Dismantling Anti-Black Racism and Academic Freedom
To Our St. Jerome’s University Community:
Over the past two weeks, I have had an opportunity to meet with students, student leaders, alumni, student advocates, faculty, staff, and board members about the incident involving one of SJU’s faculty members using the N-word in their course and broader concerns around our community’s support of individuals and groups who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Colour).
It has been a sobering experience. Everyone I’ve met with has expressed, in some way or another, that they’re hurting. A few said they’re confused. All named that white privilege and systemic racism need to be fundamentally and comprehensively addressed at St. Jerome’s and on the broader University of Waterloo campus. Others said they’re trying to reconcile academic freedom with any faculty member using words that could be reasonably characterized as slurs, epithets, or discriminatory language. In what follows I would like to apologize and address these issues in two parts.
At St. Jerome’s, we talk about ourselves as being a community. It is part of our self-understanding as a Catholic university. Regrettably, though, not everyone connected to SJ is feeling as though they belong. Our community is not whole, it is fractured.
I want to speak directly to those St. Jerome’s University students, alumni, faculty, staff, and guests, and especially our BIPOC community members who have not experienced our campus and the broader University of Waterloo campus as a place where you feel welcomed and supported. As Interim President, I am sorry for what we, the St. Jerome’s community, have done and for what we have failed to do. As a community, it has been our intention to welcome and support you. But it is evident that we have at times failed. In recognizing our failings, we are called to transform the structures and behaviours that make some feel unwelcome in our community. At St. Jerome’s, you belong here—racism, discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons, and other dehumanizing structures and behaviours do not.
I am grateful for the students, alumni, faculty, and staff who are speaking up and speaking out that the status quo is not acceptable. We need to listen – deeply listen – to the anger, the pain, and in some cases, the trauma that accompanies our failure to live up to our community’s values. As a community, we must take responsibility for our actions, especially for our errors and oversights that alienate our students, alumni, faculty, staff, and guests. We need to own our actions. We also need to be responsible to one another, both collectively and individually. This means that when we err, we must seek out those harmed by our actions or inactions, begin to make amends, and become part of a renewal process that re-centres the community on our values.
An apology or a pledge that does not lead to action is shallow rhetoric, which can only foster cynicism and mistrust. In the upcoming days and weeks, you will see that each administrative department at St. Jerome’s University will have made commitments and instituted accountability measures designed to confront matters related to equity, diversity, and inclusion. The joint communication entitled Student Services Responds to Anti-Black Racism, from the Student Affairs team, Campus Ministry, and Enrolment and Upper-Year Transitions, is just the start.
Those commitments and accountability measures will help inform the comprehensive St. Jerome’s University Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Initiative, which took shape in Fall 2019 and was formally announced in April 2020. This EDI initiative, which will seek out the experiences and perspectives of socially marginalized and under-represented communities, is a significant first step toward demonstrating the University’s commitment to ensure that all areas of our activity – our hiring, academic programming, outreach and recruiting, facilities, and campus culture – are living the message that St. Jerome’s University seeks to be a community where all are welcome and supported.
Academic Freedom and the N-Word
I have been asked by a number of students, alumni, faculty, and staff to be transparent about the incident involving a faculty member who used the N-word during a lecture and after a class in March 2020. That is my intention. I have, moreover, received demands and petitions calling for this professor to be publicly reprimanded or terminated for using this vile word.
Based on my conversations these past few weeks, I know that many people in our community, when confronted with the reality that one of our faculty members used the N-word in class, have experienced a wide range of emotions: deep concern, sadness, and anger, to name just a few. All of this is understandable. It is, after all, a word that conjures up slavery and its legacies. It’s a word that conveys an utter disregard for human dignity. It is also a word that is still used to demean, taunt, insult, and disempower Black people.
The question facing us as an academic community is this: Should the N-word be prohibited in our classrooms and on our campus?
Given the toxicity of the word, we may conclude, perhaps instinctively, that there is no place for this word in our classrooms or on our campus. I suspect this is why so many of us find ourselves morally outraged upon hearing the news that a professor used the N-word. Take, for example, the statement the University of Waterloo issued on June 6, 2020, in response to the change.org petition calling for an SJU professor to be held accountable for their actions:
The University of Waterloo unequivocally believes that there is no place for the use of the n-word in class, on campus or in our community. We are disappointed that a member of St. Jerome’s University faculty used this language, and that students in the class felt their concerns were not respected (June 6, 2020, UW News).
