NEW YORK, Aug. 16, 2019 — The New School has cleared a professor of charges of racial discrimination for quoting literary icon James Baldwin during a classroom discussion. The university reversed course late Wednesday after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education intervened on behalf of professor Laurie Sheck’s academic freedom rights.
“If I have a hope for what can come out of this, it is for a university community that seeks to open itself in 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,” said Sheck. “It is crucial that the right to do this be protected.”
Sheck, a poet and novelist who is white, teaches a graduate course on “radical questioning” in writing. The course includes works by prominent African-American writers that examine racial discrimination. Sheck prefaces her course with a warning that active engagement with literature involves a sense of unease and unsettlement.
Early in the spring semester, Sheck assigned “The Creative Process,” a 1962 essay in which Baldwin argues that Americans have “modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history” and must commit to “a long look backward whence we came and an unflinching assessment of the record.” In her graduate seminar, classroom discussion involved the Baldwin statement, “I am not your nigger,” which was made during an appearance as a guest on The Dick Cavett Show. Sheck noted how the title of an Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary based on Baldwin’s writings, “I Am Not Your Negro,” intentionally altered Baldwin’s words. She asked her students what this change may reveal about Americans’ ability to reckon with what Baldwin identified as “the darker forces of history.”
Months later, Sheck was summoned to a mandatory meeting with The New School’s director of labor relations due to “student complaints made under the University’s discrimination policy.” She was not provided with any details about her allegedly discriminatory conduct.
On Aug. 7, FIRE publicly called on The New School to stand by its laudable “legacy of academic freedom, tolerance, and free intellectual exchange” and drop its investigation. FIRE’s letter noted that Sheck’s use of the Baldwin quote did not violate the university’s racial discrimination policy and was clearly protected by her academic freedom rights. Further, The New School’s own policies make clear it will not punish speech protected by the First Amendment and basic tenets of academic freedom.
“James Baldwin wrote that the artist ‘cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides,’” Sheck said. “It is a beautiful thought that applies not just to the artist but to everyone for whom questioning is the heart and soul of thinking.”
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.
Daniel Burnett, Assistant Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org