The University of Kansas on Friday informed Andrea M. Quenette, assistant professor of communication studies, that she has been cleared of wrongdoing in an investigation over comments she made about race in a graduate course in November. Quenette had been suspended while the investigation was going on -- and the incident and its aftermath have been of concern to many advocates for academic freedom.
The university has made no announcement and has cited its confidentiality obligations to explain why it is not doing so. But Quenette said in an email interview that she received a letter from the university late Friday saying that "based on a preponderance of the evidence standard, the evidence was insufficient" to find fault with her on any of five complaints filed against her.
"I am so relieved," she said. "This was a long and difficult time for me and my family."
Quenette was accused of creating a hostile environment in her class through her comments on race, but she and others said she expressed nonhostile, legitimate opinions that were protected by academic freedom.
Asked if the experience would change how she talked about race, she said it probably would.
"I don't believe I have much choice other than to be guarded. To be honest, I am afraid of engaging in a discussion of race and diversity in the classroom," Quenette said. "I hope that I can use resources on my campus and support from other faculty to better equip myself for such a situation. Given the importance of diversity on our campuses, it is a conversation that should take place in my classroom, but I am anxious about it. This disappoints me because not only do I love teaching and exploring topics of interest to my students, but I care deeply about students' development and well-being. I want students to feel they are in a good situation that allows them to learn and grow in positive ways. I believe it will be harder for me to respond to my students now because I am afraid of saying something wrong."
The graduate course in question took place in November amid growing national debate about issues of race on campus, and that debate extended to Kansas. Quenette's exact words are in dispute, but she was criticized for using a slur against black people, although she used it not against black people but describing the use of the slur. Her critics said she said, “As a white woman I just never have seen the racism. … It’s not like I see ‘nigger’ spray painted on walls.” Quenette said she was comparing her university to the University of Missouri at Columbia, where many students reported seeing and hearing the word. 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.
After class, 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 the students said they had prior to the class session that set off the controversy.
Here's how the aftermath of the use of the n-word was described in the open letter: "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 every day 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."
Many advocates for free speech expressed concern that Quenette was suspended or that the university considered anything in the complaints as potential misconduct.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent the University of Kansas a letter stating that the investigation of Quenette (and any subsequent punishment of her) would violate principles of academic freedom.
"Quenette’s efforts engaging her … students on topics of race and inequality are fully protected under the First Amendment and KU policy," the letter said. "Students, of course, have every right to question and criticize the views put forth by Quenette, and a graduate-level seminar is ideally situated to facilitate such discussion. But just as Quenette’s students have every right to challenge her, as their professor she has no obligation to uncritically accept their arguments without subjecting them to debate or offering possible alternative viewpoints or explanations. Quenette would be failing in her duties as a professor if she did so."
Impact of the Investigation
Quenette said the investigation has had a major impact on her personally and in terms of her career.
"This was a very expensive process for me personally. I have lived with a lot of uncertainty. It has been difficult to plan for the future, both in terms of my career but also for my personal life," she said. "It has been very difficult for me to concentrate on my research, the only thing I really had to connect me to my job at all. I have spent hours combing job postings and applying for new jobs -- a very difficult thing to do when I love the job I have and didn't want to leave it. I considered leaving higher education altogether."
Quenette is on the tenure track but not tenured. She said department members have been supportive, but that "I feel as though I have lost most of a year, distracted by these events, which has made it very, very difficult, if not impossible to focus on my scholarship, a major component of my tenure requirements."
Many did support her, Quenette noted. Her husband and other backers organized an online campaign to raise money for her legal expenses. "I cannot begin to sufficiently express my gratitude to those who were so generous and kind," she said.
Her case is something of "a test case" for higher education, Quenette said, of the question of "Where is the line between academic freedom and students' perceptions?" She added: "What I said and did was not discriminatory towards anyone, nor was it intended to be so. Uttering a word does not turn someone into something they are not, even if others find their speech unpopular. Unfortunately, I am not the only faculty member in this situation, nor do I believe I will be the last. I am concerned about the protection of First Amendment rights for everyone in the academy and how the tension between politically correct speech and legally protected speech will continue to play out across the country."
The organizer of the letter calling for Quenette to be fired did not respond to a request for comment.
Jyleesa Hampton, a black graduate student at Kansas who signed the letter calling for Quenette to be fired, but who was not in the class in question, told The Lawrence Journal-World that the university's findings did not mean the professor's comments weren't perceived as racist by those who received them. "The students that wrote that letter stand behind that letter, that it is possible to do and say racist things and not violate the law," Hampton said. "That doesn’t make them any more acceptable.”
On social media, some have criticized the university's move to clear Quenette: