Doane University in Nebraska shuttered a library exhibit and put a librarian on leave over historical photos of students in blackface. The university says the images ran counter to its values and, as presented, served no educational purpose. Some of the librarian’s faculty supporters disagree and say that Doane interfered in a learning moment, albeit a painful one, that their colleague was already working to right.
“Were some of our students genuinely offended or hurt by the library display? Yes,” said Brian Pauwels, associate professor of psychology at Doane and vice president of the campus’s American Association of University Professors advocacy chapter. “Was suspending the librarian in response to that hurt heavy-handed and in violation of the academic freedom that is necessary to do her difficult job every day?”
Pauwels continued, “Can’t the answer to both questions be yes? Because lots of people want us to pick one or the other. These are values that are hard to define, and now they’re colliding with one another.”
Other professors think Doane made the right call.
Mark Orsag, professor of history, said this is "primarily a common sense and respect issue and not an academic freedom issue.” As the photos in the display were not "contextualized at all,” he said, there "was really no education taking place.”
The director of the Crete campus's Perkins Library, Melissa Gomis, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Doane’s AAUP chapter just approved a statement condemning Gomis's suspension and Doane's actions against the exhibit as censorship.
According to that statement and other accounts, Doane’s library staff in March curated an exhibit of historical photographs and other memorabilia from student scrapbooks housed in university archives. In late April, a student complained about two photographs in a display called "Parties of the Past." The photos showed students attending a 1926 Halloween party, apparently in blackface. A blurb from a local newspaper at the time indicated it was a campus masquerade party. But there was no accompanying note from the curators explaining why the photos were included.
Many historians have argued that there is value in showing the presence of racism at universities and in other parts of society, even if such visibility makes people uncomfortable today. Many also argue for contextualizing this kind of content.
After speaking with the concerned student, Gomis decided to remove the blackface photos due -- according to the AAUP -- “to genuine concern for the student while also recognizing the current atmosphere of elevated sensitivity on many college campuses.” Indeed, a number of campuses have this year been forced to acknowledge blackface incidents in their own not-so-distant pasts.
Then last week, under orders from the provost, the entire exhibit was removed. That same day, Gomis was told to collect her things from her office and suspended indefinitely.
Gomis's suspension, AAUP says, is the “consequence of a grievance complaint about the exhibit, prior to initiation of an investigation.”
Citing censorship guidelines from the American Library Association, Doane’s AAUP chapter describes the university’s forced removal of the exhibit as “an unambiguous example of censorship,” coming from “outside the library performed by a person with no training in library and archival science.” That’s in contrast to Gomis’s initial self-censorship, which was “driven by her genuine concern to respond to the student and to avoid external censorship.”
When an educator "is pressured to remove content from a lecture, lesson or display that was created according to the current methods of the profession, then a violation of academic freedom has occurred,” AAUP also says.
Academic Freedom and Censorship
Also last week, President Jacque Carter sent an all-campus memo saying that blackface “has a history of dehumanization and stereotyping, which perpetuates systemic racism in society.” He apologized for the photos and the hurt they’d caused.
“Such an insensitive action is unacceptable and will not be tolerated now or in the future,” Carter wrote.
Doane's AAUP took issue with that statement, saying that an environment in which a president can judge exhibits as "sufficiently controversial or offensive that they must be removed partially or in their entirety at the president’s discretion" constitutes "an infringement of the academic freedom that is essential to the work of Director Gomis, all other faculty and, by extension, the students of the university."
Much of the criticism of Gomis has centered on the fact that the exhibit itself did not acknowledge that the photos showed students in blackface. Did Gomis intend that, for some educational purpose, or was it professional negligence?
Pauwels said Gomis made the professional judgment not to include an explainer, and that the university should have deferred to her expertise. “Carelessness was not an issue here.”
What would have been appropriate, sufficient language to note that students at Doane once thought blackface was fun, he asked rhetorically.
Asked if that was an implicit argument against trigger warnings of any kind, Pauwels said no -- and that that choice should be left up to educators. The guiding principles in such matters should be deference to disciplinary expertise and commitment to letting the process of educational dialogue play out, he said, however undervalued those principles are outside college and university settings of late.
“The university should have exercised some restraint, and I just fail to see why that didn’t happen here.”
A Failure of Common Sense?
Orsag, the historian, said the photos, without context, were "clearly disrespectful to the African-American faculty, staff and students on this campus.” Given national controversies over similar pictures, he added, "putting those photos up in that manner was tone-deaf in the extreme and demonstrated a fundamental lack of common sense.”
Academic freedom "carries with it the responsibility to act respectfully, with fairness and with common sense," he added, arguing that "such offensive displays" are explicitly against Doane's anti-harassment policy.
Amanda McKinney, executive director of Doane’s Institute for Human and Planetary Health and director of its Open Learning Academy, said the key issue is not content but context.
"Words matter, including their omission,” McKinney said. "There was nothing there with the pictures to indicate whether this was right or wrong, racist or not, condoned by the librarian or not.” Given the display title, one "might even think we were celebrating it. That's the crux of the issue,” she added.