A Class Implodes Over Race

Kansas professor is on leave after students complain over her use of n-word and her statements on retention. Situation is latest to raise issues of racial sensitivity and academic freedom.

November 23, 2015
Andrea M. Quenette

Several administrators have lost their jobs in the last month amid campus protests over issues of race. Now a faculty member at the University of Kansas finds her job status uncertain after five graduate students filed complaints against her and organized a public campaign for her to be fired -- over comments she made in discussing recent campus protests.

The faculty member is Andrea M. Quenette, assistant professor of communication studies, who is now -- at her own request -- on paid leave, pending an investigation.

There is some dispute over exactly what she said in a course for graduate students about teaching undergraduates, but the discussion was about the recent protest movement of black students at Kansas and elsewhere.

An open letter calling for Quenette's dismissal says that she said: “As a white woman I just never have seen the racism. … It’s not like I see ‘nigger’ spray painted on walls. …” Via email Quenette said that she did use the slur, but did so in comparing the University of Kansas to the University of Missouri, where many students reported seeing and hearing the word -- and citing that as an example of the discrimination they face. Quenette stressed that she never directed the word at anyone and used it as an example of a slur, not to hurt anyone.

Quenette also raised questions about a complaint made by many black students at Kansas: that the discrimination they face is one reason why their graduation rates lag those of other groups. (According to the latest Education Department data, the six-year graduation rates at Kansas are 64 percent for Asian students, 61 percent for white students, 53 percent for Latino students and 45 percent for black students.)

While the exact phrasing is in dispute, Quenette and her critics agree that she questioned the discrimination explanation for the graduation rate variance, and said that academic preparedness might also be a cause.

Reaction to the class session was intense and immediate. Five students filed complaints with the university, charging Quenette with creating a hostile environment.

The students and others drafted an open letter detailing their view of what happened, as well as concerns that the students said they had prior to the recent class session that set off the controversy.

Here's how the aftermath of the use of the n-word was described: "As you can imagine, this utterance caused shock and disbelief. Her comments that followed were even more disparaging as they articulated not only her lack of awareness of racial discrimination and violence on this campus and elsewhere but an active denial of institutional, structural and individual racism. This denial perpetuates racism in and of itself. After Ph.D. student Ian Beier presented strong evidence about low retention and graduation rates among black students as being related to racism and a lack of institutional support, Dr. Quenette responded with, 'Those students are not leaving school because they are physically threatened everyday but because of academic performance.' This statement reinforces several negative ideas: that violence against students of color is only physical, that students of color are less academically inclined and able, and that structural and institutional cultures, policies and support systems have no role in shaping academic outcomes. Dr. Quenette’s discourse was uncomfortable, unhelpful and blatantly discriminatory."

The letter goes on to say: "Dr. Quenette indicated that because she has not experienced or witnessed discrimination, it is not happening at KU. She asked for more evidence, and was dismissive of the multiple examples provided. These comments demonstrate not only an unwillingness to accept evidence contrary to her own ideas and experiences but also exemplify the dismissal and questioning of minority students’ experiences that has reinforced the very structural discrimination they seek to destroy by speaking up. These comments betray a lack of empathy and care for students of color who are facing academic struggles, which is particularly troubling for our incoming cohort of graduate teaching assistants as we are crafting our own teaching pedagogy. Furthermore, it denies the necessity for social and academic institutional programs in support of disenfranchised students."

Quenette's conduct was particularly troublesome, the letter said, because she was training graduate students to teach. "The goal of the course is to produce practitioners, so by imbuing racist language, remarks and viewpoints into the pedagogy her students were meant to replicate, Dr. Quenette was training us to perpetrate acts and ideas violating the policies of the university," the graduate students wrote.

"Therefore, her speech is not protected by the First Amendment and employer discipline for her remarks is not only legal, but necessary based on her breach of contract. We want to be absolutely clear that we will not attend this class, we will not accept being graded by Dr. Quenette … and we will not feel safe to learn and grow as teachers and scholars while under the supervision of Dr. Quenette."

The open letter's headline makes clear the students' desired outcome: "An Open Letter Calling for the Termination of Dr. Andrea Quenette for Racial Discrimination."

Critics of Quenette followed with a Twitter hashtag #FireAndreaQuenette, although many of those posting there are defending her comments as free expression covered by academic freedom. Twitter is also being used to promote a crowd-funding campaign to help her with expected legal expenses. As of Sunday afternoon, $2,878 had been raised, with many people posting notes that Quenette's academic freedom should protect her rights to offer the opinions she shared in the class.

In an email interview, Quenette said she requested the leave because "I felt uncomfortable coming to campus and concerned about what people might say or do to me while in the department." (According to a university spokesman, the leave means that she is relieved of all teaching and service responsibilities and is to remain off campus while the situation is investigated.)

"I believe academic freedom is an important issue in this situation," Quenette said. "This topic was already the focus of the readings in class for this day, and issues of race and discrimination are current issues our campus is focusing on. I did not call anyone this word, nor did I use it to refer to any individual or group. Rather, I was retelling a factual example about an issue elsewhere."

She added, "Later in the discussion we discussed low graduation rates for African-American students at KU. I was trying to point out that there are a number of factors that contribute to graduate rate statistics for all students, among them varying levels of academic preparedness. The university needs to identify ways to provide additional academic support for students who may need greater resources to be successful. I believe it is well within the purview of my job to discuss these issues and indeed, it was related to the focus of the class for the day. My words were not intended to hurt anyone but rather to make a larger point that the solutions to race and diversity issues on our campus must directly address the specific problems our campus faces."

Asked if she had anything to add, Quenette said, "Classrooms should be spaces for everyone to discuss issues openly and honestly, to make mistakes, to learn and to grow."


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