LAWRENCE, Kan., March 21, 2016—A University of Kansas communications professor was cleared of any wrongdoing late Friday after a four-month investigation into comments she made during a classroom discussion on race. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to KU last month, urging the university to recognize that the professor’s comments are protected by the First Amendment and that any punishment would violate her rights.
“I am tremendously relieved to have this process complete as the last four months have been a terribly emotionally distressing time for me and my family,” said assistant professor of communications studies Andrea Quenette. “The outcome of the investigation was fair, reflecting the truth in this situation, and the university did due diligence. From the beginning I, and many others, believed my speech was appropriate for an educational context, and now, there can be no question regarding the educational appropriateness and intent of my words—academic freedom prevailed.”
The controversy surrounding Quenette’s comments arose on November 12, 2015, during a graduate seminar discussion about race. The previous day, KU held a forum on racial and cultural issues affecting the campus in response to student protests over racial issues at the University of Missouri.
According to an open letter written by some of Quenette’s students, during a part of the discussion focusing on how the graduate students can bring up these issues with their students, Quenette said, “As a white woman I just never have seen racism…It’s not like I see ‘Nigger’ spray painted on walls… .” Later, the topic shifted to minority student retention rates in higher education. During that conversation, Quenette responded to one student who argued that the lower retention rate of black students stems from racism and poor institutional support by saying, “Those students are not leaving school because they are physically threatened everyday but because of academic performance.”
Following the discussion, eight graduate students, some of whom were not in the class, filed complaints against Quenette. In their open letter, the students called on KU to terminate Quenette, arguing that her comments were “unacceptably offensive” and violated KU’s Racial & Ethnic Harassment Policy, among other university policies. The students also refused to continue attending her class.
Quenette was subsequently placed on paid leave, pending the outcome of the investigation. In a letter sent to KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little last month, FIRE explained that Quenette’s comments were germane to the class discussion, were not targeted at any group or individual, did not violate any university policy, and are protected under the First Amendment.
Late Friday, the university announced that Quenette did not violate university policy and may return to teaching.
“Andrea Quenette’s complete exoneration was the only justifiable outcome of this investigation. We’re pleased KU came to that conclusion as well,” said Peter Bonilla, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “The university’s stand for free speech and academic freedom is a welcome corrective to the demands for Quenette’s termination and the speech policing of KU faculty, and we hope its peer institutions will take note.”
“I cannot even really begin to express my gratitude both for [FIRE’s] help but also, that there is a group like FIRE that is out there protecting faculty and students,” said Quenette. “First Amendment protection for both students and faculty is vital to the healthy functioning of higher education, even if such speech may be unpopular. I hope that my situation will inspire students and faculty to stand up for their First Amendment rights and colleges and universities to embrace protection of academic freedom.”
FIRE is a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campus across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Nico Perrino, Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org