Editor's note: This post refers frequently to the use of a racial slur.
Professor Emeritus Lawrence Rosen opened his course last week with a question. The anthropologist, who has spent four decades teaching at Princeton University, was introducing a class called Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography — and his question was meant to shock.
"What is worse," he asked students last Tuesday, according to The Daily Princetonian, "a white man punching a black man, or a white man calling a black man a n*****?"
The student newspaper reports that Rosen, a white man, went on to use the racial slur multiple times in the ensuing discussion, despite increasingly strong objections from some students. Citing student accounts, the Princetonian notes Rosen defended his use of the word as "necessary" and intended to "deliver a gut punch" — but by lecture's end, several students had walked out in protest.
Now, just one week later, the course is no more. It was canceled by Rosen after a weeklong storm of debate over the incident, including one criticism that the effect of his words — no matter the intent behind them — "can only be described as personal assault, even though the injuries are not visible on the surface of the skin." A handful of national media outlets caught wind of the simmering controversy, as well.
University spokesman Michael Hotchkiss tells NPR the decision to cancel the course after just one week was Rosen's, and that the school exerted no pressure on him to do so. Rosen himself did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"I respect professor Rosen's decision about how to teach the subject in the way that he did, by being explicit in using very difficult words — and they are very difficult words," Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber said at a previously scheduled town hall meeting Monday.
"It's a tough kind of conversation to have," he added, "and I think professor Rosen himself has expressed his view — and certainly it is my view — that it is important to have the kind of conversation when people feel uncomfortable about the language and why they might or might not feel that it's appropriate to use the language."
Carolyn Rouse, chairwoman of the university's anthropology department, also defended her colleague in a letter to the Daily Princetonian shortly after news of the incident surfaced. She wrote that this is far from the first time Rosen has begun a course in this way, "breaking a number of taboos" — such as saying a racial slur or having a student wipe her feet on the American flag — in order to elicit a visceral response in students and explore why.
According to its description, the course had planned to explore the power of oppressive symbols and how "freedom of expression is always limited, both by the harm that may be said to occur if unbridled and by the constraints of the dominant culture."
"This is the first year he got the response he did from the students. This is diagnostic of the level of overt anti-black racism in the country today. Anti-American and anti-Semitic examples did not upset the students, but an example of racism did," Rouse wrote. "This did not happen when Obama was president, when the example seemed less real and seemed to have less power."
Yet others, including parent De'Andre Salter, see the matter in starkly different terms. Salter took to the pages of the same student paper to rebut the points of Rouse's argument the day after it was published.
"Has anyone offended by flag desecration been oppressed, discriminated against, or systemically denied civil rights? In fact, both flag desecrators and those offended by them have been offered more protections than those called 'n*****' by their oppressors," Salter wrote in part.
Timothy Haupt, a lecturer in the writing program at Princeton, argued that though there may be teaching value in drawing out an emotional reaction, the issue rests in how Rosen handled that reaction.
"My main concern here is with Rosen's response to student discomfort and confusion, which strikes me as profoundly unproductive, because he appears to have avoided (and perhaps indefinitely postponed) an important teaching moment," Haupt said.
Haupt noted Rouse's point about students' heightened sensitivity to examples of racism — but, he countered, "if a shifting context has influenced how students respond to certain course material, doesn't that suggest that we as educators have the responsibility to adapt our teaching to guarantee a favorable outcome?"
"Rosen could have stepped back, clarified the difference between using hate speech and talking about it, and then asked his class how they felt comfortable representing the term going forward — so that the conversation could continue," Haupt added. "But that isn't what happened."
Still, the university is standing by its longtime professor.
"I both believe the academic freedom is important to make the pedagogical decision and I respect the pedagogical decision that he made," Eisgruber said Monday, "although I also appreciate it's a controversial one and I understand why it's controversial."