Academic Freedom and Compassion

Sacramento State finds no wrongdoing by professor who was accused of insulting a Native American student, nor by the student who challenged what the professor said about genocide.

October 9, 2015

California State University at Sacramento finished a monthlong investigation into a student complaint that a professor denied Native Americans were victims of genocide and tried to kick her out of class, finding that neither the student nor the professor had violated university policy, President Robert Nelsen said this week in an email to students and faculty members.

Nelsen essentially closed the case but encouraged continued discussion about the issues it raised. He also said the university will offer a new genocide studies minor and offer cultural sensitivity and classroom management training in faculty orientations.

“I understand the importance of academic freedom, but I also know that no one at the university wants any of our students to feel that they have not been heard,” he said. “Thoughtful dialogue and sometimes-heated debate are at the heart of any university, but so is compassion. The discussions surrounding this incident provide us with the opportunity to improve what happens in our classrooms and in the lives of our Native American students -- indeed, in the lives of all our students …. In that spirit, we must seize this opportunity to encourage respectful discussion of controversial topics in the classroom, even if these discussions may interrupt a planned lecture.”

Nelsen said he’d read various accounts of the incident that took place earlier this semester involving Maury Wiseman, a professor of history, and Chiitaanibah Johnson, an undergraduate who challenged Wiseman’s interpretation of the term “genocide” in relation to Native Americans. Johnson, who is Native American, accused Wiseman of saying that Native Americans were not victims of genocide because genocide implies intention, and most were killed by Europeans' diseases, not settler or U.S. aggression. Johnson said that when she challenged Wiseman in class, the discussion escalated and he threatened to kick her out of class.

The university has consistently said that Johnson was not kicked out of class, however.

Wiseman, who’s been silent pending the investigation, said via email that Nelsen “did the best he could in a difficult situation.” Wiseman also shared a quotation from the lecture in question, taken from a recording of his class. The lecture pertained to pre-Columbian America and the earliest contact between Native Americans and Europeans in the 1500s.

“Not only were there a diversity of cultures, but there were a large number of people on this continent when Europeans arrived,” Wiseman said. “I don’t like to use the term ‘genocide’ because ‘genocide’ is something that is done on purpose, but needless to say European diseases primarily, European diseases primarily [sic], will wipe out Native American populations in the two continents and hence one of the reasons why later in history many Europeans will imagine that these continents were empty. But we know that as many as 25 million people might have lived in what we call Central America today. Another seven to 10 million people lived in what we call North America today.”

Johnson told The Sacramento Bee that she was disappointed in Nelsen’s response, since it didn’t address how she said Wiseman treated her when she raised difficult questions, or how genocide in relation to Native Americans will be addressed going forward. She said the proposal for a new genocide and Holocaust studies minor -- to be housed in the ethnic studies program -- should belong to the history department instead.

“It’s really frustrating when they keep pushing us off on ethnic studies to marginalize us from the mainstream,” she told the paper.


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