School drops curtain on theater professor—for now
South Carolina teacher challenges his suspension for email deemed insensitive to students
Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., relieved a theater professor of his teaching duties after he publicly disagreed with how administrators handled a racially charged mishap. His suspension is one of several recent instances of colleges muzzling faculty speech.
The conflict at Coastal Carolina started on Sept. 16 following a conversation between a visiting artist and two nonwhite students after class. One of the students wanted to get to know more nonwhite classmates, so the other student wrote a list of names of possible acquaintances on the classroom whiteboard. They did not erase the list, which offended several students entering the next class. Those students believed whoever had written the list must have been singling out their nonwhite peers.
A school Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee concluded that the names on the board had been presented as a resource for newer students who wanted to build community with other students of color. Even so, the committee apologized, writing in an email to students 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.”
When professor Steven Earnest did not agree, more trouble followed. “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 wrote in an email response. Students criticized Earnest’s emails and accused him of being racially insensitive and dismissive of students of color. Earnest clarified that he was “just defending our guest artist.” But several students called for Earnest to be fired. They protested by boycotting theater classes. On Sept. 20, Earnest’s dean told him over email not to report to class.
In a letter sent Sept. 29, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education called on the school to respect Earnest’s First Amendment rights. The next step may be litigation, said Asheville, N.C., attorney Ruth Smith, who represents Earnest. She has initiated a grievance process with the school and asked that Earnest—who received positive reviews from his supervisors and was even awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship in 2019-2020—be allowed to return to teaching while the process plays out. The school declined.
“Dr. Earnest did nothing wrong,” Smith said. “He stated a truth: that a mob had overreacted and assumed the worst (that is, racism) before getting the facts. … Rather than protect its faculty and support a faculty member’s right to speak the truth, CCU threw its faculty member under the bus.”
UCLA professor Gordon Klein was similarly suspended and placed under investigation in the summer of 2020 when in an email he declined to allow black students to take an altered exam to accommodate for trauma caused by George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests. Klein was restored to his position but claims he experienced emotional distress and damage to his reputation—harms for which he is now suing the university.
More recently, a fellow faculty member accused Bright Sheng, a music professor at the University of Michigan, of “a racist act” for showing students a 1965 film staging of Othello featuring actors in dark makeup. The music school dean criticized Sheng in a statement and referred him to the Title IX office, and he was also partly suspended from teaching, according to the Academic Freedom Alliance, which went to bat for Sheng in an Oct. 18 letter to the school.
Ronnie London, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, cites a multitude of possible factors that have led to the uptick in faculty controversies. He pointed to social media’s role in publicizing such incidents, increasing partisanship, and a generation of students more apt to favor silencing and punishing viewpoints they disagree with than to engage them in debate.
Yet for students upset by alternate viewpoints, a deeper issue is afoot, said London: “When you are at the point where you are exposed to speech and it is so triggering to you and so troubling to you, maybe the answer is that you need to seek help outside of the classroom for that rather than saying the classroom should cater to each individual’s potential triggers.”
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