Faculty Senate discusses use of racial slurs

Photo by Esther Chong

By Colin Murphy

On Monday, April 8, Western’s Faculty Senate addressed the use of racial slurs in the classroom and its relation to academic freedom, holding an open discussion intended to gather the opinions of faculty and guests. The senate brought a mediator to facilitate the discussion from the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center.

The discussion of racial slurs followed another Faculty Senate meeting on March 11., during which Associated Students President Millka Solomon and AS Vice President of Academic Affairs Levi Eckman brought attention to a previous Western Front article regarding Paul James, an anthropology instructor who used the N-word slur in a lecture.

Anne Lee, AS VP for Student Life, spoke openly to the senate, proposing that the senate commit to actions such as creating mandatory training and rules regarding racial slurs to be included in the faculty handbook. 

“When we talk about academic freedom—academic freedom for who?” Lee said. “How will you integrate new training when you sign on new faculty? This goes for current faculty as well.” 

Levi Eckman, who spoke on behalf of the AS Executive Board, said while curriculum that discusses race and may have inflammatory language should not be removed from curriculum, it is possible to teach these topics without the use of slurs.

Moonwater, the executive director of Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center and facilitator for the discussion, made it clear at the beginning that the intention of the discussion was not to conclude with firm action, but to make sure a diversity of voices were heard.

Some students and faculty were upset that neither the executive statement from the Senate Executive Council nor a proposed resolution committed to any action.

The Senate Executive Council, a voting body composed of faculty members from different departments across campus, opened the meeting with their executive statement, officially condemning the use of racial slurs in the classroom.

“We the Faculty Senate Executive Council of Western Washington University believe the use of racial slurs is inexcusable,” the statement read. “Academic freedom does not protect nor provide cover for racism in the classroom and while academic freedom does allow for challenging and difficult discussions in the classroom, appropriate context and consideration for students with marginalized identities is essential.”

At their previous meeting, Faculty Senate President McNeel Jantzen said the senate was not the appropriate place to discuss specific faculty members, and in order to discuss academic freedom a facilitator needed to be present.

In an email, At-Large Student Senators gave a statement regarding the meeting.

“As elected representatives, we, the At-Large Senators, urge the Faculty Senate to take decisive action to ensure racial slurs of any kind are not used in the classroom. There is absolutely no place in our community for the use of derogatory language,” the statement read.  “We hope that the Faculty Senate comes to a decision on this issue that advocates for minority students and to make sure that Western is a safe learning environment for everyone.”

Kristen Larson, who served from 2016-2017 as Faculty Senate President, said she was disappointed and embarrassed about the Faculty Senate’s view because they lost a chance to make a strong statement against the use of racial slurs.

“The board of trustees has to listen to the Faculty Senate but I think there is fear, a very modest risk at that,” Larson said. “I think that there is a misunderstanding about the role that we [as faculty] play in systems of oppression. I think there is this feeling that we can somehow opt out and I don’t think that’s true.”

Jantzen proposed the AS Executive Board attend the next Faculty Senate executive session to assist in the drafting of a resolution as a next step.

According to an agreement document between United Faculty of Western Washington and the Board of Trustees titled Collective Bargaining Agreement 2015-2020, Section 2.2, “Academic freedom … is defined as the freedom to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom, and to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional discipline or restraint on matters of public concern.”

According to an Equal Opportunity Office meeting transcript from Oct. 31, 2017, Vice Provost for Equal Opportunity and Employment Diversity Sue Guenter-Schlesinger explained to James that the EOO did not want to infringe on his academic freedom as an instructor following his use of the N-word in the classroom.

This article was corrected on April 13, 2019 to reflect the At-Large Student Senators’ statement given that was previously attributed to the Associated Students.

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