Claremont McKenna College stands accused of censoring faculty members who were discussing texts including Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. But the college, which is known for promoting freedom of expression, is pushing back on these allegations, saying that its actions have been misrepresented.
“In my nine years as president, we have never held a disciplinary review, investigation or remedial action (e.g., demand, alteration, censure, ban or any adverse action) against any faculty members,” Claremont McKenna president Hiram Chodosh said in a statement, “for speech in the classroom.”
Like numerous academic freedom disputes within the last decade, the one playing out at Claremont McKenna turns on the N-word—namely, whether it’s acceptable for a professor to say the full word (not the euphemism) in class when quoting a text or a case study.
Across academe, professors have a variety of perspectives on this issue, with some admitting that their thinking has changed over time (in one high-profile case at the University of Chicago, First Amendment scholar Geoffrey Stone said that he’d no longer use the N-word in his law classes because it was more harmful to students than it was educational). But regarding Claremont McKenna, the question isn't necessarily whether professors should be able to say the N-word for pedagogical reasons (the college hasn't said they can't) but rather how administrators should respond to student complaints about offensive language in the classroom.
Christopher Nadon, associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna, shared his side of the story this week in an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal. He wrote that he was discussing censorship in Plato’s Republic last fall when a student argued that censorship doesn’t exist in the U.S. Another student mentioned the history of censorship of Huck Finn, Nadon said, but the first student was not familiar with that history. So Nadon said he quoted “Twain’s precise language, which meant speaking the N-word,” to provide some context for the student.
“This caused the first student to change her mind and acknowledge the existence of censorship in America,” Nadon wrote. “Far from being harmed by hearing the word, she now saw that Plato’s views [on censorship] couldn’t be dismissed as outdated and merited more serious consideration."
Ten days after this class session, Nadon said, Claremont McKenna’s associate dean of faculty emailed him to schedule a phone call about a student’s “serious concerns” about one of Nadon’s courses. Nadon said he asked repeatedly for details about those concerns in writing prior to agreeing to any conversation.
A few weeks later, Heather Antecol, the college’s dean of faculty, emailed Nadon to explain that the student in question was not filing a formal complaint, and she said, “this is not a disciplinary matter,” Nadon recalled. However, Antecol then said that Claremont had a “duty to appropriately respond to concerns brought to the college’s attention,” Nadon continued, and “demanded to know the ‘pedagogic principles’ that I thought justified using ‘the n* word expressly.’”
‘I Tell Him the Truth’
Nadon said he replied as follows: “I do think that when a student asks me a direct question that I am able to answer, good ‘pedagogy’ requires that I tell him the truth. Do you disagree? Similarly, when a student makes a false statement, I think my job requires me to confront that student with facts that contradict him. Do you think I am wrong to do so? I also hold the view that before criticizing or praising an author, one should first attempt to understand that author as he understood himself, something that requires reading and discussing exactly what he wrote. Do you think I am mistaken in this approach?”
Antecol never responded, Nadon said. But he alleged that Antecol worked with his department and Claremont McKenna’s Open Academy program on civic dialogue to have him banned from teaching required courses. He said he was told by faculty members that this was because of his Huck Finn comment, a separate instance in which he'd said this "forbidden word aloud [in class] from the autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, as well as "alleged complaints for making arguments on all sides of contentious issues such as the equality of the sexes."
The dean's office "has never informed me of a single complaint, though I had repeatedly asked in the fall for her office to detail what complaints, if any, students had filed against me," Nadon said. Instead, Antecol "kept the process secret and played the role of investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury."
In July, Nadon filed an internal grievance. While that process is ongoing, he said, “I can report that two weeks after that filing, when it was apparent that my case and other similar ones would become public, Ms. Antecol decided to permit me to teach in the fall one of the two courses she had taken away from me and given to adjuncts.”
Nadon’s op-ed describes two other cases involving unnamed faculty members in the department of literature. In one instance, Nadon said, “a literature adjunct read aloud and asked students to discuss a passage from The Color Purple that contained the N-word. They complained. Ms. Antecol summoned the adjunct, who apologized and agreed to undergo recommended counseling.”
This professor “submitted to re-education and training in critical race theory,” Nadon wrote, but their scheduled fall class was “abruptly canceled.”
