Andrea Quenette, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas,  at her home in Lawrence, Kan., on Friday. (Mike Yoder/The Lawrence Journal-World via AP)

For the graduate students in Andrea Quenette’s communications seminar at the University of Kansas, the classroom discussion began ordinarily enough.

The class is designed to provide graduate students with teaching instruction, and the topic on that day — Nov. 12 — was how to talk to undergraduate students on college campuses about sensitive racial issues.

It didn’t take long for the conversation to take a sharp turn, students said. At some point, Quenette “abruptly interjected” with her own “deeply disturbing remarks,” according to an open letter  written by multiple students and published by Amy Schumacher, a first-year PhD student who was in the class.

“Those remarks began with her admitted lack of knowledge of how to talk about racism with her students because she is white,” says the letter, which was signed by other students in the class and calls for Quenette’s termination.

According to the letter, Quenette told the class: “As a white woman I just never have seen the racism. … It’s not like I see ‘[n-word]’ spray painted on walls.”

[Student ‘takeovers’ over race are forcing change in some surprising ways, at Princeton, Towson and beyond]

Gabrielle Byrd, the classroom’s only black student, told The Washington Post that she almost couldn’t believe what she’d just heard. That particular racial slur, Byrd noted, is one she refuses to speak out loud herself.

“I was incredibly shocked that the word was spoken, regardless of the context,” Byrd said Monday. “I turned to the classmate siting next to me and asked if this was really happening. Before I left the classroom, I was in tears.”

The e-mail from Quenette that arrived in Byrd’s inbox later that day didn’t include an apology, the student added.

Quenette’s was placed on administrative leave Friday as university officials investigate a discrimination complaint initiated by graduate students from the Department of Communication, according to the Lawrence Journal-World.

Quenette, an assistant professor of communication studies, told the Journal-World that she was notified Friday morning that five individuals — whose names she does not know — filed separate complaints with the university’s Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access. Her supervisors, she noted, granted her request for a leave of absence with pay until the investigation of those complaints concludes.

[Harvard Law has ‘serious’ racism problem, dean says after black professors’ portraits defaced]

The professor’s willingness to use the racial slur offended many students, but the tense exchange that followed — touching on institutional racism, discrimination and the minority experience on campus — was perhaps even more troubling, Byrd said.

According to the letter, Quenette’s “utterance caused shock and disbelief.”

But, the letter continued:

Her comments that followed were even more disparaging as they articulated not only her lack of awareness of racial discrimination and violence on this campus and elsewhere but an active denial of institutional, structural, and individual racism. This denial perpetuates racism in and of itself. After Ph.D. student Ian Beier presented strong evidence about low retention and graduation rates among Black students as being related to racism and a lack of institutional support, Dr. Quenette responded with, “Those students are not leaving school because they are physically threatened everyday but because of academic performance.”

The open letter added:

This statement reinforces several negative ideas: that violence against students of color is only physical, that students of color are less academically inclined and able, and that structural and institutional cultures, policies, and support systems have no role in shaping academic outcomes. Dr. Quenette’s discourse was uncomfortable, unhelpful, and blatantly discriminatory.

The 33-year-old professor, who has taught at Kansas for two years, told the Journal-World that her comments were not discriminatory and were protected by academic freedom.

“I didn’t intend to offend anyone. I didn’t intend to hurt anyone,” she said. “I didn’t direct my words at any individual or group of people. It was an open conversation about a serious issue that is affecting our campus, and it will affect our teachers. In that regard, I consider it within my purview … to talk about those issues.”

[Princeton protesters occupy president’s office, demand ‘racist’ Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed]

But some students maintain that Quenette’s use of a racial slur was one in a series of racially insensitive incidents that show that the professor is unfit to hold her job. In addition to dismissing students’ feelings, Schumacher, the letter’s author, told The Post, Quenette “actively violated” university policies.

“In this class, she is teaching us how to teach,” Schumacher said, noting that many students left the Nov. 12 class “in tears.” Schumacher added, “She has denied institutional racism and belittled minority students, but she is teaching us how to teach, and in that role she is teaching us how to behave and interact with our own students.”

Coincidentally, Schumacher pointed out, diversity in the classroom was on the syllabus for the Nov. 12 class.

Quenette told the Journal-World that the controversial conversation didn’t start that way but arose organically when the discussion about race veered toward how the university should address racial issues.

“I tried to preface everything I said with, ‘I don’t experience racial discrimination so it’s hard for me to understand the challenges that other people face, because I don’t often see those,”’ Quenette told the paper.

Her use of the n-word, she said, was merely meant to be a comparison between KU and racist incidents and tensions on other campuses — including the University of Missouri’s flagship school in Columbia — which have generated lots of attention.

“I haven’t seen those things happen, I haven’t seen that word spray-painted on our campus, I haven’t seen students physically assaulted,” Quenette told the Journal-World.

[Increasingly unified protests over race gain voice nationally with #studentblackout day]

She added that she would’ve have apologized “in the moment” after using the slur, but her students remained silent, and the conversation continued. She said the student-led campaign against her has been “very hurtful.”

But students such as Byrd, who have been accused of being overly sensitive, said the decision to publicly challenge their instructor was not taken lightly.

“This decision was not easy for us,” Byrd told The Post. “She has power over all of us, over my grade, over my job. I could lose my opportunity to teach and go to school over her.”

She added: “It’s terrifying for me.”

MORE READING: 

Yale’s president responds to protesters’ demands, announces new initiatives to ease racial tension

Mizzou’s impact is felt on campuses nationwide