Doane University tries to hide historical blackface photos, punishes librarian who displayed them

June 10, 2019
  • Doane punished librarian for displaying university’s own historical photos because they included blackface photos from the ‘20s
  • FIRE and NCAC wrote to remind Doane they promise academic freedom
  • Doane said it “does not and will not comment on internal employee issues” despite commenting extensively to the press

CRETE, Neb., June 10, 2019 — Can Doane University faculty teach without fear?

No comment.

That was Doane’s troubling response to a letter of concern from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the National Coalition Against Censorship. FIRE and NCAC sent a joint letter to Doane last month after its administration punished a faculty librarian for “discriminatory harassment” due to her use of archival photos from the university’s own archives. FIRE and NCAC asked the school to clarify whether it actually honors the strong promises of academic freedom it makes to faculty.

Doane investigated and suspended faculty librarian Melissa Gomis in April for curating a historical photo display on “Parties of the Past” from the university’s archival collection because two of the photos appeared to show Doane students at a 1926 masquerade party wearing blackface.

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“Doane University’s punishment of a faculty librarian for refusing to censor the school’s difficult past is one of the worst academic freedom violations we’ve seen this year,” said Alex Morey, a FIRE program officer for legal and public advocacy. “The university is effectively preventing people from confronting its history by labeling it ‘harassment.’ Doane administrators seem to think they’re better suited than faculty to judge when and how tough subjects can be taught. That’s not how academic freedom works.”

Gomis, who is the director of Doane’s Perkins Library and holds the faculty rank of associate professor, created the exhibit to explore the history of Doane social events since the 1800s. First posted in March, the display followed the ongoing national debate surrounding offensive Halloween and party costumes and recent national attention to the history of blackface in universities’ yearbooks.

After a student complained about the photos to Gomis in April, she removed them out of “genuine concern for the student.” But Doane Provost Paul Savory soon ordered the remainder of the exhibit shuttered, and Gomis was removed from campus and placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into whether use of the photos constituted “discriminatory harassment.” She was reinstated last month.

“Marching Melissa off campus and forbidding her to step foot on campus or use university email even after she removed the offending photographs was an extraordinarily damaging action on the part of the administration,” said Chris Wentworth, a Doane physics professor and president of the institution’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “My best guess is that our administrators just were not thinking very deeply or carefully about the issues involved. We clearly have much work to do in restoring trust.”

During the investigation, Doane President Jacque Carter sent a campus-wide email discussing the matter in detail, and Doane administrators commented extensively to both the Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha World-Herald about the university’s position that the display lacked “appropriate educational context.” Yet, in response to FIRE and NCAC’s May 17 letter, Doane’s lawyer said the university “does not and will not comment on internal employee issues.”  

The joint letter reminded Doane that the university’s academic freedom policy provides faculty wide latitude to decide when and how to teach tough topics. Investigating and punishing Gomis for exercising this right — along with the president’s vague comments about what kind of teaching he feels is “appropriate” — chills academic freedom for all members of the Doane community.

While Doane is a private university not bound by the First Amendment, private institutions that make voluntary academic freedom promises to its faculty are contractually and morally bound to uphold them. FIRE and NCAC have asked the university “to rescind any punishment related to this matter and clarify its commitment to academic and expressive freedom.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.

CONTACT:

Daniel Burnett, Assistant Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

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Schools:  Doane University

Cases:  Doane University punishes librarian who displayed historical blackface photos