FIRE to Claremont McKenna College: No matter what you call it, intimidation chills

September 9, 2022

When three professors came to FIRE with allegations Claremont McKenna College took adverse action against them for quoting the racial slur, “nigger,” from works of literature in class, we got to work. We penned a letter to CMC asking for more information, and we urged the college to both abide by its strong academic freedom commitments and ensure it would not punish faculty for their pedagogically relevant speech. 

Our initial concerns remain and we are freshly troubled that Chodosh is doubling down on practices that appear to threaten academic freedom.

This week, CMC President Hiram Chodosh responded to FIRE. Chodosh did not challenge the heart of most of the professors’ allegations, but disagreed with our characterization of them. In a 48-page document, complete with appendices containing faculty emails, he defended the college’s practices. We responded with our own letter earlier this week. 

In Chodosh’s account, he says the college’s practice of expressing “serious concerns” about faculty’s protected speech, including calling them into meetings with top administrators, ought not to be construed as chilling faculty speech. We disagree heartily. Our initial concerns remain and we are freshly troubled that Chodosh is doubling down on practices that appear to threaten academic freedom. 

While we continue to disagree on how to describe individual transactions alleged between CMC administrators and professors Robert Faggen, Christopher Nadon, and Eva Revesz, FIRE stands by our broad concerns described in our first letter, and reiterated in our latest one, that “the professors were, either collectively or individually, subject to adverse employment actions arising solely from consternation over their controversial but protected, pedagogically-relevant expression. These actions include but are not limited to investigations, warnings, bans under the guise of ‘informal’ ‘advise[ment],’ and non-renewal.” 

While Chodosh challenges some details of the professors’ accounts, the broad nature of the allegations forming the basis for FIRE’s core objections remain. For example, we explained to Chodosh:

[Y]our contention that professor Revesz was not quoting a racial slur from a course text but rather blurted it out during a relevant course discussion does not remove that word from the protection of CMC’s free speech promises. Of course, had she targeted that slur at a student, that would be a different matter; but no one alleges that. Likewise, Professor Faggen may have objected to our description of what happened to him as punishment or warning; he prefers we say he was “advised,” and when he requested we change the phrasing in our letter to CMC, we did. But whatever word was used to describe it, he stands by his account to both us and you, that Associate Vice President Gray told him it was acceptable to play a recording of someone saying a racial slur but “not acceptable” for him “to say it or read it.” Setting aside the fact that Gray denies she said this, Faggen’s allegation is that Gray told him he is not allowed to say or read certain words in his class, however pedagogically relevant or protected under CMC’s policies. Whereas “advice” functions merely to inform, telling someone they are not allowed to do something, as Gray allegedly did, would qualify as a “ban,” defined as an official prohibition.

Chodosh also cited a recent statement by the AAUP which suggested that merely summoning a professor to ask about their use of a racial slur in a relevant class discussion does not chill speech. We explained in our letter on why we disagree with that assertion:

[T]he AAUP, an organization FIRE deeply respects and admires, recently suggested that being asked by an administrator to discuss the pedagogy underlying one’s classroom use of the N-word is not, in and of itself, a reprimand and that most people would “be hard pressed” to imagine a scenario where the context suggested it was. Here, we disagree with the AAUP. The subtext of any such scheme is that faculty members will understand that administrators, with power over their jobs, are upset with their speech. We think most people would be hard pressed to imagine a situation where such a summons from one’s superior would not carry with it a threatening subtext.

CMC wants FIRE to agree “that a pattern of emailing faculty with ‘serious concerns’ about their in-class speech, summoning them for ‘informal’ meetings with senior university leadership, and non-renewing their employment after complaints about their protected in-class speech is totally within CMC’s purview and poses no danger to expressive rights.” As we explain in our letter, we decline to do so. 

Faculty intimidation is a serious threat to academic freedom, no matter what words are used to describe it. Allegations that CMC routinely polices faculty word choice in relevant classroom discussion, on pain of punishment, has no place at any school committed to free expression — much less at an institution which is by all other accounts a strong proponent for free expression and has acted as one in the past. 

CMC can change course. We stand ready to work with President Chodosh to ensure he and his administrators respect faculty rights.


Schools:  Claremont McKenna College

Cases:  Claremont McKenna College: Professors Banned from Quoting Historical Works of Literature