Administration responds to use of racially-charged language in class

Destiny Wiley-Yancy ‘20
Video Editor


Last month, English department lecturer Patrick Donnelly stepped away from teaching Reading Contemporary Poetry after an incident in which he said a racial epithet present in a poem. The administration responded to the incident in the poetry class by replacing the instructor and offering students additional help finding alternative courses. 

The poem by Nikole Brown, which contains the n-word, was set for discussion in class Sept. 20; however, students say that the professor also used the word outside of the poem’s context. 

Discussion of the poem continued normally, until a black student raised their hand, questioning the lecturer’s use of the n-word. The student was asked to leave the class if not capable of having an intellectual conversations about a poem containing the n-word. 

Interim Dean of Diversity and Equity Katherine Rowe was made aware of the incident shortly after the class ended. 

Within a day, enrollment dropped from 73 to 58. 

“English Department Chair Michael Thurston, Dean of Multicultural Affairs L’Tanya Richmond and I took these concerns – and the painful experiences students described – very seriously,” Rowe told The Sophian via email. 

“We moved quickly to meet with individual students, and with the instructor, to learn more about what had happened,” Rowe said. “We worked with the class deans and registrar to advise students who wished to find alternative courses. Throughout, we followed due process for student academic complaints and were guided by the Smith faculty’s commitment to an academic community that fosters informed dissent and debate – and to academic freedom for students and faculty in teaching, learning and research.”

On Sept. 22, Donnelly wrote to his students, acknowledging responsibility for failing to ensure that they could discuss and challenge the use of the n-word without being excluded from the course and the distress that caused the class. 

However, some students never received an correspondence from Donnelly following the incident. Donnelly issued an apology letter to The Sophian, which is featured in this week’s issue. 

The Sept. 25 forum entitled “Race, Class and Power in the Classroom” led by professors Andrea Hairston ’74, Elizabeth Pryor and Thurston was ambiguously billed as a discussion about classroom inclusivity via campus-wide email, despite being a direct response to the incident. Many in attendance were unaware of the incident that took place the week prior, until Traci Williams ’19 AC spoke up about the issue. 

Professor Thurston told The Sophian via email that the English department’s official response to the incident was the forum held last month. 

“We will discuss, at our October department meeting, best practices for framing classroom conversations about potentially offensive language,” Thurston continued. “This was already planned in response to student comments to our joint student-faculty curriculum committee last spring, but of course seems especially important at this moment.”

Rowe met with Donnelly the day following the forum, and according to Rowe, he made the decision to step away from the course. Rowe also reached out to English 112 students to alert them that Director of the Poetry Center Ellen Doré Watson would be teaching the class.

“There needs to be more conversation around the trauma incidents like this give black students. Professors need that type of training, and because he doesn’t have that type of training, it just shows me where Smith is. I am going [hold] to Smith accountable and [hold] him accountable,” Nyderia Hall ‘18 said.

Katherine Hazen ’18 contributed to this report.