Case Study

Augsburg University professor uses n-word in a class discussion of the slur


In October 2018, Philip Adamo, a history professor at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, used the n-word in a class discussion of the slur, prompted by its appearance in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Adamo led a similar discussion in his next section, and later that day he emailed his classes articles that addressed the question of in what context, if any, the N-word may be properly used. Students across campus expressed discontent by showing up to his next class and questioning him, by shooting videos of these class discussions, and by writing articles for the student newspaper that outlined why Adamo made them uncomfortable and how his actions fit into a larger problematic trend at the university. Augsburg Provost Karen Kaivola removed Adamo from his teaching position and from his duties as honors program director, suspending him pending a formal review. Some of his students began online campaigns on Facebook and calling for Adamo’s reinstatement, with petitions garnering over 1,500 signatures. In March 2019, Adamo was allowed to return to teaching but was replaced in his administrative role as director of the honors program.

PEN America Analysis

Students who felt uncomfortable with Adamo’s discussion had every right to articulate their discomfort, just as those who disagreed with them had the right to dissent. PEN America’s concern lies with the Augsburg administration’s capitulation to student calls to suspend the professor. Rather than resort to discipline, the university should have used the incident as a learning exercise and defended the professor’s right to free speech and academic freedom. It might also have clarified the distinction between making slurs and teaching about them—a distinction that applies to Baldwin’s book as well as to Adamo’s discussion of it. Professors should not have to fear repercussions for their speech as long as their actions are respectful and not designed to target a specific group of students.

Further Reading

Similar Cases