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Academic freedom: words and their consequences


Associate Professor of Art History Matthew Rohn saw the artwork in a museum – a well-known reimagining of the American flag. He planned to lecture about the piece, and when class came April 23, its title left his lips:

“Die N*****.”

A black student left the room around 10 minutes after Rohn said the word and another left shortly after that. The next morning, Provost Marci Sortor informed Rohn that a bias incident report had been filed against him.

The backlash Rohn faced mirrors numerous high-profile incidents that have occurred at institutions across the country. Several of these cases contributed to a recent decision to re-examine St. Olaf’s own academic freedom policies, especially as they relate to speech in the classroom, said Chair of the Faculty Life Committee (FLC) Corliss Swain. The FLC is preparing to form an Academic Freedom Task Force to undertake this work and issue policy recommendations. 


Flag for the Moon

Rohn said the name of Faith Ringgold’s 1969 painting, “Flag for the Moon: Die N*****” in class. The painting features the word “DIE” behind the stars of the American flag and warps the stripes to spell the n-word. In contrast to the era’s common use of the flag to symbolize the American conquest of the moon, Ringgold’s flag symbolizes “America’s historical mistreatment of black people,” art historian Sharon Patton writes.

When Rohn finished lecturing on the work, a white student told him his use of the word was hurtful. Rohn apologized to the student, and realized he would need to apologize to the entire class.

The next morning, Rohn received an email from a black student in the class condemning his use of the n-word and saying they would not attend class again. Rohn swiftly apologized to the student in a response email.

That afternoon, Rohn learned from Sortor that a student had filed a bias incident report against him for his use of the n-word. Shortly after that, Sortor came to Rohn’s office and established a protocol for the next class meeting: Rohn was to apologize, allow students to speak their minds and a third party would facilitate a class discussion with Rohn out of the classroom.

After Rohn apologized to the class, a black student berated him for using the n-word and the rest of the class for their alleged complacency, and left. The remaining students decided it was best to conclude class for the day. After that, Rohn, Sortor and Chair of the Art Department Irve Dell began brainstorming how class should proceed.

Megan Hussey ’20, a student enrolled in the course, said the class’s morale was low at this point.

“[Class] wasn’t the same,” Hussey said. “I remember two students who used to sit next to each other who were friendly acquaintances sat across the room from one another after that happened.”

Associate Professor of Art Paul Briggs joined Rohn to lead an April 30 class session aimed at reconciliation. Only about a third of the students attended, Rohn said.

When class met again two days later, attendance remained low and a brief discussion indicated to Rohn that more changes would need to be made before class could move forward.

Briggs, Dell, Sortor and Rohn decided that the remaining classes would be taught by surrogate professors. Rohn would grade the final exam, but students’ names would be redacted.

Parties involved in the incident and its aftermath hold a variety of views on Rohn’s use of the n-word.

“I didn’t feel shocked,” said Harper Bischoff ’22, a black student enrolled in the course. “The class was African American art history, but I wasn’t really shocked that it wasn’t set up in a way that felt like I was being represented. I left the classroom not necessarily to cause a scene, but more because I felt as though I shouldn’t have to be subjected to something that made me uncomfortable because of my race.”

“I personally don’t think that it was wrong for me to say the title of a work, especially a work that was meant to be provocative in class,” Rohn said. “I am fully aware though that it did cause hurt and pain and for that I am apologetic.”

Professor of English Mary Titus, who served as a surrogate instructor, does not see a clear answer as to how Rohn should have approached the piece.

“The whole question becomes what as a teacher is your relationship to the author and the author’s intentions,” Titus said. “You know Ringgold named her work with that name as a part of its artistic being, as a part of its meaning, and so is speaking it following what she wants? Is not speaking it disrespectful to her? Is speaking it disrespectful to the present?”

Titus said professors should have a conversation with their students about the n-word and how it should be used throughout the course. The consensus reached on the matter would then determine if and how the word is used.

Dell took a firmer stance on the issue.

“We just don’t need to say that word out loud,” Dell said. “It’s not necessary because it causes way too much pain.” Sortor agreed.

