A University of Kansas professor will get to keep her job after using a racial slur in class last fall, upsetting a group of graduate students, who said she has a history of discriminatory behavior and needs to be fired.
After a four-month investigation, the university’s Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access notified Andrea Quenette on Friday that her actions did not violate the school’s nondiscrimination and racial and ethnic harassment policies, according to the Lawrence Journal-World.
Quenette, an assistant professor of communication studies, had been on paid leave since Nov. 12, when she used the “n-word” during a discussion about how to talk to undergraduate students on college campuses about sensitive racial issues.
She told the Journal-Word that she thought the university’s investigation was fair and that she is looking forward to returning to work.
“I believe they did due diligence in taking the students’ concerns seriously, and I do appreciate that,” she said. “I didn’t believe I had violated policies … so I’m glad that the outcome reflected that.”
“This word is offensive, but it was used in the context of retelling a factual event that occurred at another campus,” she added. “It was not used in racial animus.”
University officials agreed, the Journal-World reported, arguing that the professor’s use of the term was not intended as a slur.
Quenette told the paper that the school offered her multiple recommendations to improve her role within the classroom before she returns to teaching this summer or in the fall. They included: undergoing cultural competency training, reevaluating orientation curriculum to include more diversity support and pairing up with a faculty mentor, according to the Journal-World.
“I think diversity training would be welcomed, and I think it is important for all faculty, so I embrace the opportunity to be able to do that,” she told the paper. “A faculty mentor, I think, is a great thing.”
After using the racial slur, Quenette said, eight communications graduate students filed formal complaints against her with the Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access. She noted that some of the complaints were filed by students who were present when she used the slur but that the majority were not.
Gabrielle Byrd, the classroom’s only black student, told The Washington Post in November that she almost couldn’t believe what she had heard in class that day. That particular racial slur, she noted, is one she refuses to utter herself.
“I was incredibly shocked that the word was spoken, regardless of the context,” Byrd said. “I turned to the classmate sitting next to me and asked if this was really happening. Before I left the classroom, I was in tears.”
An e-mail from Quenette that arrived in Byrd’s inbox later that day didn’t include an apology, the student added.
Byrd was one of the several students who penned an open letter that was published by Amy Schumacher, a first-year PhD student who was in the class. Describing the incident, the letter said a discussion about race and discrimination was unfolding when Quenette “abruptly interjected” with her own “deeply disturbing remarks.”
“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.”
Her student critics had maintained 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 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.”
KU investigators also reviewed complaints accusing Quenette of failing to include diversity training in orientation for communications graduate teaching assistants, a program in which she controls the curriculum, according to the Journal-World. Quenette told the paper that investigators reviewed the complaints and determined that no policy violations had taken place.
“I feel hopeful there is opportunity for everyone to learn from this experience but also that faculty here can feel comfortable and not afraid,” she said.
Jyleesa Hampton, a first-year communications graduate student who is black, told the Journal-World that she signed the open letter calling for Quenette’s termination. She said the results of the university investigation don’t mean that Quenette’s comments weren’t racist.
“The students that wrote that letter stand behind that letter, that it is possible to do and say racist things and not violate the law,” Hampton said. “That doesn’t make them any more acceptable.”