Regarding the third faculty member, Nadon said a tenured professor who is “well-connected to the Board of Trustees and the media, committed a similar offense, [and] received no penalty.” Nadon said that this professor played the class a recording of Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead,” which contains the N-word, and that “a student exploded, excoriating both author and teacher as old white men.”
This professor was told that he was “in the clear” because he hadn’t said the word himself, according to Nadon’s account.
‘Merely Words on Paper’
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (formerly the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), which has ranked Claremont McKenna the nation’s No. 1 institution for free speech, this week sent Antecol a letter saying it’s concerned the college is “deviating from its strong commitments to academic freedom by reportedly punishing and warning faculty members after students complained the faculty taught historical works containing a racial slur.”
The FIRE letter names the two other professors of literature that Nadon discussed in his opinion piece: Robert Faggen, Barton Evans and H. Andrea Neves Professor of Literature, and Eva Revesz, an adjunct.
Faggen said he wasn’t immediately available for an interview Wednesday, and Revesz could not immediately be reached.
Regarding Nadon’s case, the FIRE letter says that Antecol said a student reported him for saying in class, “Do you know why they don’t teach Huckleberry Finn in schools anymore? Because it says n* on every other page.” Per FIRE’s summary, Antecol also said that the unnamed student was concerned that Nadon had “pressured” another student to agree that Huck Finn had been censored by schools.
The reporting student also complained that Nadon had equated the Black Lives Matter movement with Nazism, according to FIRE’s letter.
Regarding the use of the N-word in the classroom, FIRE wrote that “Expressly referencing racial slurs in a pedagogically relevant context is not uncommon—and is properly protected under the basic tenets of academic freedom. There is a clear distinction between using a racial slur as a slur and employing the slur in teaching about its ramifications or history.” And while FIRE still rates Claremont McKenna highly with respect to free speech, FIRE wrote, “these policies are merely words on paper if the college does not put them into practice.”
FIRE ultimately called on Claremont McKenna to “undertake a review of the cases of Professors Nadon, Faggen and Revesz, reverse any punishments imposed in contravention of college policy, and ensure that all faculty members know CMC will honor their academic freedom to teach controversial material.”
‘That Is False’
In his written statement in response to questions from Inside Higher Ed, Chodosh, Claremont’s McKenna’s president, challenged these accounts—including by saying that Nadon will be teaching a required course this fall because no students signed up for his previously offered elective. Chodosh also said that multiple students reported concerns about Nadon, and noted (as did Nadon) that he was accused of saying the N-word on more than one occasion.
“Nadon claims that he was banned ‘from teaching any required courses into the future, seemingly into perpetuity.’ That is false,” Chodosh wrote. "We received expressions of concern from students in three separate, recent classes. The first cited Nadon’s express use of the N-word independent from the reading of Huck Finn or any other text and Nadon’s argument with a student that was reported to ‘box her in’ and ‘force her’ to support Nadon’s point of view.”
Nadon was “never under investigation, never barred and never censured,” Chodosh continued. “Nor were any other faculty, as Nadon claims.”
Instead, Chodosh said that a department chair’s discussion with Nadon regarding his upcoming fall courses was about “efforts to increase enrollments in the department’s program in political philosophy.” Chodosh said, “Nadon omits: the detrimental effect of low enrollments on his department, and the department’s ability to recruit and retain majors at a college where government has been a mission-driven core discipline and strength.”
Further, Chodosh said, one of Nadon’s “upper-level courses, an elective scheduled for this fall resulted in no students signing up to take it. As a result, the department recommended, and the dean agreed, that Nadon would teach the major-required Gov 80 this fall. The number of students currently enrolled for this semester in his section of Gov 80 is 1.”
Chodosh didn’t address Faggen’s case in any detail. Of Revesz, the adjunct instructor, Chodosh said she “had an at-will contract for one semester only, with no promise of reappointment. She was never required to submit to ‘re-education and training in critical race theory.’ Based on the availability of a tenure-line faculty member to teach the next semester always our preference, there was no need to reappoint her for fall 2022 but left open the possibility for future opportunities.”
At Claremont McKenna, Chodosh said, academic freedom is “paramount.”
