Photo by Esther Chong
In a 15 to 3 roll-call vote, Western’s Faculty Senate passed a proposal to revise Section II of the Faculty Code of Ethics with language that condemns racism and additional forms of discrimination at the last senate meeting of the academic year on Monday, June 3.
The proposal to revise Section II of the Code of Ethics would include condemning racism, the verbal use of the N-word racial slur and discrimination of all legally protected identities. It also adds language stating that academic freedom does not provide cover for racism and discriminatory behavior.
Currently, Section II of the code outlines the free pursuit of learning, honest academic conduct and condemnation of sexual harassment, intimidation and exploitation.
Over 30 students and faculty members sat in the visitor section of Old Main 340, with Black students seated in the front row. As the senate discussed the revisions and their concerns about potentially limiting academic freedom, students expressed concerns that the university prioritized protecting academic freedom over the wellbeing of Black students.
Fourth-year student Deborah Lawson said that although faculty fought for their academic freedom, she was fighting for her dignity, wellbeing and to one day not fear hearing the slur in her day to day life.
“In 2016 I was shopping through Haggen and this guy screamed ‘Get this [N-word] out of here!’ at the top of his lungs. Three weeks ago, I was in downtown Bellingham eating out with my friends and this girl pulled up and screamed [N-word],” Lawson said.
Lawson felt that racism in Bellingham was at a different level than what she had experienced before. She noted the discomfort in the room when she said the full slur.
“I’m using it because I want you to hear how hard it is to hear every single time. This word should not be used by anybody, it’s degrading. It’s dehumanizing,” Lawson said. “What am I going to learn from you guys using [N-word]? I’m being insulted at the same time.”
Before the meeting, students gathered outside Old Main 340 with signs condemning usage of the N-word to tape around the Board of Trustees room.
Faculty Senate President McNeel Jantzen warned the crowd that not all visitors could attend the meeting as the maximum capacity for the room was up to 40 people, and that the meeting would be suspended if the Senate could not complete their official business.
Students asked Jantzen why she had not taken into consideration the number of students and faculty that would be in attendance. Jantzen said in an email to The Western Front that she had not been contacted by the Associated Students Board or Student Senate and told that students were being called to attend the meeting.
When students pushed back, Jantzen said University Police were aware of the capacity issue. Jantzen’s comment incited stress among students about the potential presence of police and putting students of color present in danger.
“UPD were in Old Main, for a reason unrelated to the Faculty Senate meeting, when I arrived just before the meeting. I confirmed the maximum capacity of the room with them at that time and spoke about ensuring [the] safety of everyone including: students, staff, community members, and faculty, during the meeting,” Jantzen said in an email to The Western Front.
Tension between senators and the students continued to rise during the meeting. At one point, a Black student criticized Jantzen’s tone of voice and interruptions, calling her aggressive. Jantzen replied that she also found the student aggressive.
AS Vice President of Academic Affairs and Student Senate Pro-Tempore Levi Eckman then reminded faculty present to be mindful of the way they were speaking to students.
At the start of the meeting, the senate presented 25 responses from faculty members who sent in feedback via email during the second faculty comment period for the proposed revision. Faculty members had concerns with the clarity of the language presented in the proposal and said they felt it was rushed. Some faculty members expressed concerns about being able to teach work by black activist and author James Baldwin, who used the spelled-out slur in his works.
Director for Western’s education and social justice minor Veronica Velez said her and her students could attest to never using the N-word while discussing Baldwin’s work.
“This is not just about academic freedom, this is literally about keeping people alive. I don’t think you realize the gravity of that,” Velez said to senators.
Faculty Senator Debi Hanuscin said faculty are concerned about limiting the work that can be taught.
“I think nobody here is advocating for a professor to use the N-word in class. I haven’t heard anybody say we want a professor to be able to say the N-word,” Hanuscin said. “I think the sticking point is whether we extend that to any instance of the n-word coming up in a learning environment and I think that is where the pushback for academic freedom is coming [from].”
Faculty Senator for Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies Babafemi Akinrinade felt this was patronizing for faculty to say they condemn racism but argue to use the slur in their academic work.
“If it’s okay to use in the classroom, then why is it inappropriate to use outside of the classroom?” he asked. “I don’t think we should provide excuses for our colleagues… This conversation is about the use of the N-word and the use of racial slurs…we are using academic freedom as the rule.”
Akinrinade shared a moment when University Police stopped him on his way to the library and asked him what he was doing there. One student described the fear she had while a University Police car followed closely behind her as she walked home.
“If there is any instance where I do not have to see that word, I would really not like to. If there’s an instance where I don’t have to hear that word, especially with the hard ‘r,’ I’d really not like to,” the student, who chose to remain anonymous, said.
