Update: Shank could return as professor

Kellen Stepler | editor-in-chief

Gary Shank, the Duquesne education professor who was fired for using a racial epithet in a Sept. 9 lecture, may now be able to return to teach at Duquesne.

On Friday, Feb. 5, university President Ken Gormley issued a statement responding to Shank’s grievance that he filed against the university in November. On Jan. 14, the University Grievance Committee for Faculty (UGCF) found that while Shank’s use of the racial epithet was misguided, “it was not malicious,” and recommended that he be able to return to his job at Duquesne.

According to Gormley’s statement, Shank will be suspended, without pay, from Duquesne until August 2021. He will be required to meet multiple conditions during his suspension in order to be eligible to return to his position.

Requirements for reinstatement

During his suspension, Shank will undergo mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training taught by Alvin B. Tillery Jr., the founder and director of the center for the study of diversity and democracy at Northwestern University.

“Shank will be required to take a course in “Leading Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” with Dr. Tillery and complete additional independent training as determined appropriate by Dr. Tillery,” according to the statement.

Following the training, Shank will be required to write and submit a substantive reflection to Gormley of what he learned from the training, including how it impacted his view of his behavior on Sept. 9.

“Dr. Tillery will be asked to certify to the president, based upon his extensive experience, that Dr. Shank understands the seriousness of the conduct he engaged in and its potential impact on his students and the university community, as well as the importance of being sensitive to, and mindful of, diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom,” the statement said.

Shank will also be placed on a “performative improvement plan with a specific emphasis on teaching methodology,” and will work with Duquesne’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CETR) to “restructure, rewrite and organize his lessons in all courses.”

A formal reprimand will also be placed in Shank’s permanent file, which will make “clear that if Professor Shank engages in conduct of this nature again, he will be subject to immediate termination.”

“If Professor Shank takes the above required steps, he will be permitted to return to the classroom in the fall semester of 2021,” Duquesne spokes-person Gabe Welsch said. “However, if this does not occur, the decision makes clear that there will be no additional chances.”

Shank’s conduct “deserving of clear sanctions”

The timing of Shank’s behavior, Gormley said in the statement, made it “especially disturbing and inappropriate in the fall of 2020.”

“Students and faculty alike had ‘just returned to on-campus activity after a difficult summer grappling with the COVID pandemic, and marked by racial unrest sparked by the murder of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police,” Gormley wrote. “One would have to be completely divorced from reality to be unaware of the fact that students of color and other members of the Duquesne community were already feeling upset, vulnerable and concerned by recent events that highlighted existing racial injustices and inequities in our society.”

Gormley, with interim school of education dean Gretchen Generett, provost David Dausey and the UGCF, said that the sanction addresses the serious academic misconduct Shank displayed.

“It is also designed to make clear that conduct of this sort is not acceptable by Professor Shank or any faculty member and will make him subject to immediate termination,” according to the statement.

The statement said that students in Shank’s class – and Duquesne students, more broadly – have suffered from his conduct, and his actions require “meaningful, genuine work to redress the harm caused.”

“While Professor Shank’s actions may have lacked intent to cause harm, they nonetheless were harmful to the students in the class and to the entire campus community and deserving of strong sanctions,” the statement said.

Gormley is allocating an additional $50,000 of special funding to Duquesne’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, “to create opportunities for students across campus to engage positively on the issue of respectful language and behavior on the issue of race.”

Argument of academic freedom rejected by the university

Gormley wrote Friday that “academic freedom and tenure do not pro- vide a blank check for faculty members to engage in conduct which is disrespectful or harmful to students. Nor is a faculty member immunized from responsibility by sitting in front of a Zoom screen and stating, ‘this is pedagogical,’ before launching into a series of offensive racial slurs to make an ill-defined point, thus seeking to transform improper conduct into an act of legitimate pedagogy.”

Previously, Shank defended his behavior by invoking academic freedom; however, both Gormley and the UGCF rejected that argument. In Shank’s grievance filed Nov. 5, he wrote that he “was terminated for making statements during [his] teaching that are well within the accepted standards of academic freedom.”

He also demanded a “full reinstatement with no conditions, back-pay and benefits, and payment and reimbursement of all [his] legal fees and expenses as a result of this wrongful termination.”

Additionally, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education(FIRE) both came to Shank’s defense during the fall semester, asking that he be reinstated at the university.

However, Gormley wrote Friday that “academic freedom is not a shield behind which faculty members can hide to engage in offensive conduct that demeans others and does damage to students’ educational experience.”

FIRE spokesperson Adam Steinbaugh said that “it’s good to know that Gary Shank will not lose his livelihood for doing his job.”

“Academic freedom, at its core, protects the rights of faculty members to embrace difficult material,” Steinbaugh said. “That sometimes means that teachers’ discussions will include words and materials that others find objectionable or offensive. A university that places its faculty members in fear of losing their jobs for engaging in difficult material will chill discussion entirely. Criticism, not the prospect of termination, is the answer to speech others find offensive.”

When reached for comment, Shank’s attorney Warner Mariani shared a letter sent Feb. 10 from the AAUP to Gormley, closing their file on the case “while indicating [theAAUP’s] willingness to assist any efforts to bring the faculty handbook into closer conformance with AAUP- supported academic freedom and tenure standards.”

Educational Psychology student: “I don’t want future students to go through what we went through on that day”

Following Gormley’s announcement Friday evening, Duquesne sophomore Zeke Daure sent an email to students in Shank’s fall 2020 Educational Psychology class, and to a social justice class, regarding things Shank has said.

Daure, who was in the Zoom lecture when Shank used the n-word, said he sent the email because he “strongly believes [Shank] should not teach again.”

“I can’t explain [the Sept. 9 lecture],” Daure said. “It was unexpected; the way it occurred. He egged on students to say it.”

When Daure received the campus-wide statement, he said he was “pretty upset.”

“I don’t know if he deserves to be back in the classroom…even with all the training,” he said. “As someone who wants to be a teacher, I don’t see a place for him.”

As of Monday afternoon, Daure said that he heard from a couple students who had experiences with Shank.

“I knew other people spoke about other instances with Shank,” Daure said. “I’m just trying to see what else there is, and use the students’ voice behind my own. One incident may be an accident, but two or three, it’s really not.”

The secondary English education major noted that Shank was “very comfortable” when he said the racial epithet, and was “conscious” of his actions.

“He even said, you know that’s not OK, after he said it,” Daure said. “I don’t want future students to go through what we went through on that day.”

Abby Lanzelotti – who had Shank’s Educational Psychology course in the fall of 2019 – said that Shank should not return to his job at Duquesne be- cause he “is not a good representation of the school of education.”

“There’s no ‘pedagogical reason’ to say the word, especially if you’re an older white male,” she said.