KU professor who used n-word in class discussion is placed on leave

Andrea Quenette has been criticized on social media and now faces formal discrimination complaint

Some Kansas University students filed a discrimination complaint with KU against assistant professor Andrea M. Quenette, who they accused of using racist language, in November 2015.

A Kansas University professor who used the n-word during a class discussion about race is on leave while the university investigates a discrimination complaint against her.

Andrea Quenette, assistant professor of communication studies, said she was notified Friday morning that five individuals, whose names she does not know, filed a discrimination complaint against her with KU’s Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access. She said her supervisors agreed to her request for a leave of absence with pay until the investigation concludes.

The formal complaint follows more than a week of public criticism perpetuated by graduate students in the communications department. Students have posted messages to Twitter with the hashtag #FireAndreaQuenette, shared a lengthy letter online and complained about her in a Student Senate meeting Wednesday night.

Sparking their outrage was Quenette’s use of the n-word and statements about retention rates at KU and the concept of systematic racism during her Communications Studies 930 class — focused on best practices for graduate students who teach undergraduate classes — on Nov. 12, the morning after KU’s heated university-wide town hall forum on race.

Quenette, who is 33 and has been teaching at KU for two years, said she believes academic freedom protects her comments and that they were not discriminatory.

Some Kansas University students filed a discrimination complaint with KU against assistant professor Andrea M. Quenette, who they accused of using racist language, in November 2015.

“I didn’t intend to offend anyone, I didn’t intend to hurt anyone. I didn’t direct my words at any individual or group of people,” she told the Journal-World tearfully in a phone interview Friday.

“It was an open conversation about a serious issue that is affecting our campus, and it will affect our teachers. In that regard, I consider it within my purview … to talk about those issues.”

The graduate students saw it differently.

“It was outright racism,” said Amy Schumacher, a first-year Ph.D. student who was in the class, which she said is composed of nine white students and one black student. “I don’t think that it was an open dialogue — she wasn’t receptive to hearing any other ideas.”

Schumacher said she believes Quenette “actively violated policies” during the discussion, hurt students’ feelings — including the one black student, who left “devastated” — and has a previous history of being unsympathetic to students.

Class discussion in dispute

Diversity in the classroom was, coincidentally, on the syllabus for Quenette’s Nov. 12 class.

Inspired by the previous night’s forum, Quenette said, a student asked how they could talk about race issues in their own classes, and the conversation naturally shifted to how the university should address problems.

“I tried to preface everything I said with, ‘I don’t experience racial discrimination so it’s hard for me to understand the challenges that other people face, because I don’t often see those,'” said Quenette, who is white.

She said she pointed out that racist incidents on other campuses, including the University of Missouri in Columbia, have been very visible, and she used the n-word when comparing KU to them.

“I haven’t seen those things happen, I haven’t seen that word spray-painted on our campus, I haven’t seen students physically assaulted,” Quenette said.

Quenette said she could have apologized “in the moment” if anyone had responded but that no one did, and the discussion continued.

On the subject of low graduation rates for black students and whether institutionalized racism is to blame — students in class said it was — Quenette said students who don’t graduate do so for a number of reasons, and from what she’s seen at KU it’s often academic performance. Quenette said she’s on a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences committee studying retaining and supporting students, and that “all students” who come to KU with low academic preparedness are at risk.

She acknowledged there was “confusion” during that conversation and that it ended “abruptly” when class was over.

Schumacher, who is also white, described Quenette’s interactions during the conversation as “disparaging” and “deeply disturbing.”

“They articulated not only her lack of awareness of racial discrimination and violence on this campus and elsewhere but an active denial of institutional, structural and individual racism,” Schumacher wrote in the letter signed by the students in the class, plus one other graduate student. “This denial perpetuates racism in and of itself.”

Schumacher said students “had no words” and most “just shut down” after Quenette’s use of the n-word in class.

The next class

Graduate students gathered with other communications faculty and administrators for a town hall of their own on Monday, to which Quenette was asked not to come.

At the next class meeting, on Tuesday, the graduate students demanded that Quenette read aloud their letter, “An Open Letter Calling for the Termination of Dr. Andrea Quenette for Racial Discrimination.”

Quenette said she began reading the letter but stopped partway through, stating that there were legal implications and that she would not read any more.

She then listened as some students read personal statements aloud.

“I feel terrible, upset and sad that I had hurt their feelings and made them feel uncomfortable, because I do care about them as people,” Quenette said. “I felt frustrated by some of the things written in the letter that I don’t remember happening like they described.”

Quenette had prepared a statement of her own to clarify her comments and apologize.

But she said several students said they didn’t want to hear her apology.

“Someone said, ‘No, this is over,’ and they all got up and left,” Quenette said.

Schumacher said students insisted Quenette read their letter aloud “to make sure that she got it.”

She described Quenette as calloused, dismissive and scoffing despite “pain” visible on students’ faces. Schumacher said it became clear that Quenette still was not respecting the students, so they told her they did not want to hear her statement and left.

Social media campaign

Jyleesa Hampton has been one of the main tweeters for #FireAndreaQuenette.

Hampton, a first-year communications graduate student, is not in Quenette’s class but did sign the letter demanding her termination. Hampton said she is one of two black students in the 13-student cohort, and after the Nov. 12 class several students immediately rushed to her office to tell her what had happened.

“People talked about being scared to return to class, scared to have her in charge of their grades,” Hampton said. “I don’t think it will be a safe environment for me” teaching next year, she added.

Hampton said the group took to social media to ensure they were taken seriously.

“My concern was that the university or the department may try and sweep this under the rug or not take this seriously because we are students,” Hampton said. “We wanted to create consciousness about the events in question to provoke a response.

“Social media is a powerful force to bring awareness to instances of racism.”

Investigation open

Quenette said the social media campaign has been “very hurtful.”

Fearing she could lose her job, Quenette said, she hopes to secure an attorney to represent her in KU’s investigation process, and her husband set up a “Go Fund Me” account online to help raise money they need to hire one.

“The current political climate, the nature of the situation, the seriousness of the allegations that have been put forth, I’m in the spotlight and under tremendous pressure,” Quenette said.

Administrative leave means that Quenette is relieved of all teaching and service responsibilities and will remain off campus until the investigation is complete, university spokesman Joe Monaco said. He said such leave is often used “to address substantial disruptions to the learning environment or concerns about individuals’ welfare while IOA conducts its investigation.”

Monaco said IOA’s investigation of Quenette will determine whether the behavior in question — which includes last week’s in-class discussion and other conduct prior to then — violated KU policy and the Faculty Code of Rights, Responsibilities and Conduct.

Where is the line between free speech in the classroom and inappropriate speech?

Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, speaking generally Friday in a separate interview with the Journal-World, said that’s difficult to define and can depend on a lot of nuanced factors, down to the goal of the class and a faculty member’s relationships with students.

“I don’t think it’s possible to draw that line in a clear way that everyone will agree that this is on one side and this is on the other,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to get a bright line.”