Emory prof’s reinstatement a bittersweet victory after year-long ‘N-word’ investigation

March 11, 2020

Tenured law professor Paul Zwier’s return to teaching at Emory University — after more than a year facing termination for using the word “nigger” while discussing systemic racism with students — feels quite unlike an academic freedom victory, even though it is. Instead, Zwier’s reinstatement reads more like a cautionary tale about the eroding rights of faculty who teach sensitive subjects, and the increasing risk they take to do so.

Emory announced last week that it would accept the recommendation of its Faculty Hearing Committee, ensuring Zwier retains his tenure at Emory Law (where he has taught since 2003) and will be reinstated to teaching duties before the end of the semester. Emory’s announcement cited the preeminent importance of academic freedom. That’s an important development, though Emory’s announcement conspicuously, and disappointingly, avoids mentioning the fact that Zwier never actually used the word in a derogatory fashion.

FIRE wrote to Emory in January 2019, early in the Zwier investigation, citing serious academic freedom concerns. The American Association of University Professors, on the same issue, wrote twice.

In FIRE’s letter, we cited Emory’s strong free speech promises (the school earns FIRE’s highest, “green-light” rating for its speech-related policies) and urged it not to depart from its commitments by punishing or investigating Zwier for classroom speech germane to his course’s subject. 

“Faculty members’ academic freedom includes the choice to deploy material or language germane to their teaching that might offend, shock, or anger their students,” wrote FIRE’s Adam Steinbaugh, noting that universities can take a “more speech” approach and criticize speech they dislike. They cannot, however, censor it.

The AAUP expressed similar concerns and urged, at minimum, that Emory hold a faculty hearing on the matter, which is the process mandated by “AAUP-recommended procedural standards” and which requires the university to show “adequate cause” for adverse actions against a tenured professor.

But despite Zwier’s reinstatement after an apparently fair faculty hearing, the investigation into his protected expression shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Once it was clear that his classroom speech was relevant to the matter he was discussing, and didn’t come close to approaching discriminatory harassment, Emory should have ended its inquiry. And while Zwier is now back in the classroom, the proceeding against him has troublingly become something of an archetype for an increasing number of similar investigations at universities across the country. 

Other recent controversies over professors using the word in question have arisen at schools including the University of Oklahoma, where two professors used the term — one in conjunction with a class discussion on the Civil War, and another who compared it to the term “OK Boomer.” And last year, The New School dropped an investigation into professor Laurie Sheck for racial discrimination only after FIRE intervened. Sheck faced discipline for quoting black literary icon James Baldwin in a graduate writing course in which she asked her students to consider the power of word-choice by African-American writers.

After she was investigated, Sheck, a poet, expressed concerns about universities’ growing resistance to “the deepest and most informed of ways to the exchange and contemplation of ideas about which there is genuine urgency and concern but not consensus.” 

“It is crucial,” Sheck said, “that the right to do this be protected.”

FIRE has worried before about whether, on campuses where such a right seems increasingly uncertain, the safest course for academics who teach controversial topics is self-censorship. We fear that professors witnessing the price of Paul Zwier’s vindication may quite reasonably decide it’s a price they’re unwilling to pay. 

For students unable to be educated on these important topics, and a society dependent on such an education, the cost may be much higher.


Schools:  Emory University

Cases:  Emory University School of Law: Law Professor Suspended, Faces Termination for Use of Racial Epithet In Class and Conversation with Student