A Professor at My School Used a Racial Slur in Class: What it Means to Me

On September 9, 2020, professor Gary Shank from the school of education [at Duquesne University] used a racial slur during his virtual Educational Psychology class. Shank was almost immediately put on paid leave after a video of the incident went viral. This allegedly has not been the first time Professor Shank has used this word, but is the first time he has gotten caught saying it; after months of discussion, Duquesne has ultimately decided that Shank will be reinstated provided he completes several steps towards Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Before I continue, I wanted to establish that I am neither a student of color nor a student present in his class. That being said, I have had several discussions with my peers, many of whom were either in that class or are students of color. While I cannot speak for every student at Duquesne or even every student in that class, I can outline the general feelings and attitudes of some people who were affected by this incident.

Obviously, it should go without saying that Shank said in that class is unacceptable; it is also disheartening to hear about Duquesne’s approach to the situation, essentially agreeing to reinstate him following alleged training in areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. By avoiding termination, Duquesne has demonstrated that faculty and staff will not face termination (or any serious consequences, for that matter) following a breach of conduct, especially in a way that actively harms historically disenfranchised students at a historically white college.

Furthermore, testimonies by Shank and those who represent him are equally, if not, more, troubling. Shank said during hearings that not using a slur would have lessened the experience of the teaching and that the criticism boils down to a “disapproval with [his] teaching style.” [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review] Do these words sound like those of a man who’s seen the errors in his ways? Is he aware of the mistake he has made? Clearly, Shank holds firm on his decision to use a word that has hurt so many people in the past and continues to hurt people today. In this way, I think little can be achieved with him and his improvement in taking an arbitrary diversity training.

Similarly, the fact that this is a repeat offense proves that Duquesne either does not take these allegations seriously or that students are afraid to speak up about injustices happening on their campus. Personally, I can speak from experience in saying that the current incident report forms [on Duquesne’s website] have dissuaded me from reporting incidents in the past. The forms in question require the student to fill out their full name, affiliation with the university, and various means of contact. While the intentions may have been pure here, this unintentionally puts a target on students’ backs as the university now knows who to blame for causing trouble; This disproportionately affects students on scholarship or on other forms of reduced tuition as universities could cite some unrelated offense such as “poor moral character,” thus making them unable to receive financial aid because of their report.

Finally, I can’t even begin to imagine how BIPOC students and professors feel about his reinstatement. These students are the minority across campus, and many of them struggle to feel represented in the culture of the school to begin with. His reinstatement shows that the school cares more about his comfort and job security than they do about the safety and inclusion of their students.

I acknowledge that this is a complicated issue. I’m certain that the administration at Duquesne thinks that they are trying to take the moral high ground by giving Shank a second chance. However, by doing so, they are sacrificing the safety of their students for the comfort of one teacher. If Duquesne truly wanted to right the wrongs created by this situation, it would listen to those who are truly affected by Shanks words and subsequent actions and would search to dismantle frames of oppression that caused this situation in the first place.

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