Free speech group urges KU to exonerate professor who used N-word in class

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 national free speech group issued a strongly worded message to Kansas University this week about the case of a professor under investigation for discrimination after using the N-word in class.

An article published this week by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), highlights the case of Andrea Quenette, assistant professor of communication studies.

Quenette remains on administrative leave while KU conducts its investigation stemming from complaints by students that she discriminated against them when she used the N-word and made other remarks they considered racially disparaging during a class meeting the day after KU’s Nov. 11, 2015, town hall forum on race. Quenette did not direct the term at any individual; she said she used the word as an example in an educational discussion about racism. After the outcry, Quenette requested and was granted leave for the remainder of the fall semester. (Here’s my initial article on this, in which I hopefully succeeded in presenting the contentious situation more thoroughly and fairly. The story made national news.)

The FIRE article, “What’s at Stake in KU’s Investigation of Professor’s In-Class Comments? Only Academic Freedom as Faculty Know It,” says:

The students’ demands for retribution
are utterly inimical to academic
freedom… It’s alarming–not to
mention ironic–that a group of
graduate students has called on the
university to punish a professor for
constitutionally protected speech when
such a reaction would, in turn,
decimate the freedoms necessary to
pursue their own careers as academics.

FIRE further lays out its case in a direct letter — basically a university version of an amicus, or friend of the court, brief — to KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. The full letter is viewable here. Key passage:

The students’ argument that Quenette’s
speech constitutes discriminatory
harassment unprotected by the First
Amendment is profoundly mistaken, and
KU must reject it. Quenette’s
expression is fully protected by her
rights as a professor at a public
institution. If KU were to find
otherwise, it would undermine any
meaningful commitment to academic
freedom. Faculty must be free to
expose their students to arguments,
viewpoints, and ideas with which they
may disagree to cultivate an
atmosphere of debate and discussion
befitting a public university.

As concerned as FIRE appears about the Quenette case, it appears the organization didn’t find it bad enough (or at least not yet) to merit adding KU to its annual list of the “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech,” which also came out this week.

Recall that last year, the entire Kansas Board of Regents did make that not-so-desirable list. The Regents’ offending move, according to FIRE, was its implementation of the statewide social media policy, which did stem from the case of a KU professor’s controversial tweet.


• I’m the Journal-World’s KU and higher ed reporter. See all the newspaper’s KU coverage here. Reach me by email at, by phone at 832-7187, on Twitter @saramarieshep or via Facebook at