It’s being called “one of the worst academic freedom violations we’ve seen this year” and it involves a college escorting off campus a librarian who had the audacity to include historic images of students in blackface in a photo display.
The issue that developed at Doane University in Nebraska is being addressed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
“Doane University’s punishment of a faculty librarian for refusing to censor the school’s difficult past is one of the worst academic freedom violations we’ve seen this year,” said Alex Morey, a FIRE program officer.
“The university is effectively preventing people from confronting its history by labeling it ‘harassment.’ Doane administrators seem to think they’re better suited than faculty to judge when and how tough subjects can be taught. That’s not how academic freedom works.”
It was faculty librarian Melissa Gomis who was suspended for “curating a historical photo display on ‘Parties of the Past’ from the university’s archival collection.”
Two of those images appeared to show Doane students at a 1926 masquerade party wearing blackface, FIRE reported.
“Gomis, who is the director of Doane’s Perkins Library and holds the faculty rank of associate professor, created the exhibit to explore the history of Doane social events since the 1800s. First posted in March, the display followed the ongoing national debate surrounding offensive Halloween and party costumes and recent national attention to the history of blackface in universities’ yearbooks,” FIRE reported.
A student complained, and Gomis then removed them, but that wasn’t enough.
“Doane Provost Paul Savory soon ordered the remainder of the exhibit shuttered, and Gomis was removed from campus and placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into whether use of the photos constituted ‘discriminatory harassment,'” FIRE reported.
Gomis later was reinstated.
But the university declined to respond when FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship sent a letter asking whether the school would clarify whether it actually honors the promises of academic freedom it makes to faculty.
“Marching Melissa off campus and forbidding her to step foot on campus or use university email even after she removed the offending photographs was an extraordinarily damaging action on the part of the administration,” said Chris Wentworth, of the school’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “My best guess is that our administrators just were not thinking very deeply or carefully about the issues involved. We clearly have much work to do in restoring trust.”
Even though school officials commented extensively to the Lincoln Star-Journal and the Omaha World-Herald, they then told FIRE they do “not and will not comment.”
The letter from FIRE and NCAC had reminded school officials of their academic freedom policy that gives faculty latitude on teaching “tough topics.”
“While Doane is a private university not bound by the First Amendment, private institutions that make voluntary academic freedom promises to its faculty are contractually and morally bound to uphold them,” FIRE reported.
FIRE and NCAC have asked the university “to rescind any punishment related to this matter and clarify its commitment to academic and expressive freedom.”