Duquesne terminates Gary Shank over racial slur discussion, violating academic freedom promises

October 7, 2020
  • Shank received notice of termination this morning, his lawyer says.
  • FIRE has asked the Department of Education to investigate Duquesne for substantial misrepresentations of its educational program.

Duquesne University issued a termination letter to professor Gary Shank this morning. Shank had been on leave since controversy erupted in September over his use of the N-word during a class discussion about why using it is considered inappropriate.

Shank and FIRE have argued that the professor’s use of the slur was pedagogically relevant and protected under Duquesne’s promises of free expression and academic freedom. The AAUP also expressed concerns about Duquesne’s treatment of Shank.

Last week, FIRE wrote to the Department of Education about this matter, alerting the Department that Duquesne appeared to be substantially misrepresenting the nature of its academic program — and violating its promises to its accreditor — by promising rights it does not provide in practice.

The Department of Education has begun investigating both public and private universities for similar violations of student and faculty rights. It initiated an investigation at UCLA earlier this year after a lecturer was punished for quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., and another at Fordham University over its punishment of student Austin Tong for two controversial — but protected — social media posts.

A number of institutions, including Emory University and The New School, have confronted similar controversies and concluded that the N-word, in a pedagogically relevant context, is protected expression.

As we wrote to Duquesne last month, universities that promise academic freedom must allow faculty to determine how to discuss controversial material in their classrooms, provided their discussion does not violate any other rule or law:

Under any basic conception of academic freedom, the choice of whether and how to confront upsetting material in a pedagogically-relevant context is left to faculty members, not administrators. Duquesne promises this right to its faculty and must not violate those promises. Doing so casts an unacceptable chill over the rights of Duquesne faculty who have relied on the institution’s promises and exposes the university to considerable legal liability.

By firing Shank for discussing a tough topic in his class, Duquesne betrays any commitment it purports to have to academic freedom, which protects the rights of faculty to choose whether and how to approach difficult subjects. Duquesne students and faculty will rationally choose to say nothing rather than something others might find controversial, as their university won’t bother to defend their rights. That’s an unacceptable result at an educational institution of any caliber.

Shank has retained legal counsel and said he will fight Duquesne to defend his rights.

Termination Letter from Duquesne Provost Oct. 7, 2020

Schools:  Duquesne University

Cases:  Duquesne University: Professor Suspended for Discussing Impropriety of Racial Slur in Class