Every Wednesday next semester, the students in Damon Sajnani’s class will meet to discuss, in depth, “The Problem of Whiteness.”
But the title of the course and its description has the University of Wisconsin at Madison mired in controversy before students have cracked open a book or peeked at a syllabus.
“Have you ever wondered what it really means to be white? If you’re like most people, the answer is probably ‘no.’ But here is your chance!” the description reads.
“Critical Whiteness Studies aims to understand how whiteness is socially constructed and experienced in order to help dismantle white supremacy.”
The course explores “how race is experienced by white people.” But it also looks at how white people “consciously and unconsciously perpetuate institutional racism.”
The class has injected the university into a decades-old debate about whether taxpayer-funded educational institutions have an obligation to tackle the important issues of the day — or to stay out of them altogether.
The class is taught in the African Cultural Studies Department of a university where 2 percent of the student population identifies as black and more than 75 percent are white.
The most vocal opponent of the course is David Murphy, a Wisconsin state assemblyman who expressed outrage last week that taxpayers “are expected to pay for this garbage.”
The legislator, who chairs the assembly’s committee on colleges and universities, took issue with what he calls the underlying premise of the class: “that white people are racist.”
His criticism comes with a not-so-veiled threat: “UW-Madison must discontinue this class. If UW-Madison stands with this professor, I don’t know how the University can expect the taxpayers to stand with UW-Madison.”
In a statement emailed to The Washington Post, Murphy (R) said the decision to approve the class makes him question the judgment of university leaders.
“I support academic freedom and free speech,” he said. “Free speech also means the public has the right to be critical of their public university. The university’s handling of controversies like this appears to the public as a lack of balance in intellectual openness and diversity of political thought on campus.”
Gov. Scott Walker (R) told the Wisconsin State Journal that he didn’t agree with Murphy’s call to withhold funding from the university if it doesn’t drop the class.
— Nico Savidge (@NSavidge) December 21, 2016
“I could certainly as a citizen or as a father who pays part of my kids’ tuition roll my eyes and raise concerns about some of the classes,” Walker told the newspaper. “But our focus in the budget should be on overall performance and not individual classes.”
Murphy takes issue not just with the class, but with Sajnani’s vocal public opinions. “Even more troubling, the course is taught by a self-described ‘international radical’ professor whose views are a slap in the face to the taxpayers.”
Murphy included copies of some of Sajnani’s tweets in his news release.
One tweet is a picture of a CNN breaking news report about police officers being shot in Dallas. “Is the uprising finally starting?” Sajnani said. “Is this style of protest gonna go viral?”
Is the uprising finally starting? Is this style of protest gonna go viral? pic.twitter.com/z0Kjgqbq4Q
— ProfessorD.us (@profd) July 8, 2016
Another, from a few weeks later, is in response to former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder: “No @EricHolder it is not true that an attack on a police officer anywhere is an attack on all of us, since they DO NOT equally protect us all.”
Sajnani didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment Tuesday. He received a PhD from Northwestern University’s African American studies Department, according to a University of Wisconsin spokesman. He has published papers on Rachel Dolezal, a former president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash., who was outed as not being black. He also has written about West African hip-hop and Canadian abolition.
In a statement, the university defended the course and stressed that it was elective, not required, and that it was “not designed to offend individuals or single out an ethnic group.”
“We believe this course, which is one of thousands offered at our university, will benefit students who are interested in developing a deeper understanding of race issues,” the university’s statement said. “The course is a challenge and response to racism of all kinds.”
Greg Bump, a spokesman for the university, told The Washington Post that he didn’t know of any criticism that had come from students.
Several organizations have criticized the class or called for tighter restrictions, including Breitbart, a conservative news site.
The Young America’s Foundation posts a list of a dozen college courses that it calls “the most bizarre and concerning instances of leftist activism supplanting traditional scholarship in our nation’s colleges and universities.” The Wisconsin course is not on that list.
Every semester, universities make similar decisions about controversial courses. Among them: “Queering God: Feminist and Queer Theology,” a Swarthmore College course that examines feminist and queer writings about God. There’s also Bowdoin College’s “Transgender Latina Immigration: Politics of Belonging and Labor in the United States,” which focuses on the social conditions of transgender Latinas.
Sajnani’s name isn’t on the site, but UW-Madison has a history of wading into racial controversies that goes back decades.
Earlier this year, hundreds of people protested at Bascom Hill after a black student was arrested for spray-painting anti-racist messages on campus, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. At the protest, students taped a list of demands to a statue of Abraham Lincoln.
And in 1964, UW-Madison student Andrew Goodman was one of three activists killed by the Ku Klux Klan while registering black people to vote near Philadelphia, Miss.
This post has been updated.