Kellen Stepler | Editor-in-Chief
The attorney for Gary Shank, the Duquesne education professor who was suspended Friday, Sept. 11 for using racial slurs in a lecture, said that Shank has no intention to resign, and that the university’s move threatens academic freedom.
Warner Mariani, Shank’s attorney, said that Duquesne set a 5 p.m. deadline Thursday, Sept. 17, for Shank to submit his resignation. Mariani said that Shank has no intention to resign.
“We believe he should be reinstated, and teach the way he’s been teaching for decades at the university,” Mariani said.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that focuses on protecting free speech rights on American college campuses, wrote an email to Gormley to “immediately reinstate Shank and publicly reaffirm that its faculty retain the broad rights of free expression and academic freedom that Duquesne promises.”
While it’s not a First Amendment case, it “touches on freedom of expression and academic expression,” Mariani said. A 1988 political science graduate from Duquesne, Mariani said “it’s not his university to do that,” and that in an academic setting, the word can be used to discuss current issues in America.
“He did not use it to harass people,” Mariani said. “It’s like we’re supposed to erase that word.”
“We are aware that the individual has now retained counsel, and so this is a legal and personnel matter, on which we really cannot comment further,” said Gabriel Welsch, vice president of marketing and com- munications at Duquesne.
Shank, who has been teaching at Duquesne since 1997, was suspended after a Twitter video went viral last week of him using the N-word multiple times during a Sept. 9 lecture. He gave students “permission” to use the word “in a pedagogical sense,” though no students did so in the video posted to social media.
Later that day, Shank sent an apology email to the course, Educational Psychology, saying it was “deeply troubling to me to have had this impact.” He also spent most of Friday, Sept. 11’s class apologizing.
Like Mariani, FIRE called on Duquesne to reinstate Shank immediately.
FIRE representative Alex Morey said concept of academic freedom “means faculty must be free to speak, teach and research as they see fit.”
“Academic freedom means faculty must be free to choose how they address a topic in class,” Morey said. “Sometimes that means using words or concepts others might find upsetting or offensive, even deeply so. If there’s a question about the pedagogical relevance of a topic or teaching technique, schools that promise academic freedom must allow faculty to make those choices — not administrators.”
Morey noted page eight of Duquesne’s faculty handbook, promising academic freedom. She said that Duquesne guarantees free speech and academic freedom, but is breaking both of those promises by punishing Shank.
“What Duquesne is trying to do here is to have it both ways,” Morey said. “They’re luring great students and top faculty by making grand promises of free expression and academic freedom, but then breaking those promises the minute a faculty member says something unpopular.”
She said that academic freedom means that institutions must stand up for the rights of their faculty, not turn on them.
“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,” Morey said.
While there are limits to academic freedom, Morey said that Shank’s choice of language violated “no rule or law, did not meet any legal definition of hostile environment harassment and was well-within the bounds of academic freedom.”
“FIRE felt obligated to express our deep concerns, not just because what happened in this one case was wrong, but because of what this precedent would mean for the expressive rights of every single member of the Duquesne community,” Morey said.
FIRE believes that Shank’s pedagogical use of even highly offensive racial slurs not directed at any student does not meet any legal definition of hostile environment harassment.
In their original letter, FIRE said that “Duquesne’s abridgement of academic freedom violates the requirements of their accrediation.”
She said that while Duquesne itself may publicly disagree with Shank and criticize what he said, they can’t violate university policies and “censor a professor because he said something unpopular.”
“Duquesne promises that members of the university community are free to speak their minds, but if I were a Duquesne student or professor, I would be seriously questioning whether those promises are reliable,” Morey said.