“We extend the freedom of expression to every member of our community, not just professors, even when that includes language that is offensive to some. We are committed to open and active listening and engagement of diverse viewpoints. We are committed to constructive dialogue through and across our differences on all and any issues—both in and outside the classroom—including the most sensitive and controversial.”
Alluding to Antecol’s handling of the complaints about Nadon, Chodosh said, “When we receive any concern, from any source, whether from a professor or a student, we ask questions and look to make sure we have a strong factual understanding of what has occurred. We often reach out to directly to those concerned.”
In faculty cases, “when appropriate, we reach out directly to (i) inform the professor, so that he or she can consider how (if at all) to respond to the concerns raised; (ii) answer questions or concerns the professor may have; and (iii) to provide the professor with suggestions, resources, or support that he or she might find useful in achieving their pedagogical goals. We find that our faculty’s understanding of the student experience helps strengthen pedagogy and higher learning.”
Reprimand vs. Conversation
Nadon declined to discuss the case or provide documentation to support his account Wednesday until he'd seen Chodosh's statement in full. In a written response to that statement sent late Wednesday night, Nadon said while it’s “technically true that I have not been banned from teaching any intro courses,” he was told by a colleague that Antecol “was adamant about me not teaching Introduction to Political Philosophy or the Freshman Humanities Sequence (the two required courses I regularly teach) going forward.” Regarding the discussion with his chair that was allegedly about low enrollment in political philosophy, Nadon said he was told by other colleagues that this talk happened at “the behest of the dean for the purpose of removing me from teaching the introductory level course in response to alleged student complaints.”
Nadon said he “immediately refused to go along with this agreement” not to teach introductory courses, and that his chair took weeks to respond and hired an adjunct to teach the introductory Gov 80 course in the interim. This course was only restored to Nadon after he filed his grievance in July, he also said, and it now suffers from low enrollment because it was added back into the course schedule late. Regarding his upper-level course with low enrollment, Nadon said that his chair assigned him the class at an unpopular 8:10 a.m. time slot, without his consent.
He reiterated that the second time he said the N-word, he was reading Frederick Douglass, and said that any allegation about any other utterance of this word would be false.
Whatever happened with Nadon's fall courses, how should colleges and universities respond to student complaints about these issues? Is even asking a professor to explain why they did what they did in the classroom a violation of academic freedom or a form of discipline? Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy at FIRE, told Inside Higher Ed Wednesday that “Even calling a faculty member in for a quote-unquote educational meeting about their controversial teaching can violate professors’ academic freedom where the context of that request suggests they’re being asked not to teach or discuss certain material.”
Morey said FIRE frequently sees faculty members “making good-faith attempts to engage students on critically important topics like race, gender, religion and more, derailed by administrative interference,” and that this is “unacceptable at any college committed to free speech, meaning they promise not to exert institutional pressure to dictate what faculty and students may or may not say.”
When students do complain about language in the classroom, Morey said that administrators should listen “and explain that offensive language used in an educational context is protected under the college’s commitments to free expression. They can also provide them the school’s discrimination and harassment policies, and educate them about when the use of racially charged language might cross the line into illegal conduct.”
“Most importantly,” Morey continued, “colleges should open additional avenues for discussion rather than suggesting faculty adapt their teaching styles. After all, it is faculty, not administrators, who are the experts in their fields.”
The American Association of University Professors had a slightly different take. First, some background: the AAUP’s widely followed Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure policy doesn’t mention conversations with administrators about classroom choices but describes “reprimand” as a minor sanction. The AAUP also considers an oral reprimand to be less serious than a written one.
Greg Scholtz, director of academic freedom, tenure and governance at the organization, said Wednesday that, in general, being asked by an administrator to “discuss the pedagogy underlying one’s classroom use of the N-word is not an oral reprimand, though I suppose it might lead to one.”
Because recognizing what constitutes a sanction or punishment “may be to some degree subjective,” he continued, “we will sometimes advise complainants that it’s up to them to make the case to the appropriate faculty body [at their institution] that the punishment they’ve received is a minor or major sanction.”
However, Scholtz said, “I think most disinterested observers would be hard put to imagine a compelling case that a dean’s calling you merely to ask about your pedagogical justification for using the N-word is a sanction. Our policies would not support such an argument.”