“There really isn’t a place in the classroom for the use of racial epithets,” Sortor said. “I understand that can be a challenge if you’re teaching certain kinds of subjects where that language is part of what you’re interrogating. But there really isn’t a place at this point in the classroom.”

Two of the three black students enrolled in Rohn’s class declined to comment. Artist Faith Ringgold declined to comment on how her painting should be discussed in the classroom.


Brown Buffalo

Associate Professor of English Carlos Gallego used the n-word when lecturing about a passage from Oscar Zeta Acosta’s novel, “Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo” during the spring.

The passage highlights the circulation of the word within racially marginalized communities, epitomizing the bottom of racial hierarchy, Gallego said.

There was no visible reaction from the class following Gallego’s use of the word, he said. The next day, some of his students brought to his attention a thread on a student-run Facebook page in which students castigated him for using the n-word, with one alleging he used it casually, which Gallego denies.

Nancy Rutoh ’20, a black student in Gallego’s class, said the professor’s use of the word “was all in an academic context. He wasn’t just throwing out the n-word just to say it.”

Rutoh went further in defending Gallego’s character and intentions, citing Gallego’s support and advice during the spring 2017 protests against institutional racism at St. Olaf.

“He’s an amazing professor, he is the reason why I stayed on this campus even after the thing first year when people were writing the n-word all over campus,” Rutoh said. “So I’m just like, ‘you’re really trying to throw someone under the bus who’s really here for the POC students?’ Out of all the professors I had, he’s the one who actually made it seem like it was a problem and actually cared about how I was doing.”

The following day, Gallego told his class that using social media is not a fruitful way to address concerns about professors, and that they should instead talk to their professors directly.

Aside from students informing Gallego about the post, nobody confronted him about his use of the n-word, he said.

“For me, pretending that certain words don’t exist could be as dangerous as Orwell’s 1984 dictionaries, we’re erasing words,” Gallego said. “That’s not how knowledge works and that’s not how human memory works. So if it’s contextually relevant to a discussion, to a learning moment, then I believe that censoring the violence of a potential word almost makes that word more powerful because then it becomes the unnamable.”

“If that’s the case then I have to censor Ralph Ellison, I have to censor James Baldwin, I have to censor authors and activists who are actually fighting [racism] because they use a word that, in 2019, amidst the racial divide in this country, that one word, of all the words, that one is found to be problematic. There’s plenty of other words that are used against other types of people that circulate all the time and people use them without even thinking twice about it.”

The students who criticized Gallego on the Facebook page did not respond to requests for comment.


Fighting words

These incidents mirror others that have taken place at institutions across the country, with varying results for the professors involved. Some colleges and universities have stood firmly behind their faculty, while others have sought punitive measures, including dismissal.

Geoffrey Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, has said the n-word for years as part of an anecdote he tells to illustrate the fighting words doctrine, the U.S. Supreme Court’s exception to free speech for abusive language likely to incite violence. 

“The point of the anecdote was to demonstrate how powerful that word was, and how it could indeed trigger a response of anger of the sort that the fighting words doctrine was meant to capture,” Stone said.

After relaying the anecdote for years with no negative reactions, Stone faced backlash in March from students who found his use of the word offensive. One student wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Maroon alleging that “both his story and act of retelling it were racist.” On March 6, several black students had a conversation with Stone in which they described how his use of the word was distracting and painful. Stone did not face any disciplinary action and ultimately decided to not use the anecdote in the future. 

In contrast to the University of Chicago, Augsburg University suspended history professor Phillip Adamo in February for saying the n-word while quoting James Baldwin’s book, “The Fire Next Time,” according to an American Association of University Professors (AAUP) letter to President Paul Pribbenow. The University initially moved to dismiss him with cause – termination that occurs because of misconduct or poor performance.

Laurie Sheck, a creative writing professor at the New School, faced a similarly strong reaction from the university. This winter, the class was discussing James Baldwin’s essay, “The Creative Process,” when Sheck mentioned the 2016 biographical film on Baldwin’s life, “I Am Not Your Negro.” Sheck told the class that Baldwin’s original quote from his appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” used the n-word rather than “negro.”

“I said what Baldwin had really said, and I asked them, ‘as people who need to think about language, is this the same thing? Is the title the same thing as what Baldwin said? And if it’s not, if one isn’t quoting it, what’s going on here?’” Sheck said.

