The mission of a university is learning and teaching. The product of a university is twofold: knowledge and thought. Therefore universities must be bastions of free thought and inquiry.
All this is fundamental to the university: The principle is called academic freedom.
When universities fail to protect freedom of thought and inquiry, they fail themselves and they fail the open and democratic society.
Yet we live in a time in which such failure is common in America. Duquesne University in Pittsburgh is failing that test.
Gary Shank, a tenured professor at Duquesne, who has taught at the university since 1997, used a racial slur to demonstrate a point in his educational psychology class. His intent was clear. It was not to demean or harass or diminish. His intent was to teach.
Students filmed a portion of Mr. Shank’s lecture and posted the videos to social media. There was swift backlash.
The university suspended Mr. Shank without a hearing for creating “a hostile learning environment.” It denied him the due process that is his right according to the university’s faculty handbook. And on Wednesday of last week, Duquesne terminated his employment.
This sort of overreaction and arbitrariness, sadly, is no longer unusual. Professors at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, and Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich., were fired in recent weeks for similar transgressions. And the University of Southern California removed a professor from teaching a course after he used a Mandarin word that merely sounded like a racial slur and allegedly caused students distress.
This closing down of free speech and thought is shocking and dangerous. Academic freedom goes to the heart of the university just as free speech and thought is the heart of our system and our country.
At Duquesne, when a student reached out to Mr. Shank personally, he apologized to the class profusely by email, pledging not to use the term again in any context.
But that was not enough.
When public relations or political correctness matters more than teaching, at any university, that university is in deep crisis.
The hope is that this is not over and that this injustice — a failure of due process as well as academic freedom — will be corrected.
The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has come to Mr. Shank’s aid, and sent a missive to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education urging the department to investigate.
The American Association of University Professors has also spoken up and asked Duquesne’s president to reinstate Mr. Shank. The ball is now in President Ken Gormley’s court.
The point is not whether you agree with Mr. Shank’s pedagogy or not. It is not whether he, or any other teacher, may sometimes make students uncomfortable with his teaching.
The point is that teaching and learning depend on free inquiry.
This freedom is the basis of the American university and the American experiment itself.
— The Toledo Blade