A Texas Christian University professor reached out in an e-mail to a group of students he deemed to be “of color” to help them succeed in his class. But the move backfired with at least one student, who was insulted at being included for her perceived ethnicity.
“After I read it, I read the names [of the other recipients] and they were just Hispanic last names,” said a student of Santiago Piñón, assistant professor of religion. (The student asked not to be identified by name. ) The message, addressed last week to her and eight other students -- a copy of which was obtained by Inside Higher Ed -- invited them to a special meeting Piñón said he wouldn’t mind ending up as “a study session for my STUDENTS OF COLOR ONLY [emphasis his].”
Here is the full text of the e-mail:
“I thought, ‘Is this really happening?’” the student said. “I laughed, in shock, as my immediate reaction.”
The student said she doesn’t strongly identify as Hispanic, although her last name is of Hispanic origin and she is one-quarter Hispanic. She wondered how – so early in the year – the professor had found a group of students to approach, other than by selecting Hispanic-sounding names from the class roster. She said she also wondered, and doubted, whether her fellow "Understanding Religion: Society and Culture” students without last names of Hispanic origins had received the same offer.
That student said she liked the class and enjoyed Piñon’s teaching, but that his offer seemed unfair. She noted a visit she'd made to a Fort Worth Library exhibit on 20th-century agricultural labor activist César Chávez for Piñon’s class, which focuses on Latin American religions. "I was reading about how he was segregated because he was a Mexican, and that's what [the professor's] doing to the rest of us, in a way. I mean, it's special attention and favoring them."
It's unclear whether non-Hispanic minority students also were invited to the study session in a separate e-mail.
The student said she wondered what her friends would think, and posted it on Facebook, with the tag: “I straight up just got segregated by my own teacher. I'm 75 [percent] white.”
One friend said: "Wait is this a joke? Your professor is trying to have a study session for 'students of color' only?"
Another friend in the class wrote: "I did not get an email like that!!!!"
Another said: "Not trying to start anything, but if this had been an email saying he likes to meet with all the white students at the beginning of the semester, and then ended the email the way he did, but with WHITE STUDENTS ONLY, I guarantee you this would be all over the news in seconds."
Yet another wrote: "But what if ur Hispanic yet u have a white sounding last name. U get left out?"
The student responded: "yeah that's kind of my point. he just judged me by my last name."
But not everyone was offended. Daniel Castañeda, a freshman in the class who also received Piñon’s e-mail, said he appreciated the professor's overture, given Texas Christian University's relatively small Hispanic population (detailed student body demographics were not available from the university by press time). Despite that, the institution so far has been very inclusive, Castañeda said, adding that he didn't believe Hispanic students "needed" extra help, but might "appreciate" it -- especially from a fellow Hispanic professor who "has gone through everything himself."
"I think it was written with all good intentions, not meaning to segregate or leave anyone out," he said. Castañeda's interpretation of the e-mail was that "anyone could come, he just strongly encouraged students of color to come, and I think it was taken a bit out of context by some people."
The first student said a third student in her class told university administrators about the e-mail and the next day, all students received the following e-mail from Piñón: "As I stated in class, if you have any questions about the exam you are more than welcome to contact through e-mail over the weekend. Also, I should be in my office on Friday and on Monday if you should have any questions and would like to stop by and discuss how to best study for the exam. Good Luck."
Piñón also verbally delivered the message in class that day. But on Friday, students said they received a third e-mail from the professor notifying them that the study session had been canceled due to a conflicting appointment.
The American Association for Affirmative Action declined to comment on Piñon’s case. Shirley J. Wilcher, executive director, said the organization doesn’t typically comment on individual personnel matters.
Texas Christian University said via e-mail that the university "expects that professors provide equal opportunities to all students.”
In an e-mailed statement, Piñon said that the intent of his e-mail was "misunderstood."
"I should have been more clear in that the study group is open to all students," he said. "My goal is to participate in and contribute to the [university's] mission by being available to all students so they are successful in the classroom and beyond. I have always been open to having review sessions with an entire class or with smaller groups of students without excluding others. I want all my students to be successful and am willing to devote extra time to foster that success."
Piñon continued: "I do like to offer myself as a resource to students (particularly those of color) who may face challenges and become discouraged; goal is to encourage and offer support, so I am troubled to think some students may have thought they were being excluded from a study session because that was not at all the intention. I have since sent an e-mail clarifying the misunderstanding."