The use of racial slurs is occurring not only at Benedictine University but also at Universities across America.
The question of racism is one that Benedictine University has been grappling with alongside the rest of academia. The questions of free speech, racially charged language, academic value, slurs, and diversity have all blended together to create a particularly hard-to-navigate ethical quagmire.
In regards to the recent racial incident that occurred in a Benedictine classroom, decisions on discipline for the professor have not been announced.
The Black Student Union is a student organization that has been particularly vocal about continuing conversations on race in response to this recent incident.
“As the Black Student Union, we always like to ask our students, our members, ‘what do you want to see on campus’ and ‘how can we talk to the higher-ups so we can make it happen,” said Sophie LeNoir, secretary of Black Student Union.
These discussions within the Benedictine community have also brought up questions about how the incident fits into a wider pattern of racial incidents and discussions at universities across America.
Provost Ken Newbold mentioned instances of universities changing the names of buildings and the removal of statues elsewhere.
“In the last handful of years, colleges and universities across the country have dealt with issues of race, and racial justice and injustice,” Dr. Newbold said.
The Chronicle of Higher education notes two particular examples of these changes across the country in a series of articles. In 2018, student activists at the University of Cincinnati rallied to change the name of a building named for businessman and slave owner Charles McMicken.
Another instance occurred on February 11th this year, as the University of Alabama voted to remove the name of Bibb Graves, a noted ex-Klansman from one of their buildings. Instead, the building will be named for the first Black student to enroll at the school.
The article does note however that this is not a universal phenomenon, recounting instances at the University of South Carolina and the University of Georgia where similar building renaming initiatives failed.
The renaming of buildings is not the only change that has been seen relating to racial issues. Provost Newbold also noted that the topic of language has specifically become a primary point of discussion at other institutions.
An incident much closer to Benedictine’s Lisle campus occurred in December of 2020 when University of Illinois professor Jason Kilborn used a racial slur as a part of an exam analyzing the usage of the slur in hypothetical legal proceedings. According to the Chicago Tribune, Kilborn was removed from teaching classes until he completed a series of diversity courses and sessions.
Kilborn has since filed suit against UIC in the U.S District Court of Chicago. In the filing, Kilborn made four claims, being the “Violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, Violation of University of Illinois Statutes, Violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and Violation of the Illinois Violence Prevention Plan.”
“A university, of all places, has very clear obligations to the First Amendment and academic freedom and due process and that have just run roughshod over all of these things here,” Kilborn said.
In this case, the first amendment refers to the right to free and protected speech. The fifth amendment refers to claims that Kilborn wasn’t given a fair chance to defend himself against the accusations made against him. The 14th amendment referred to in both the first and third claims refers to the right of due process, which is a running theme throughout much of Kilborn’s suit.
Excepting the highly public lawsuit, this particular case shares many striking similarities with the ongoing circumstances surrounding the incident on Benedictine’s campus. The academic context is similar, as are the highly polarized responses both incidents have inspired.
Kilborn also called for the creation of policies that would allow for students “to have some degree of comfort, but acknowledging that it’s going to be uncomfortable sometimes.”
One such policy that some universities have begun to adopt in response to these incidents is the formation of Bias Response Teams, which serve a number of functions, such as “educational ‘prevention,’ investigating alleged bias incidents, disciplining offenders, and organizing ‘coping events’ after such incidents” according to Jeffrey Aaron Snyder and Amna Khalid in a 2016 article written for The New Republic.
As of 2016, the article noted, over 100 colleges and universities utilized Bias Response Teams, often known as BRTs, BARTs, BERTs, or BIRTs. These BRTs have received criticism in their short time among universities as being vague, overreaching, and discouraging meaningful academic discourse.
“A criminal justice framework informs much of the work done by BRTs, with terms such as “victim,” “Perpetrator” and “offender.” Said Snyder and Khalid in their article.
The place of BRTs and BRT adjacent programs on university campuses is still a currently developing field of academic and racial discourse. Whether Benedictine will see a similar system instituted remains to be seen.