“We weren’t on the topic of race or discrimination or anything like that, or anything historical for that matter,” Janae Reeves, one of only three black students in the class, told the Daily. “I shut down immediately after he used it.”
Gade later apologized in an email to the class, and the university has condemned his use of the slur.
The incident marks the latest flare-up over “OK boomer,” a flippant retort that some baby boomers find offensive and ageist.
Gade’s class, Journalism, Ethics and Democracy, is a capstone course for journalism majors, and several of the Daily’s reporters were present in the lecture hall on Tuesday. According to the student paper, Gade had been discussing how social media and technological innovations had changed journalism, arguing that the industry should stick to its more traditional roots.
One student disagreed, saying that reporters had an obligation to keep up with younger generations. To mild laughter, Gade declared that remark to be the equivalent of saying, “OK boomer.” But the atmosphere in the room quickly shifted when he made the comparison to the n-word.
The professor used “the one that ended with an R. Like Old South n-word,” one student, Sarah Beth Guevara, told KFOR. “We were all shocked. We never expected that to come out of the mouth of a professor that we all respect.”
Gade attempted to defend himself after one of the Daily’s editors told him that he shouldn’t use the word, the paper reported. Later, after the class had gone past its scheduled end time and multiple students had left, he said that he was sorry if he had offended anyone with the remarks.
Later on Tuesday, Gade sent an email apologizing to everyone in the class, according to the Daily.
“I realize the word was hurtful and infuses the racial divisions of our country, past and present,” Gade wrote. “Use of the word is inappropriate in any — especially educational — settings. I offer my deepest and most sincere apologies. In the coming weeks, I will strive to show you that I am an instructor and teacher who is trustworthy and respectful of all. Please give me that opportunity.”
But some students have already told the college’s dean that they don’t intend on attending the seminar as long as Gade is the one teaching it, the Daily reported.
In a statement, the university’s interim president, Joseph Harroz Jr., said the comments were protected by the First Amendment and academic freedom, but called them “fundamentally offensive and wrong.”
“The use of the most offensive word, by a person in a position of authority, hurt and minimized those in the classroom and beyond,” Harroz said. “Our university must serve as an example to our society of both freedom of expression and understanding and tolerance. His words today failed to meet this standard.”
Gade, who has helped write and edit multiple books on journalism, has been on the faculty of the University of Oklahoma since 1998 and is the Gaylord Family Endowed Chair, according to his official biography. He could not immediately be reached for comment late Tuesday.
Popularized by teenagers on TikTok last year, “OK boomer” quickly became a one-size-fits-all retort for millennials and members of Generation Z to deploy against older adults. (It even made its way into a debate over climate change in New Zealand’s Parliament.) In November, after the meme began garnering mainstream attention from the likes of the New York Times, conservative radio host Bob Lonsberry was widely criticized for tweeting that “boomer” was “the n-word of ageism.”
The phrase casts baby boomers as out of touch and irrelevant, highlighting the divide between younger generations and those whom they blame for social and environmental problems. “We now use boomer two ways: as a term for someone born in a certain era, but increasingly as a stand-in for power, selfishness or comfortable cluelessness — traits found in people of all ages,” Holly Scott, a history professor at Piedmont Virginia Community College, wrote in The Washington Post in November.
While its proponents call it a lighthearted joke and a way of blowing off frustration, plenty of others say that singling out baby boomers is ageist. That argument even made its way to the Supreme Court in January, when Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked attorneys arguing an employment law case if using the phrase could be considered age discrimination. (The lawyers argued that if the wisecrack was made in the context of a hiring decision, the answer was yes.)
In a Tuesday statement, the University of Oklahoma chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists said its members weren’t surprised “that people still don’t understand that insults like ‘OK boomer’ do not create the same uneasiness that the historical slur [n-----] does.” The group also called it ironic that Gade taught a course on ethics, and issued a call for more diversity within the journalism school’s faculty and administration.
The incident is the latest racial controversy to befall the University of Oklahoma. In 2015, two students were expelled and the university’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon was suspended after a video circulated showing fraternity members singing a racist chant that included the n-word. Last year, another student was kicked out of the Tri Delta sorority for using the n-word and wearing blackface in a Snapchat video. University officials said the woman would not return to campus, though it’s unclear whether she was expelled or left on her own volition.
In an interview with the Daily, Jamelia Reed, co-director of the OU Black Emergency Response Team, said she worried that Tuesday’s episode could give students a negative impression of journalism.
“Many Gaylord students who are black are talented people, who are going to do great in the industry,” she said, “but you experience this and it’s like, ‘Is this what the industry is going to be like?’”