In an astounding case from Coastal Carolina University (CCU), an innocent list on a whiteboard may have doomed a theater professor for not being sufficiently outraged along with angry students who misread the situation.
The mess started on September 16, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), when a visiting artist was talking to two students of color after class. One of these students said it would be nice to connect with other students of color in the theater department, and the visiting artist suggested it might be good for the non-white students to meet as a group.
This visiting artist, who has not been named, wrote out names of non-white students on a whiteboard while the small group brainstormed ideas. The students and visiting artist left the names on the whiteboard when they left the room, leaving the list to be discovered by the next class.
In today’s “outrage first, think never” culture, students in the incoming class saw the names and jumped to the conclusion that the list of non-white students must have something to do with racism.
As FIRE reported, the Department of Theatre’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee spoke with students and faculty involved in the incident, later determining that the names on the whiteboard were not there due to malice, but as “a resource for newer students who are looking to be in community with other BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] students.” Even though the protesting students were clearly wrong about the source of the whiteboard, the DEI committee apologized to them for being offended. In an email, the committee wrote that the “faculty and students involved as well as the Theatre Department as a whole are deeply sorry to anyone who was affected by this incident.”
The visiting artist also apologized for her actions, calling them “thoughtless and careless,” even though, again, she did nothing wrong.
Following this, Dr. Steven Earnest, a theatre professor and former Fulbright Scholar, responded to the email from the DEI committee by writing: “Sorry but I dont think its a big deal. Im just sad people get their feelings hurt so easily. And they are going into Theatre?”
He was instantly criticized for his remarks, and followed up by saying he was “just defending our guest artist.”
Earnest was then accused of being “racially insensitive and dismissive of students of color,” according to FIRE. As is often with these cases, students started demanding Earnest be fired and stopped going to theater classes, claiming it was because they were offended by Earnest’s emails.
On September 20, the dean of CCU’s College of Humanities and Fine Arts, Claudia Bornholdt, told Earnest to send her his syllabus and not to teach his classes. It was effectively a suspension. FIRE sent a letter to CCU to defend Earnest’s Free Speech rights. The school instead decided to launch a termination process against Earnest.
“It was upsetting to be accused of racism by students and others with whom I have never interacted,” Earnest told FIRE. “But it was even more upsetting to have these false accusations ratified by a university that I have called home for over fifteen years.”
Earnest is being legally assisted by FIRE’s Faculty Legal Defense Fund, which launched this year to provide protection to public university faculty’s civil liberties.
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