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Emory University has removed a law professor from the classroom as it investigates student reports that he used the N-word in a class discussion earlier this month.

The professor, Paul Zwier, director of Emory's Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution, has since expressed remorse but also doubt as to whether he actually used that term (although he’s indicated he planned to use it in a subsequent lecture about a case explicitly involving the N-word). In a statement to faculty members, which he shared with Inside Higher Ed, Zwier said, “To say I am in shock is to put it mildly. I hope you will read my explanation.”

The gist of Zwier’s letter is that, in a first-year torts class, he was discussing a 1967 case involving a Texas man who was refused service at a professional luncheon by a venue manager who called him a “Negro.” And while Zwier may have been careless in possibly using the N-word instead, he meant no offense and would have had pedagogical reasons for doing so, he said.

Zwier wrote that he has outstanding questions about the case -- namely whether a harsher word than “Negro” was actually used at the lunch -- since the restaurant club manager died before the trial and the plaintiff, Emmit E. Fisher, was never cross-examined. Zwier also said via email Thursday that court recorders at the time tended to “sanitize” offensive language and so may have altered the case history.

“Perhaps this was in my mind as I continued my dialogue” with a student, who happened to be black, Zwier wrote in his note to colleagues. “I’m not sure whether I used the ‘N-word’ because I don’t remember consciously choosing to use the word. I do remember that there was a reaction from at least one black student to my question, so I may have misspoken.”

In any case, he said, “I admit that had I used the ‘N-word,’ this was a mistake on my part and I have no doubt hurt and offended students who heard it or later learned that I had used the word itself. I apologized the next morning,” with Black Law Students Association representatives present in the class for the apology.

The association held a unity rally this week about the incident, with several hundred students and professors in attendance.

“The main thing we’re here about today is not about the professor,” said Wrenica Archibald, leader of the campus branch, said at the rally, according to “This is about our community as a whole -- we have to have these uncomfortable conversations.”

‘I Have to Face It, I Did Say It’

Zwier originally stuck to his account Thursday, saying he thought at the time that any comment he made was “clearly an inquiry about historical facts.” He added, “I teach mediation and know that apology is often the best course when a mistake has been made.” Yet “in today's climate, and with the amount of hurt that some had experienced, and then was spread to others in the retelling, the apology was evidently not heard or accepted.”

Later in the day, Zwier emailed to say that he’d “had a chance to talk to someone else in the class who I trust who says that I did say the ‘N-word’ itself. In other words, I have to face it, I did say it. And struggle to explain how it came out, other than to have conflated the facts in the case with a hypothetical or facts from a later case. And that I am so sorry for using the word itself.”

It seems implausible, or damning, that a professor could unintentionally use the N-word. But Zwier does deal with course material that explicitly uses the term. His account at least provides more context than what Emory has said publicly about the case thus far.

In a campus memo, Emory’s president, Claire E. Sterk, and other administrators said that a professor had used the “‘N-word’ in a classroom when lecturing first-year law students on the topic of 1960s civil rights lunch counter protests in the South.” Such “offensive language was not part of the case law cited. The use of this -- or any racial slur -- in our community is unacceptable.”

Announcing immediate changes, including forthcoming "meaningful mandatory training,” presumably on bias and climate issues, Sterk and fellow administrators wrote, “We can -- and will -- do better. Although this letter focused on a particular issue in Emory Law, we -- the university leadership and greater community -- are committed to upholding the principles of equity, inclusion and respect that we all embrace and value at Emory.” Emory's Office of Equity and Inclusion is now investigating the matter to make findings of fact and recommend further actions, if any, within two weeks.

Another professor is currently teaching Zwier’s classes. Zwier said he’s been blocked from teaching for the semester. A spokesperson for the university did not respond to a request for comment about the terms of suspension, or whether it is, in Emory’s view, a suspension at all.

Widely followed standards established by the American Association of University Professors says removal from the classroom constitutes a suspension, which is a serious sanction that should be reserved only for cases in which student, faculty or staff safety is at immediate risk.

This is not the first time a professor has been criticized for using the N-word in ways that students have found superfluous or insulting. In February, for example, Lawrence Rosen, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Princeton University, canceled a course on hate speech and pornography that he’d taught previously, after some students walked out and complained about his use of the N-word in an opening lecture. Rosen, who also taught courses on law and anthropology, asked students which was worse: a white man physically assaulting a black man or using the N-word against him. In that case, however, Rosen’s department publicly supported him and he was not asked to step down.

Zwier’s case is also not the first in which law students have objected to content that is arguably connected to the curriculum. Jeannie Suk, a professor of law at Harvard University, has written about how discussions about sexual assault have become harder to navigate in the post-trigger warning era, ultimately -- in Suk’s view -- to the detriment of the sexual assault victims today’s law students might one day represent.

“One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word 'violate' in class -- as in ‘Does this conduct violate the law?’ -- because the word was triggering. Some students have even suggested that rape law should not be taught because of its potential to cause distress,” Suk wrote in a widely discussed 2014 essay in The New Yorker.

There is little disagreement, even among academic freedom and free speech watchdogs, that offensive content should make its way into the classroom only for sound educational reasons. Emory's statement seems to imply that its standard for using a slur, at least in law classes, is whether it's an explicit part of a case. Zwier's explanation makes a case for using a slur when it's in the margins of case law.

Given this and past controversies, is the N-word in particular so sensitive that it should be banned from explicit use in the classroom altogether? Everyone understands the less offensive shorthand, after all.

Zwier in his statement to colleagues cited an article by Randall Kennedy, the Michael R. Klein Professor of law at Harvard, called “Who Can Say ‘N----r?’ And Other Considerations.” (Kennedy also wrote a 2003 book, more descriptive than prescriptive, called N----r: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. Both titles include the full word.)

“Kennedy’s article shows the discussion of how words are used in law is at the heart of the common law,” Zwier wrote. “He uses a quote from O. W. Holmes that makes the point, ‘… a word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged [but is] the skin of a living thought [that] may vary greatly in color and contact according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.’”

Holmes died in 1935, and Kennedy, who published his article in 1999, did not respond to a request for comment about how it might apply to Zwier’s case.

John K. Wilson, an independent scholar of academic freedom who edits AAUP’s "Academe" blog, said that “colleges don’t ban words. But professors should avoid needlessly offending students.”

When they do, he added, “criticism is the best response, since it is difficult to imagine how one word could be punishable harassment.”

Asked if it’s ever permissible to use the N-word in class when it’s not absolutely necessary, Tommy Curry, a professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University who has written about race and language and the N-word’s dehumanizing effect, said that it can have “some pedagogical utility for black scholars trying to impress on students the meaning and terror of the word.” And for a scholar studying 19th-century ethnology, for example, he said, it’s “difficult to not run across the word throughout these pseudo-scientific texts. The N-word is a terrible part of history and sometimes has to be encountered as such.”

Whether professors of all races may use the word is a separate issue, however, Curry said, adding that he doesn’t believe in any “universal rule.” That’s because black professors must have the freedom to “study themselves and the consequences of dehumanizing discourse" -- while acknowledging the weight of the word and their decisions -- and an attempt to limit use of the word for any group would limit it for all. 

In general, though, Curry said he believes that non-black professors should avoid the term, as its use towards black students “can inflict undue injury and trauma.” Despite the intentions of non-black educators, he added, “there is a historical and cultural context that must be acknowledged and respected.”

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