Grant Farred, an English and Africana Studies professor at Cornell University, has found himself under fire recently following a comment he made to two graduate students at a conference in February. Following the conclusion of a conference panel to which he had invited the students, both African-American females, to attend, Professor Farred allegedly said to them in private, "When you both walked in, I thought, ‘Who are these black bitches?'" When the students later told Farred that they were offended by his remark, he quickly apologized and stated that he meant no harm. It would seem that Farred was simply attempting to make a joke, albeit perhaps an ill-conceived one, perhaps using what he thought was an acceptable cultural trope.
However, the reaction on Cornell's campus to Farred's comment has been harsh. The Cornell Daily Sun notes that the students reported the comment to other graduate students and faculty in the Africana Studies community. Word eventually reached Professor Salah Hassan, director of the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC), prompting a university investigation into the matter. Additionally, members of the ASRC and the larger Cornell community have condemned Farred and declared his words to be racist and sexist in open letters to Hassan and to university administrators, including President David Skorton. For example, an open letter about the incident penned by 39 Cornell alumni was reprinted in the Daily Sun earlier this month. The Daily Sun also reports that Farred has been removed from his previous position as Director of Graduate Studies in the ASRC and was disinvited from the ASRC's 40th anniversary celebration. Hassan has even indicated that termination or a salary reduction are possible outcomes for Farred.
In the midst of all this, an op-ed in the Daily Sun came to Farred's defense earlier this week. Written by Cornell sophomore Judah Bellin, the op-ed argues that the Cornell community's reaction to the incident has been "disproportionate, to say the least." Bellin writes:
It is clear that Farred's remark was not meant to degrade or terrorize. In fact, it seems patently obvious that he meant it as a harmless joke, one only a professor close to his students could get away with.
While acknowledging that Farred's choice of words may have been regrettable, Bellin astutely notes that "effectively ending someone's career over two inappropriate and stupid words should require a serious and thoughtful justification."
Bellin also makes the following crucial point:
We must be able to distinguish between the David Dukes of the world and the Grant Farreds, between the patriarchs of olden times and the Larry Summerses. If we don't, the terms "racism" and "sexism" lose their meaning, and, more importantly, their power. It prevents us from calling out actual racists and sexists in any meaningful way. It also inhibits our ability to acknowledge historical progress.
The university climate today is such that one can use these magic terms without having to justify their usage. We are obligated to abdicate our critical faculties - those the university is supposed to promote. When race and gender enter the scene, all discussion stops.
Upon reading this passage, the case of Professor Donald Hindley at Brandeis University immediately springs to mind. Hindley, Torch readers will remember, was found guilty of racial harassment—with nary a protection of due process—and had a monitor placed in his classes after he used the word "wetbacks," to critique the use of the term, in his Latin American Politics course.
Professor's Hindley's case is a sad reminder of what can go wrong when one is branded a "racist" or "sexist" without a second thought given to whether the label actually fits. In that case, it negatively impacted the career of a dedicated professor with nearly fifty years' of teaching experience, while also giving the university a black eye due to its public disregard for fundamental rights on campus. In the case of Professor Farred, we shall see whether Cornell fares any better. For the sake of everyone involved, I certainly hope so.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Farred's case contains more than a hint of irony. CFN member and former FIRE intern John Cetta, a student at Cornell, addresses that angle in a thoughtful letter to the editor printed in yesterday's Daily Sun:
Before coming to Cornell, Professor Farred taught in the Literature Program at Duke University. While at Duke, Prof. Farred was an outspoken member of the infamous Group of 88, members of Duke's faculty who signed a statement in the Duke campus newspaper condemning without any due process the Duke lacrosse players who had been wrongfully accused of rape. It is quite ironic that after engaging in a premature, disproportionate and unjust response to a controversy on his former campus, Professor Farred now has similar injustices levied at himself.
As John states, quoting a recent post written by Reason's Cathy Young for Minding the Campus, perhaps this is what one would call "a dose of poetic justice."
Punishing Farred for his speech may indeed be an example of "poetic justice," but as actual justice, it is sorely lacking. Farred's case serves as a reminder of the importance of affording due process to the accused, of presuming innocence until the accused is proven guilty, and of ensuring that any punishment is proportionate, if discipline rather than moral indignation appears to be justified. The actions of the Group of 88 were reprehensible, as longtime Torch readers well know. Now, one of its members faces a similar scenario in terms of due process. Farred may be suffering from the kind of regime of intolerant political correctness that he himself seems to support. Yet, the principles of free speech to which Cornell pledges fealty should protect him whether he wants to be protected or not.