It is important to note that, in response to this statement, Black academics on the University of Waterloo campus condemned UW’s blanket prohibition of the N-word, because it actually undermines their freedom to teach and conduct research on topics where the N-word plays an important role. Moreover, a blanket prohibition such as this one actually targets Black scholars, potentially making their work suspect or subject to disciplinary sanction, since it is predominately Black academics who are using the N-word on our campuses, including their efforts to historicize and confront anti-Black racism.
In response to the concerns raised by these Black academics, as well as the Faculty Association at the University Waterloo, and the Canadian Association of University Teachers, President Feridun Hamdullahpur announced on the floor of Senate, on June 15, 2020, that the University of Waterloo would retract the statement, remove it from their website, and replace it with one that upholds the academic freedom of faculty at the University of Waterloo and the broader campus. That new statement reads in part:
As an institution, the University of Waterloo is committed to creating a culture of respect across our campuses and affiliated and federated institutes. We also unequivocally support the principles of academic freedom. These principles are the foundation of our scholarly existence and shall never be eroded.
The issue at stake here is academic freedom.
Academic freedom is the foundational principle that enables scholars to pursue knowledge where it leads them, free from politicians, university administrators, donors, interest groups, or religious bodies. Academic freedom is the bedrock that grounds critical inquiry and critical thinking. Academic freedom allows scholars the freedom to decide on lines of inquiry, to choose research topics and methodologies, to create, to curate, to teach, to learn, to disseminate their scholarship and creations, to criticize the institution, and to express their views beyond the university.
At the same time, academic freedom comes with responsibilities, including a responsibility not to cause undue harm to their students and colleagues. Academic freedom is not a license for a faculty member to engage in harassing behaviour or activities that violate the law. Scholars have a “duty to use academic freedom in a manner consistent with the scholarly obligation to base research on an honest search for truth; [their] scholarship (including teaching) should meet ethical and professional standards; and [they] must not misrepresent [their] expertise, nor claim to represent the University” (Faculty Association at the University of Waterloo’s webpage on academic freedom; the summary above is based on this page as well).
Academic freedom is core to who we are at St. Jerome’s. Our St. Jerome’s University Mission declares, for example, that all of our activities are situated within both the Roman Catholic tradition and the principles of academic freedom:
We are committed to learning and academic excellence; the gospel values of love, truth, and justice; and the formation of leaders for the service of the community and the Church. In all of our activities and practices, St. Jerome’s University functions within the context of the Roman Catholic tradition and the principles of academic freedom.
The SJU Mission recognizes that academic freedom operates hand in hand with the pursuit of justice, including efforts to dismantle the structures of racism. As Shannon Dea, a University of Waterloo professor of philosophy and an expert on academic freedom, has written, the development of academic freedom stems, in large part, from the academy resisting authoritarian regimes that sought to impose their political ideologies on universities. Without it, anti-racist work would not exist in the modern university. Academic freedom serves the pursuit of justice and is an integral element of a free and democratic society. And, it must be vigorously protected and responsibly exercised.
The context for the SJU professor using the N-word in a lecture is important. As a result of our inquiry, we discovered that the professor was giving a lecture on the power of language to oppress marginalized groups and had provided a trigger warning that disturbing words would be used. In this lecture, they were attempting to compare how different words could be interpreted among different groups. It was in this context that they used the N-word to illustrate their argument. They spoke the word again after class, while meeting with two students who raised concerns over their using the word—in this case, the professor was referring to an academic book, written by Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, that has the N-word in the title. The professor later apologized to the two students who raised the concerns and to the class for any unintended harm they caused using the word. In sum, based on the facts as we currently know them, the professor’s use of the N-word was in the context of the classroom, directly related to the subject under discussion, and consistent with the principles of academic freedom.
While the professor’s actions were consistent with the principles of academic freedom, this is not to say that the use of the N-word caused no harm or that it was appropriate. In the coming weeks and months, our community will engage deeply and meaningfully in discussions around the exercise of academic freedom. We will seek advice from BIPOC members of our St. Jerome’s community and our wider communities in an attempt to develop a shared understanding of the appropriate use of terminology that our society has recognized as racist; and under what circumstances and in what contexts, can these words be used? By whom should it be used, and by whom should it not, even if they do have the academic freedom to do so? We will consider these and other questions in the spirit of openness, honesty, self-reflection, and free inquiry that defines our lives at St. Jerome’s, and we will do so through thorough engagement with all those who wish to offer their voices to this conversation, and particularly those who have lived experience with the harms that these words can cause.
Universities have played a role in the systematic oppression of certain groups of people. At St. Jerome’s, we commit to playing our part in redressing those wrongs. We will do better.
Scott Kline, PhD
Interim President and Vice-Chancellor