A student in the class objected to Sheck’s use of the word, but the issue subsided shortly thereafter. The semester continued controversy-free, Sheck said.

The incident resurfaced when, on the last day of class, the same student who originally objected to Sheck’s use of the n-word gave an unexpected presentation on racism at the New School, the publishing industry and the classroom, according to a July letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to New School President David E. Van Zandt. The student subsequently lodged a formal complaint against Sheck under the University’s discrimination policy.

On June 6, Sheck was called to a meeting with Director of Labor Relations Geycel Best and two deans regarding unspecified “student complaints.” Months went by after the meeting with no word from Best or the deans. During that time, Sheck noticed a university policy that states discrimination complaints must be filed within 60 days of the incident. She pointed this out to the deans and received no response. FIRE’s letter to the University received no response.

Things changed when Sheck reached out to the press. Inside Higher Ed, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic all published articles recounting Sheck’s case. On August 14, she received a letter saying she had not violated the University’s policy on discrimination.

Emory University law professor Paul Zwier faced even harsher measures after saying the n-word in August 2018 while discussing a 1967 racial discrimination case in a first-year torts class, according to Inside Higher Ed. Zwier was suspended from teaching and barred from teaching mandatory courses for the next two years. Zwier expressed support for these measures and apologized for his use of the word. After returning to the classroom, he was suspended once more for allegedly using the epithet again in November 2018. The University’s Faculty Hearing Committee was slated to issue a decision regarding Zwier’s status at the University Nov. 5, but has not done so, Zwier wrote in an email.


Academic Freedom Task Force

Adamo’s case at Augsburg, among others, played a role in prompting St. Olaf faculty to consider how the College might prevent a similar incident from occurring closer to home, Swain said. The FLC is preparing to form an Academic Freedom Task Force charged with examining the College’s policies on academic freedom, especially academic freedom in the classroom, and issuing policy recommendations, Swain said.

Provost and Dean of the College Marci Sortor brought up the topic of academic freedom in the classroom at the April 17, 2018 FLC meeting, according to the meeting minutes. Sortor provided a document meant to spur discussion at the May 15, 2018 faculty meeting and argued that “faculty members are likely to find their classrooms under increasing scrutiny, with students (and parents) disputing faculty choices relative to course content and pedagogies,” the meeting minutes read.

“It was in that environment that we all found ourselves, in colleges and universities in 2016, 2017, that made me alert to the fact that this is a kind of a new terrain for all of us in higher education to have to grapple with, a new level of politicization of how we think about higher education,” Sortor said.

The FLC subsequently formed an academic freedom subcommittee in fall 2018, Swain said. The subcommittee read through various AAUP policy statements and academic freedom policies at other institutions, and examined the College’s own policy. It ultimately found that the College’s current academic freedom policy is adequate in some regards, such as its language regarding faculty research, but says relatively little about academic freedom in the classroom, Swain said. 

By November, the subcommittee realized it didn’t have the expertise needed to revise the policy, and said they would likely recommend the creation of a task force, according to the Nov. 27, 2018 FLC meeting minutes. The group finalized its recommendations in April 2019 – chief among them was the creation of an Academic Freedom Task Force, which will examine the College’s academic freedom policies, with an emphasis on academic freedom in the classroom.

The FLC still has to finalize the Task Force’s charge, determine its structure and membership, and sort out other details, Swain said. It chose not to oversee formation of the Task Force until General Education reform wrapped up, according to the Sept. 10 FLC meeting minutes.

When it does form the Task Force, the FLC hopes to recruit members with complementary, varying perspectives. It is considering “an open invitation with an explanation that we desire a wide range of interests and expertise,” the Sept. 10 meeting minutes read. To that end, the FLC plans to hold a lunch in February to “engage faculty interests” and gauge faculty interest in joining the Task Force, Swain said.

Central to the goals of the Task Force will be ensuring that the College is in a good position to address incidents similar to those of Rohn and Gallego before and after they occur.

“After hearing these other kinds of cases that have made the news … it looks like we’re trying to be proactive in addressing this rather than waiting for some incident to happen and then trying to figure out what to do,” Swain said.