Corlett, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and ethics at San Diego State University and lives in San Diego.
I have been employed for 25 years at San Diego State University, where I am a temporary professor of philosophy. It was my privilege and passion to teach students of all racial, ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds.
Although I’m no provocateur, I always wanted my classes and class discussions to be intellectually provocative. Until recently, I believed that my colleagues, the university management and especially the students wanted it. I take the principles of the SDSU Senate seriously that “Freedom of speech … hinders an expression that we hate as well as an expression that we support.” However, this belief has been shaken in recent weeks.
On the evening of March 1, the Dean of SDSU ruled me out of two courses I had taught for years – Philosophy, Racism and Justice, and Critical Thinking and Composition. The reasons for the removal were “numerous student complaints” and her unsubstantiated belief that “I am no longer effective in the course”.
I soon learned that the “complaints” related to my lesson earlier in the day about the distinction of “use-mention” in philosophy, which is a basic concept in determining which language is considered racism – the distinction between racist language “Racial pointing, including racist intentions) and racial language (only” mentioning “racial slander, without racist intentions). During the lecture and class discussion, I gave the “N-word” as an example.
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Over the course of a few days, rumors appeared on the Internet that I had said the word more than 60 times during class, which is, of course, absurd. Individuals who knew nothing about me or the courses began a change.org petition to fire me. Apparently they did not bother to examine my work, my commitment to the welfare of blacks, or my writings in favor of reparations and racial justice.
The language clearly corresponded to the subject of the lesson. The dean, the complaining students, and no one else have ever questioned that. I have been teaching this material in essentially the same way for more than two decades, receiving stellar ratings from students and departments. Despite the Dean’s claim that my teaching is not “effective”, I have received 11 awards for teaching from SDSU in the last 12 years (several of which I specifically appreciate are my mentoring of color students).
I have devoted much of my life to the university, yet the SDSU has not given me any prior warnings about these so-called complaints, has not informed me of their substance and has not given me any opportunity to defend or respond to them. before you remove me from my courses. It was a clear violation of my rights to due process, not to mention common decency.
As a professor at a public university supported by taxpayers, I enjoy the right of the First Amendment to freedom of expression – the same right that we all have as private citizens. And in class, it gives me the academic freedom to teach my students as I see fit, provided the material is relevant to the course. I am not losing this freedom just because one or more students or administrative officials may find my language unpleasant or even offensive.
As a university faculty teaching adult students, we have a responsibility to our students to challenge them intellectually, even if it means they may feel uncomfortable. If we relinquish this responsibility, students will lack it. Lessons will not be taught. Vital and lively class discussions will never take place.
Fortunately, I have received an influx of strong support from the public, students and scientists at the best universities in the world who understand what is at stake when a professor is disciplined only for doing his job.
This case is not just about me – it is about freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom and what prevails in the classroom in college: intellectual scrutiny or forced silence.