Three professors at Claremont McKenna College in California said administrators violated their right to academic freedom by banning them from citing famous literature that contained racial slurs.
Professors face varying levels of discipline – from warnings to terminations – after students complained about the racial slur “niggers” in course texts. Government professor Christopher Nadon under investigation for citing “Huckleberry Finn” in class discussion of literary censorship. Literature professor Robert Faggen warned ‘after playing recording of Robert Lowell reading Civil Rights era poetry’For the Union Dead,” which contains defamation, which is permissible when playing the recording, a word that Fagan himself should never have said. Eva Revesz, associate professor of literature, taught the book and film versions of “Purple” and read it in her film adaptation class After a partial text containing the word, she was informed that the department’s needs had changed, that the following semester of courses she had scheduled would be cancelled and her contract would not be renewed.
Nadon was shocked to learn that the administrators had removed him from the introductory course he taught for years.
These actions are clearly in line with Claremont McKenna’s repeat emphasize Its support for the rights to academic freedom and free speech on campus.College has adopted Chicago Statement, which FIRE considers to be the gold standard commitment to student and faculty free expression on campus. FIRE has also in the past commended the college’s policy on managing student presentations, both of which are our highest,”green light” ratings of speech protection policies and first place in our 2021 University Free Speech Rankingswhich polled students on how far their colleges embraced free speech.
Citing racial slurs in a teaching setting is Very familiar ground Controversy surrounding academic freedom.That’s why fire wrote The academy explained yesterday that in order to deliver on these commitments, it cannot punish teachers who teach controversial material or unduly influence the way they choose to approach these subjects.
Still a top university for free speech?
In June 2021, before teaching a freshman seminar, Naden emailed an administrator, which included reading “Frederick Douglass’s Life Narrative.” Nadon made it clear that the work “includes the word nigger in several key passages that need to be discussed in class to explain the work,” and the administrators had no objection, and he even thanked Nadon and encouraged him to submit his suggestion for a student book club.
In October, another administrator emailed Nadon to inform him that a student had reported serious concerns about one of Nadon’s classes but did not want to file a complaint against him. Nadon asked in writing for more information about these concerns, but the Dean’s Office declined, insisting instead that Nadon be present at the meeting, before acquiescing to Nadon’s request, which the Dean’s Office informed him of the concerns in writing.
The dean’s email lists three statements about Nadon: He explicitly used defamation when discussing the censorship of the book Huckleberry Finn, which he discussed with a student. The book’s use of the term, and his alleged comparison of the Black Lives Matter movement to the Nazi party. To date, no formal complaint has been filed against Nadon.
The following semester, Nadon was shocked to learn that administrators had removed him from the introductory course he had taught for years. Those privileges were restored after he appealed to the Academy.
Around the same time, elsewhere on campus, Revesz was an adjunct literature professor teaching a class on “Film Adaptations” when a student accused her of insensitivity on similar grounds. In her class, which includes teaching students the literary and film versions of “Purple,” Revesz cites parts of the book that contain racial slurs. She apologized to the student and later reiterated her apology via email.
Faculty and staff are empowered to address difficult topics such as America’s painful history of slavery and racial oppression, fully in line with the university’s announced commitment to academic freedom.
Revesz’s students still reported her to administrators, who called her to several meetings and then strongly urged her to take a sensitivity training counseling session, which she completed. But as summer approached, Revesz learned that her teaching assignments for the upcoming fall semester had been canceled — even though the college had scheduled classes and assigned a classroom — purportedly because of changes in her department’s needs.
Around the same time, Fagan was playing Civil Rights era poetry”For the Union Dead. After a student objected to hearing the slur in the poem, Fagan met with Claremont McKenna’s VP of Diversity and Chief Civil Rights Officer Nelly Gray, who told Fagan that while the word was played, the Audio recordings are acceptable, but it is not acceptable for a professor to say this.
The treatment of these professors raises serious questions about the academic freedom of Claremont McKenna faculty to publish controversial material.
To be sure, FIRE has not been shy about honoring Claremont McKenna when FIRE’s policies make supporting the rights of teachers and students a priority.But as we are in our letter Address these recent events:
Faculty and staff are empowered to address difficult topics such as America’s painful history of slavery and racial oppression, fully in line with the university’s announced commitment to academic freedom. CMC must live up to these commitments. Materials related to the teaching of controversial topics may include words, concepts, topics, or discussions that some, many, or most students are uncomfortable with, including discussions of the worrisome and unresolved history of racism and discrimination in the United States. Faculty members who confront and review history must be free from institutional constraints in addressing these issues. Punishing teachers exercising their rights by citing teaching-related material violates CMC’s explicit, First Amendment-like commitments.
When Claremont McKenna wins 2021 at FIRE University Free Speech RankingsUniversity President Hiram Chodosh Observed On a college campus, such difficult discussions are expected and welcome.
“We can learn from our differences to reach a higher level of shared understanding,” he said. “This is how responsible people serve and lead others – not through the sheer exercise of power, but through active listening, open inquiry and persuasion.”
This principle remains true and is reflected in Claremont McKenna’s policy. Colleges must ensure that their administrators put this into practice.
FIRE defends the rights of students and staff— regardless of their opinion – Public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or staff member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, Submit your case to FIRE today. If you are a faculty member at a public college or university, please call Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).
Letter from FIRE to Claremont-McKenna-College, August 22, 2022