In October, during an honors seminar called "The Scholar Citizen," Augsburg University history professor Phillip Adamo had his class discuss James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. In the book, Baldwin, an African American man, attempts to convey the experience of living as a black person in 1960s America to white readers.
The way Adamo tells it, a student in the class quoted a sentence from the book: “You can really only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a…”
You can fill in the blank from there. Baldwin did, and so did the student, according to Adamo. This, allegedly, took some other students aback, which prompted Adamo to ask whether it was “appropriate to use the word if the author had used it.” But as he asked that question, he used the word himself.
A student who was in the class that day remembers the incident differently. The student told the Augsburg Echo that Adamo actually read the “exact quote” from page four, and then read it again, this time censoring the slur, and said, “Isn’t it much less impactful if we say ‘N-word?’”
Several students felt "uncomfortable” with Adamo using the word, and said as much. The professor told Inside Higher Ed that the class talked about this question for about 40 minutes, and at the end, came to a consensus: The word wasn’t worth the trouble, and they didn’t want to use it going forward.
Adamo’s afternoon class on Baldwin had a similar discussion, after which the professor sent his students a short email with links to two essays he said were related to the day’s lesson. One, by Andre Perry -- Good Teachers Use the N-Word -- the second, by Ta-Nehisi Coates -- In Defense of a Loaded Word. Both essayists are writers of color.
Adamo says some of his students interpreted the email as him “forcing” his opinion on them -- that he was fully justified in using the N-word provided he used it in some kind of proper, academic context.
The next time Adamo’s class on Baldwin met, there were several non-enrolled students there, too, who said they were there to observe the class as leaders within the honors program. What followed was a tense conversation between Adamo and the students, which one of the students recorded and uploaded to YouTube with the title “Phil Adamo Justifying the Use of the N-Word, Scholar Citizen.”
One of the guest students explained that they’d been in Adamo’s course on Baldwin the previous fall, when there’d been a similar discussion on using the N-word. They’d “had a few meetings with Adamo” afterward, in which Adamo said he’d preface using the N-word with a warning, and then “try to not use it again.”
“That’s why we’re here,” the student said. “Just because the precedent that was set last year was not followed.”
Adamo was seemingly contrite, even admitting that he was uncomfortable.
“This was a tense moment for me -- maybe a tense moment for others in the room,” he said. “This is the most horrifying thing to me -- to think that I’m contributing to people feeling attacked, and especially attacked in some kind of racist way. That’s not who I am.”
As of last month, Adamo had been “unilaterally” removed by Augsburg’s provost, citing a “range of issues” raised by students: “bias and discrimination,” “respect for students,” “teaching competence” and “program leadership.” These “issues,” a release from the university said, go beyond “that specific event” in October.
His suspension has been extended into the current semester while a review process decides his fate. Adamo, the university said in a statement, “remains active” at Augsburg -- just not within “the specific class and program areas involved with the review.” He didn’t respond to interview requests.
One of his colleagues, David Lapakko, told The College Fix he felt faculty are “under a scrutiny that has stifled free expression.” (Lapakko has also been the subject of student complaints, namely for “citing research on gender differences” and teaching a “storybook narrative” on Christopher Columbus.)
The Minnesota council of the American Association of University Professors sent a letter to Augsburg on Adamo’s behalf, saying his suspension “appears to have been primarily based on classroom speech that was clearly protected by principles of academic freedom.”
But several other members of the faculty are taking the opposite stance, according to an op-ed published in the Echo. The word Adamo used during that fateful class discussion, it reads, has been used by white people to “dehumanize and humiliate black people.” Academic freedom, it says, should not be used as an “excuse” for behavior that is specifically and historically harmful.
“Asserting academic freedom in defense of language that harms students turns the very principle that makes true learning possible into a mechanism for enforcing institutional racism,” it says.
As for In Defense of a Loaded Word, the Ta-Nehisi Coates essay Adamo sent to his students, Coates doesn’t condone the usage of the N-word by white people. Instead, he concludes that the N-word is “the border, the signpost that reminds us that the old crimes don’t disappear. It tells white people that, for all their guns and all their gold, there will always be places they can never go.”