FIRE recently learned that a Seattle University dean has been placed on leave following reports that she recommended black civil rights activist Dick Gregory’s autobiography, Nigger, by name to a student. Now, FIRE has learned that she may be on leave not only in her capacity as an administrator, but as a faculty member as well. If true, this would raise serious concerns for academic freedom at the private Catholic university that promises that right, along with freedom of expression, to its academic community.
When asked if Jodi Kelly was still teaching, a Seattle University spokesperson told FIRE, “Well, no. She’s on administrative leave. She’s not on campus.”
The Seattle Times reported last week that Kelly—who had been at the helm of the university’s humanities school, Matteo Ricci College—was placed on “administrative leave” after weeks of protests by students over lack of diversity in the curriculum. A student also contended that Kelly used the word “nigger” in a conversation, according to Seattle-area newspaper, The Stranger. The Stranger reported the allegation was made after university president Stephen Sundborg “pleaded with a group of students occupying the college to drop their demand that Kelly resign”:
An African-American student at the college spoke in response. She said she met last spring with Kelly to ask for a more diverse, culturally responsive curriculum. In response, Kelly “used the n-word… she said it three or four times. The full word.”
Kelly confirmed to The Stranger that she recommended Gregory’s autobiography, but stopped short of confirming or denying whether she said the book’s title aloud.
In an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed, Gregory jumped to Kelly’s defense. (A perhaps unsurprising development, really, if you consider she was recommending Gregory’s book about the fight for racial equality):
I am not offended by Dean Kelly’s use of the word “nigger.” In fact, I am pleased that she has the foresight to want to give these young men and women the knowledge, insight and experience of a civil rights activist that might just help them understand life a little better.
“I am disappointed that they seemed to have stopped at the title instead of opening the book and reading its contents,” Gregory added.
FIRE staff are struck by the apparent similarities between Kelly’s situation and one of FIRE’s most well-known (and outrageous) cases ever.
In 2008, Keith John Sampson, a student-employee at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) was found guilty of racial harassment in 2008 for reading a historical book, Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan, on his work break. Mirroring what seems to have happened with Dean Kelly, the co-worker who complained about Sampson (and the administrators who subsequently reviewed that complaint) jumped to conclusions about the book’s content and the intent of the reader with little more to guide them than the book’s cover, which features a photo-illustration of a large group of Klansmen and burning crosses. Yet as the title suggests, the book unambiguously celebrates the defeat of the Klan.
As Dick Gregory noted in his Inside Higher Ed piece, “A liberated mind requires a deeper historical and analytical understanding about the good, bad and ugly regarding America’s past, and its future.”
The Seattle Times reported Kelly will remain on leave until reviews of the situation by both Seattle University’s Office of Institutional Equity and a “‘broader review of issues’ regarding her position” are complete.
Seattle University has not responded to FIRE’s request for further clarification on the scope of Kelly’s leave.
FIRE is watching the Seattle University administration’s actions closely. We’re sure the university’s faculty are too, given the bearing of this case on their ability to assign difficult material or broach controversial subjects in the course of their teaching, and the extent to which their university will protect them doing so.
We’ll keep Torch readers posted.