A University of Kansas, a professor is reportedly under investigation for using the n-word during a class discussion about race as tensions related to diversity and discrimination continue to mount at the school.
Andrea Quenette, an assistant professor of communication studies who last week was placed on a paid leave of absence, is said to have used the slur during a class with graduate students on Nov. 12. The incident occurred a day after a heated university-wide forum on race and discrimination, in which students called for the resignation of three Student Senate leaders over concerns about diversity on campus.
According to an open letter signed by 11 students and published by Amy Schumacher, a first-year Ph.D. student who was in Quenette’s class that day, the professor -- who is white -- had been leading a discussion about how best to talk to undergraduate students about race issues when she uttered “deeply disturbing remarks.”
Per the letter:
[During the discussion] a question was posed by Communication Studies Masters student Abigail Kingsford … She inquired, “In light of last night’s university-wide town hall meeting about race and discrimination on campus, what is the best approach to talk about that event and these issues with our students?”
We students in the class began discussing possible ways to bring these issues up in our classes when … Dr. Andrea Quenette abruptly interjected with deeply disturbing remarks. Those remarks began with her admitted lack of knowledge of how to talk about racism with her students because she is white. “As a white woman I just never have seen the racism … It’s not like I see [the “n-word”] spray painted on walls,” she said.
Gabrielle Byrd, the only black student in the class, told The Washington Post that she was floored by the professor’s comments.
“I was incredibly shocked that the word was spoken, regardless of the context,” Byrd said. “I turned to the classmate sitting next to me and asked if this was really happening. Before I left the classroom, I was in tears.”
The university informed Quenette on Friday that it was investigating a discrimination complaint filed against her by five individuals, reports the Lawrence Journal-World.
Quenette told the news outlet that she had been granted a paid leave of absence for the duration of the investigation.
“I didn’t intend to offend anyone, I didn’t intend to hurt anyone. I didn’t direct my words at any individual or group of people,” Quenette said. “It was an open conversation about a serious issue that is affecting our campus, and it will affect our teachers. In that regard, I consider it within my purview … to talk about those issues.”
Students in the class said it wasn’t just Quenette’s use of a racial slur that was inappropriate. The conversation that followed her use of the language, they said, was “even more disparaging.”
“It was outright racism,” Schumacher told the Journal-World of Quenette's comments that day. “I don’t think that it was an open dialogue -- she wasn’t receptive to hearing any other ideas.”
According to the open letter, which called for the professor’s immediate termination, Quenette revealed not only “a lack of awareness of racial discrimination and violence on this campus and elsewhere but an active denial of institutional, structural, and individual racism.”
As an example, the letter cited Quenette's dismissal of the idea that “low retention and graduation rates among black students [is] related to racism and a lack of institutional support.”
“Those students are not leaving school because they are physically threatened everyday but because of academic performance,” the letter quoted Quenette as saying.
This line of reasoning is “academically irresponsible, morally abhorrent, and patently untrue. To deny the historical legacies of slavery, racial discrimination, and oppression is to perpetuate a space where students are discouraged to ask for access and support as needed,” the letter states.
Quenette’s reported comments have sparked a debate on social media this week about academic freedom and racism in educational institutions.
Some people, using the hashtag #FireAndreaQuenette, have rallied around the disgruntled students, saying the professor made the classroom an unsafe and hostile environment. Others have criticized the students for being overly sensitive and for impinging on the professor's right to free speech.
The students said choosing to publicly call out Quenette was a very difficult decision that took careful deliberation. They insisted her comments made it impossible for them to “learn and grow as teachers and scholars” while under her supervision.
“This decision was not easy for us,” Byrd told The Washington Post. “She has power over all of us, over my grade, over my job ... It’s terrifying for me.”
The tensions at the University of Kansas echo similar issues at several other university campuses.
The president and chancellor of the University of Missouri resigned earlier this month after students protested administrators' failure to adequately address racism on campus. At Yale University, students have been protesting the university’s lack of support for minority students. Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles and Ithaca College in upstate New York have recently seen demonstrations calling for racial justice and equality.
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