Augsburg University history Prof. Phillip Adamo led a classroom discussion about the N-word this school year, saying the racial slur rather than the euphemism.
The class set off a flurry of student complaints, international press coverage of Adamo’s eventual suspension and intense soul-searching on Minnesota’s most racially diverse private campus about inclusion and academic freedom.
Academics treasure a century-old concept: the license to teach, learn and research without fear of administrative or political meddling. But some across the country and at Augsburg, which this month said Adamo will return to teaching, are arguing universities must rethink academic freedom for today’s increasingly diverse, student-centered campuses.
“It’s important to think about academic freedom in connection with power and privilege,” said Sarah Groeneveld Kenney, an Augsburg English professor. “There is an element of freedom that hasn’t been in place in the classroom.”
Others on local campuses are wary, saying a preoccupation with avoiding offense is stifling the open exchange of ideas and pursuit of knowledge. They say that on campuses that still lag in graduating students of color, the push to call out bias is giving leaders a superficial way to trumpet they are adjusting to growing diversity.
This debate comes as campuses grapple with both calls from the left to carve out safe spaces for marginalized students — and charges from the right that they edge out conservative views in the name of political correctness. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order tying campus free speech to federal funding and South Dakota passed the nation’s first law mandating that public campuses safeguard speech that might be offensive.
The N-word in class
Adamo tackled “The Fire Next Time” — James Baldwin’s bestselling exploration of racism in America — during his honors “Scholar Citizen” class last fall. When a student read out loud a passage that contains the N-word, Adamo told students he had a “dangerous” question: Are there contexts when it’s OK to use the racial slur?
The previous year, students had met with Adamo after a similar discussion. For the few black students in the university’s honors program, hearing a white professor say that word and press them to make a case for rejecting its use brought up racial trauma, they said. Adamo, who garnered national recognition during two decades of teaching at Augsburg, said he made a conscious choice to say the word, which honored the power of Baldwin’s prose.
This time, students took their complaints to the top. Adamo says he was told not to return to his classroom the following week and was relieved of his duties as honors program director. He was eventually suspended as the university sought to formally discipline him.
His case drew national attention and press coverage in the U.K. and Denmark. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard law scholar Randall Kennedy, who is black, blasted Adamo’s suspension as “a dispiriting farce” and argued that Augsburg leaders had undermined the university’s reputation. Adamo got support from the American Association of University Professors and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which charged that Augsburg “has run roughshod over academic freedom and its own policies.”
The university pushed back, saying Adamo was suspended because of wide-ranging student complaints. Students interviewed by the Star Tribune said Adamo talked down to them, failed to refer to students by their preferred pronouns and failed to make the predominantly white honors program more diverse.
“We were made to feel that we owed him something rather than deserving to be there,” said Olivia House, an honors student who is black.
The university said Adamo will return to teaching in the fall but will not serve as honors program director.
Adamo says the university administration overreacted to contain a potential PR crisis for a campus that has staked its identity and economic survival on welcoming traditionally underrepresented students.
“At Augsburg, we’ve done a fantastic thing — a truly beautiful thing — to increase diversity on our campus,” he said. “But then, how do we deal with that?”
Academic freedom, redux
Amid a debate about boosting inclusion at Augsburg, some students and faculty have charged that professors are wielding academic freedom as a shield.
“Academic freedom has been a buzzword throughout,” said House, who said Augsburg caved to outside pressure in letting Adamo return. “That’s an abstract term putting high-level teaching over empathy.”
She said students are not arguing professors should shy away from controversial topics or challenging texts. During a recent classroom discussion about protesting police brutality, peers forcefully challenged her views. She says it was an intensely uncomfortable but ultimately enriching conversation the professor deftly facilitated.
Provost Karen Kaivola says students have called on Augsburg to prohibit the use of the N-word in class. The university will not do that. But she said as a former longtime English professor who taught a course called “When Books Offend,” she would never have used it or normalized its “violent legacy.”
Kaivola said she believes passionately in academic freedom. But she stresses that freedom — inherently more limited than First Amendment-protected free speech — comes with responsibilities to advance learning and keep students at the center of classroom discourse.
Groeneveld Kenney says academic freedom was meant to be “a great equalizer,” protecting professors and students alike. But in practice, she says, professors have laid unchallenged claim to its protections. Groeneveld Kenney, who identifies as queer, went to a conservative Christian college, where she treaded carefully in classroom discussions that touched on identity issues.
This semester, she has started opening her classes by saying: “Because I am white, I will unconsciously or unwittingly perpetuate white supremacy. Because I am white in America, I am racist.” She invites students to call her out when she fails to understand or acknowledge their experiences — a move that has eased some charged conversations, such as a debate about whether authors can credibly write characters of a different race.
Calling out bias
Augsburg leaders are urging professors to revisit Faculty Handbook statements on academic freedom. Kaivola points to a bias-reporting policy faculty approved last spring, which says academic freedom is not “an excuse for behavior that inflicts harm, undermines student learning or denies a student’s humanity.”
But Jeff Snyder, an education professor at Carleton College, says without a clear definition of behavior that “inflicts harm,” individual student testimony is the only, uncontestable way of deciding when faculty and fellow students have erred.
Snyder and Amna Khalid, a Carleton history professor, wrote a New Republic article decrying the rise of campus bias-response teams. They argued a push to root out bias chills free inquiry — and can have the unintended consequence of shushing minority voices. They point to the case of a female black English professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College who said she was reprimanded after white male students complained about racial bias in a classroom discussion of structural racism.
Citing controversy over a defaced College Republicans mural at the U, Minnesota Republicans last year introduced a bill that, while calling on public campuses to safeguard free speech, cautioned faculty against expressing personal views or bringing up controversial topics unrelated to their subject in class.
Snyder says professors must redouble efforts to explain what academic freedom is and why it matters. Adamo plans to teach a class on the history of academic freedom next fall.
“It’s not about protecting the student or protecting academic freedom,” he said. “It’s both.”