-Bidney, Augsburg Faculty

We the undersigned Augsburg faculty acknowledge that Professor Phil Adamo’s repeated use of the N-word has caused harm to our students. This term, the most violent and racially charged word in American culture, has historically been used in the U.S. by white people to dehumanize and humiliate Black people. We also acknowledge that this harm was intensified when Adamo defended his use of the N-word multiple times against the objections of students of color.

In recent editions of the “Echo,” Professor Bob Cowgill and the Minnesota council of the AAUP argued that this is a matter of academic freedom, and Professor David Lapakko claimed that the situation has made faculty unsafe. We refute these claims by asserting that academic freedom in defense of language that harms students turns the very principle that makes true learning possible into a mechanism for enforcing institutional racism. The incident illustrates the urgent need for many of our faculty to be more self-critical in their positions of power and racial (as well as gender and other forms of) privilege. Furthermore, it underscores the very real power of words to cause damage and trauma. We believe that further conversations about academic freedom can only take place after we acknowledge that harm has been done to these students.

The AAUP emphasizes that academic freedom is “fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.” We believe that “freedom in learning” for students means freedom from racism, from harassment, from discrimination, from oppression and from trauma at the hands of faculty and the university. We faculty may, in exercising academic freedom and freedom of speech, unintentionally make unwise or biased pedagogical decisions that hurt our students. But it is our responsibility to respond with empathy in those moments, be open to criticism and have the humility and courage to make the necessary changes within ourselves in order to protect our students’ freedoms, wellbeing and humanity.

Augsburg’s Student-Faculty Bias/Discrimination Reporting Policy already affirms this definition of academic freedom by stating, “Academic freedom is not an excuse for behavior that inflicts harm, undermines student learning or denies a student’s humanity: it is a right that comes with responsibilities, perhaps most especially when there are power differences that structurally inform relationships, such as those between faculty and students.” We as faculty embrace these responsibilities.

While we hold the entire community accountable to the tasks ahead, we, as faculty, hold ourselves accountable to the call from students to address the failures and gaps that are present within Augsburg’s institutional structure. This moment requires us to consider the causes of not just this incident but other pedagogical failures around issues of diversity, inclusion and equity. As a university that advertises its racially diverse student body, it is our responsibility to stop focusing exclusively on enrollment numbers to measure our success and instead focus on making institutional changes in order to create a community that is more free and just than the wider society in which we live. Augsburg, like many institutions of higher education, is built on hegemonic, white, Eurocentric structures. Dismantling them will take time and hard work. Even so, we call upon everyone in our community to come together and do the work.

We therefore encourage the Augsburg community to:

1. Require meaningful and challenging diversity, equity and justice training for all faculty.

2. Significantly increase the racial diversity of our faculty and administration by identifying potential bias in our hiring practices and by providing financial incentives to attract and retain more racially diverse candidates.

3. Ensure that the new General Education requirements place further emphasis on classes that better equip students to be stronger allies, understand racism and bias and develop intercultural competency.

4. Create institutionally funded, student-led spaces (such as a Convocation) in which students can further these conversations and help lead Augsburg into the future.

5. Call upon and provide resources to our current Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Committee to ensure that this racial justice work continues.

We, the faculty members authoring this letter, are collecting signatures of support from faculty members on a Google form. The link to this form can be found in the online version of this article on the “Echo” website. We recognize that many faculty who may not have the opportunity or ability to do so are still working hard to foster racial justice. And to students: we are looking forward to your ideas and feedback on this statement and are working to create spaces for our conversations to continue in the new year.

Link to the Google form: https://goo.gl/forms/lBZWqG8UJCKswOj62

This article was originally published in the Nov. 30, 2018 issue.