Kellen Stepler | editor-in-chief
Citing due process rights and academic freedom, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) wrote a letter to Duquesne President Ken Gormley Sunday asking for suspended education professor Gary Shank to be reinstated at the university.
Shank, a tenured education professor at Duquesne since 1997, was suspended from the university Sept. 11 after using the N-word during a lecture. In a recorded video that gained traction on social media, Shank tells his Educational Psychology class over Zoom that he is giving them “permission” to use the word in a “pedagogical sense.” Duquesne has given him an ultimatum — resign, or face dismissal. His attorney, Warner Mariani, said that Shank has no intention to resign.
Following the lecture, Shank wrote an email to the class with the subject line, “my most sincere apology.” School of Education dean Gretchen Generett sent a letter to students within moments of learning about the incident, writing, “[T]o be clear, I believe that there is never a time, pedagogically or otherwise, for a professor to create a hostile learning environment.”
AAUP’s letter, written by Gregory Scholtz, director of AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, cites academic freedom statements from their organization, along with policies from Duquesne’s faculty handbook.
Scholtz quoted an AAUP statement in the letter, “An institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its mission if it asserts the power to proscribe ideas — and racial or ethnic slurs, sexist epithets, or homophobic insults almost always express ideas, however repugnant. Indeed, by proscribing any ideas, a university sets an ex- ample that profoundly disserves its academic mission.”
The letter notes that while a professor’s freedom of classroom speech is not “boundless,” professors should avoid teaching controversial matter which has no relation to the class. However, the letter notes that Shank’s language did not address a threat of immediate harm.
“We are not aware of any evidence that Professor Shank’s continuing in the role he has filled for 23 years suddenly constitutes a threat of immediate harm to himself or others. Nor are we aware that administrative officers consulted a duly constituted faculty body prior to imposing the suspension,” the letter says.
Gabriel Welsch, vice president of marketing and communications at Duquesne, said that Duquesne appreciates that the situation with Shank has “engendered strong feelings and arguments about what actions should be taken.”
“The university is engaged in the process of considering the matter in accordance with the rules outlined in Duquesne’s faculty handbook,” Welsch said. “We are sure the AAUP appreciates that it is important that all parties respect the process and the time it takes to complete.”
AAUP’s letter came 13 days after a letter written by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE,) also demanding that Shank be reinstated by the university, and that Duquesne’s move threatens academic freedom.
FIRE said that Shank’s pedagogical use of the racial slur was not directed at any student, so it does not meet any legal definition of harassment, writing, “Duquesne’s abridgement of academic freedom violates the requirements of their accrediation.”
“What Duquesne has done in punishing Gary Shank is legally and morally wrong, and should be a warning to all other Duquesne faculty and students that they may not actually have the rights Duquesne says they do,” FIRE representative Alex Morey said.
Scholtz wrote that the information AAUP has is from Shank’s own personal account and media reports, and that assuming that they are accurate, the organization urges that Shank be promptly reinstated until any dismissal action has concluded.
“If the administration insists on seeking his dismissal, we urge that Professor Shank be afforded a faculty hearing that incorporates the two above-cited procedural standards to ensure that the university fulfills its stated commitment to academic freedom,” the letter says.