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Professor who used racial slur returns to work, says Kansas University

A communications studies professor at the University of Kansas used a racial slur in class, prompting an investigation, an open letter, and a hashtag. But four months later, she's back on the job.

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    In this Feb. 16, 2016, photo, a person walks by Dyche Hall on the the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, Kan.
    Mike Yoder/The Lawrence Journal-World via AP
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After a four-month long investigation into assistant communication studies professor Andrea Quenette, the University of Kansas has decided she can keep her job. 

On Nov. 12, the morning after a tense racial town hall meeting, a communication studies masters student asked her professor about what discrimination looks like on the University of Kansas campus. Dr. Quenette admitted that she felt somewhat unqualified to talk about racism because she was a white woman, never experiencing discrimination first hand. 

But, she added, “It’s not like I see [expletive] spray painted on walls.” 

Shortly after, the hashtag #FireAndreaQuenette started trending on Twitter and 11 communications studies Masters students wrote an open letter to the university calling for Quenette’s termination.

“Dr. Quenette’s deployment of racially violent rhetoric not only creates a non-inclusive environment in opposition to the one of the University of Kansas’s core tenets, but actively destroys the very possibility of realizing those values and goals,” the students wrote in their letter to the university. 

The 11 graduate students explained that Quenette must be fired at least on legal grounds, according to their reading of the school’s constitution. By using such racist language, Quenette was encouraging her students to replicate such behavior, a violation of the university’s policies and immune to First Amendment protection. 

“Dr. Quenette indicated that because she has not experienced or witnessed discrimination, it is not happening at KU… These comments demonstrate not only an unwillingness to accept evidence contrary to her own ideas and experiences but also exemplify the dismissal and questioning of minority students’ experiences that has reinforced the very structural discrimination they seek to destroy by speaking up.” 

At KU, five percent of the student population is African American and 22 percent of undergraduate students identify as low income. 

Quenette has been on paid leave since the incident. But she is now back at KU and plans to continue teaching her classes scheduled for the fall after picking up on her research this spring. As for the November incident, Quenette still believes the students’ complaints are unfounded, but says she appreciates the school's fair and thorough investigation process. 

“I believe they did due diligence in taking the students’ concerns seriously, and I do appreciate that. I didn’t believe I had violated policies … so I’m glad that the outcome reflected that,” she explained to the Lawrence Journal-World. “The word is offensive, but it was used in the context of retelling a factual event that occurred at another campus. It was not used in racial animus.” 

The professor will keep her job, but the school has some requirements for her going forward. Along with reorganizing orientation curriculum to include more diversity support, she will undergo cultural competency training and pair up with a faculty mentor.

“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,” Quenette told the Lawrence Journal-World. “A faculty mentor, I think, is a great thing.”

Quenette’s supporters are frustrated because the majority of graduate students who signed the open letter to fire the assistant professor were not in the classroom at the time of the incident. Quenette says she does fear that her situation may deter other professors from speaking their mind. 

“I believe academic freedom is an important issue in this situation,” Quenette told Inside HigherEd in November after the incident occurred. “Classrooms should be spaces for everyone to discuss issues openly and honestly, to make mistakes, to learn and grow.”

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