Augsburg faces backlash after professor’s suspension over “n-word” controversy

Augsburg University’s suspension of a respected history and medieval studies professor who quoted a passage from a James Baldwin book that included the “N-word” in an honors seminar has ignited an intense debate over academic freedom on campus.

Professor Phillip Adamo was suspended in October but the controversy only came to light recently after Augsburg took further steps to sanction him. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has come to Adamo’s defense raising concerns over “the climate for academic freedom at Augsburg” and due process on campus.

The AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance has sent a letter to the president of Augsburg University after the university suspended Phillip Adamo over his use of a quoted passage from a book by James Baldwin which used the n-word. AAUP raised the concern that Adamo’s suspension was a violation of his academic freedom, as it appears to have been primarily based on classroom speech that was clearly protected by principles of academic freedom. AAUP’s also raised concerns that his suspension also violates Association-supported procedural standards that are explicitly incorporated into Augsburg University’s faculty handbook.

The national publication “Inside Higher Education” has also issued a lengthy article on the threat to academic freedom raised by Augsburg’s handling of the issue amidst similar incidents on other college campuses.

The case concerns academic freedom watchdogs on campus and off. The professor is just one of several to recently be sanctioned — unofficially by students or officially by administrations — for using the N-word in class. So one might also ask if there is ever reason to use a word so loaded.

“I see a distinction between use and mention,” Adamo said Thursday. “To use the word, to inflict pain or harm, is unacceptable. To mention the word, in a discussion of how the word is used, is necessary for honest discourse.”

Augsburg began investigating after receiving complaints in the form of “bias reports” from students who were upset by the discussion around the James Baldwin book The Fire Next Time. Yet the investigation into Adamo, who was named Minnesota professor of the year in 2015 by the Carnegie Foundation, continues to drag on three months later.

The university has issued a lengthy statement in defense of its handling of Adamo’s protracted punishment.

A resolution process followed the review, as outlined in the Faculty Handbook, the university said. It determined that an informal resolution process was not sufficient or appropriate for the “scope of complexity” of the problem.

At the same time, Augsburg’s chief academic officer charged a team of faculty, students and multicultural student services staff to review the program areas about which concerns had been raised. That review is expected to conclude in late spring. Other institutionwide climate reform efforts are under way.

“We know that the work of fostering an inclusive learning environment is ongoing, and we are fully committed to it,” said President Paul C. Pribbenow. “We are grateful to the students, faculty and staff who have spoken courageously to raise campus awareness, who have engaged in actively listening to the issues being expressed, and who have called for changes that advance our equity work.”

Yet in the view of the AAUP, Augsburg has become the latest college campus to flunk Academic Freedom 101.

To the extent that the administration’s actions against Professor Adamo are based on his reading from The Fire Next Time in his class, they violate his freedom in the classroom under principles of academic freedom long recognized by this Association and in Augsburg University’s faculty handbook.

The “fire this time” may have started with Adano, but the growing controversy appears to be focusing at least as much attention on the threat posed Augsburg’s administration to intellectual freedom.