After the meeting, students said they admired Akinrinade’s advocacy and said it was devastating to watch Akinrinade sit through the discussion as the only Black senator present in the meeting.
One of the three senators who voted against the proposed revision was President of the United Faculty of Western Washington (UFWW) Rich Brown. UFWW is the final governing body that will decide on the proposal.
While Brown said he opposes the use of racial slurs in the classroom, his decision to vote against moving the proposed revision forward came from concern that the vague language in the proposed resolution could impact academic freedom on Western’s campus through potential limits to speech, curriculum or access to research by faculty and students.
“UFWW will continue to work in whatever ways we can to ensure that the academic environment at WWU is one in which we may all pursue the hard work of dismantling systems of oppression,” Brown said.
The Code of Ethics is a legal document ratified by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the legal contract between Western administration and faculty, Brown said in a statement to The Western Front.
“Its conditions are the ruler by which faculty conduct is measured, and those faculty members who do not comply with those conditions face disciplinary action including dismissal from their positions at WWU,” Brown’s statement said.
According to Brown, the proposal passed by the Senate will move to Western’s Board of Trustees and the UFWW, a union created to protect the rights of Western faculty, for the revision to be incorporated into the code.
At the meeting, faculty suggested that the proposal be postponed to the 2019-2020 elected Faculty Senators in the fall and reworked with clearer revisions. In response, students in attendance said the conversation leading up to the vote had been ongoing for four months with student testimonies, and that the new senators in office wouldn’t understand.
Faculty Senate first discussed academic freedom and classroom climate during the Feb. 25 meeting, following the release of an article by The Western Front regarding Paul James, an anthropology professor, who received no sanctions after being reported to the Equal Opportunity Office in October of 2017 for using the N-word in class. The professor used the slur when discussing a video a white man yelling the slur to Black passengers on a New York subway, according to EOO documents.
Non-Black faculty members of color weighed in with opinions about the proposal, often receiving pushback from students. Students said non-Black faculty members of color needed to recognize their privilege and that they were complicit in anti-Blackness at Western.
2013-2014 Faculty Senate president Johann Neem said, as a faculty member of color, he urges the Senate to protect academic freedom. He compared censoring the slur to a recent Trump administrative action to censor the words fetus, transgender and diversity from the Center of Disease Control.
Associated Students President Millka Solomon condemned Neem’s comparison, and said fetus was a correct scientific term and implying the same metaphor was stating that the N-word was the correct term for Black people.
“This can affect your grades, your emotional wellbeing, your engagement in the classroom, and it really is just one word,” Solomon said. “You are directly harming the learning experience for any Black person in the classroom to say that. Is it really a learning environment for all students or is it a learning environment where Black students are not prioritized in the classroom because things can be said that are directly hostile to their lives?”
Akinrinade said a ballot vote, which would allow senators to vote anonymously and was suggested by Jantzen, would be secretive.
“My dignity is subject to your vote,” Akinrinade said.
In an email to The Western Front, Jantzen addressed why she suggested a ballot vote.
“I thought it would be best and most organized to vote via ballot to avoid any confusion amongst senators,” Jantzen said.
Black Student Union President Abdul Malik Ford felt that senators would have voted differently had there been a ballot vote instead of roll call.
“It was the sheep effect. They saw how everyone else was voting and voted with them. We had a lot of sheep in this room,” Ford said.
2014-2015 Faculty Senate President Spencer Anthony-Cahill said that the senate could challenge academic freedom and recognize the need for substantial change or remain complicit with the system in place.
“If you’re feeling mildly uncomfortable in this situation, imagine how people who face this everyday feel. Imagine what it’s like to be in an environment where a racial slur is used,” Anthony-Cahill said.
At the beginning of the meeting, Faculty Senate also approved the Academic Coordinating Commission’s separate resolution condemning the use of the N-word in Western classrooms. The resolution is not enforceable, but serves as an official value statement from ACC condemning the use of the slur.
The ACC resolution was proposed by Eckman after a previous resolution from former ACC member Kristen Larson stating the same values was rescinded during the April 30 ACC meeting. Larson’s resolution was rescinded due to concerns that the unclear language could violate academic freedom provisions in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Prior to this meeting, the senate unanimously voted to propose revisions to the Code of Ethics during the April 22 Faculty Senate meeting after discussing the topic since February, according to meeting minutes. The revisions were sent to faulty for comment before the May 20 Faculty Senate meeting, where further revisions were sent out for another faculty comment period.
A livestream of the June 3, Faculty Senate meeting can be found here.