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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Faculty Senate postpones conversation about racial slurs

The faculty senate postponed the discussion to the senate meeting in April. “I do think the senate is a good place for this conversation to occur,” Jantzen said. // Photo by Esther Chong

By Esther Chong

On March 11, Associated Students Vice President for Academic Affairs Levi Eckman presented a statement from the AS Executive Board to Western’s Faculty Senate regarding use of racial slurs in the classroom and the university’s collective bargaining agreement on academic freedom.

A brief discussion at the Faculty Senate meeting on Feb. 25 occurred after the release of a Western Front article regarding anthropology instructor Paul James and his use of a racial slur in a classroom discussion.

“It is important to address statements made during the Faculty Senate meeting on the Feb. 25, specifically towards comments surrounding academic freedom,” the statement from the AS Board read. “Academic freedom does not mean freedom to use racial slurs without social consequences.”

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 Equal Opportunity Office did not want to infringe on his academic freedom as an instructor. James was advised to apologize to his class and to use different language in the future, however, no further sanctions followed, according to Equal Opportunity Office documents.

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.”

AS President Millka Solomon, AS VP for Governmental Affairs Natasha Hessami and multiple student senators-at-large were present at the meeting to support the statement presented by the AS Executive Board.

“I wanted to urge you to take this really seriously, the conversation about academic freedom and racial slurs in the classroom. As students we’re concerned and disturbed by this and the slowness of the process in lack of action,” Solomon said. “This is really serious to us in our learning and safety, in the environment of the classroom. I’d like to see it taken seriously and discussed as soon as possible.”

In response, Faculty Senate President McNeel Jantzen asked for specific topics of discussion for the next meeting’s agenda. Faculty senators questioned whether the conversation would be within a broad context of academic freedom or targeting a specific issue regarding the agreement, such as racism on campus. “There is fear in faculty to do it well and do it right,” Faculty Senator Jasmine Goodnow said.

Jantzen said the faculty senate was not the appropriate place to discuss specific faculty members, and in order to discuss academic freedom in the future, specific administrators such as Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services Melynda Huskey and a facilitator needed to be present.

“I do think the senate is a good place for the conversation to occur, but I don’t have the tools to prepare me to facilitate this kind of discussion. I don’t know if any of us have those tools,” Jantzen said.

Faculty Senate member Regina Barber DeGraaff said the faculty senate needed to discuss appropriate classroom conduct, and had concerns of a broader conversation becoming less productive.

“Do not use racial slurs in the classroom, do not use the n-word if you’re white. There are things in our society we’re fighting to make obvious and there are people of color who feel that these things are not about discussion. It’s about certain conduct, period,” Barber DeGraaf said.

Faculty Senate Executive at Large Devyani Chandran stressed the importance of establishing goals for the discussion, and finding a conversation facilitator who recognizes the issue of using racial slurs in the classroom.

The Faculty Senate will discuss academic freedom as an item on the next meeting agenda for April 8, according to Faculty Senate Parliamentarian Lizzy Ramhorst.

This story was updated on March 17, 2019 to correct a statement by Devyani Chandran about the separation between academic freedom and racism – Chandran did not say that they are separate issues as the story previously stated .


  1. Thank you for bringing this very important issue to the community. I would like to make a clarification on my views as noted in this piece. I do not believe that academic freedom and racism are two separate issues and would like to apologize if my comments in the last senate meeting led to this understanding. In fact, I believe these issues are deeply intertwined and there needs to be a very serious discussion on how we cannot use the language of academic freedom to frame discussions in class without appropriate context and consideration for students with marginalized identities on our campus. I strongly believe that conversations on race, inclusion and safety on campus are conversations about shared governance and hope that the conversation in the senate extends this view. It is my sincere hope that we address these issues in Senate in an effective manner in our next meeting. Thank you for your consideration.
    Devyani Chandran


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