An Augsburg professor was suspended for using N-word in class

The class was discussing the language used in a work by James Baldwin.
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A professor at Augsburg University has been suspended for the past few months amid controversy over his decision to use the N-word in a classroom discussion.

Augsburg issued a statement last week providing an update on the faculty member, stating that his suspension would carry over into the new semester as the investigation was still ongoing.

"While the review process moves forward, the faculty member involved remains active at the university, with assignments outside the specific class and program areas involved with the review," the university said.

The professor has been identified as Phil Adamo, who teaches history and medieval studies at the university and was named the 2015 Minnesota Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

The controversy centers on an honors seminar he held in late October in which the class discussed The Fire Next Time, a book by African-American novelist James Baldwin.

What happened?

There are conflicting stories on what happened that day in class.

One version, as reported by Inside Higher Ed, states that a student quoted the line: "You can really only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a [N-word]," except the student said it in full, with Adamo then repeating it, asking the class whether it's right to use it.

But the Augsburg Echo reported in November that it was Adamo who used the quote and then repeated it in the context of a wider discussion, with the class ultimately resolving that it shouldn't be used in the future.

Either way, what happened next is Adamo sent students an email with links to two essays by Andre Perry and Ta-Nehisi Coates that discusses the use of the N-word, which Inside High Ed reports some students took as Adamo "forcing" his opinion on them, suggesting he was justified in his use of it in an educational setting.

Adamo then had a conversation with several non-enrolled honors students who turned up at his next class, one of whom was recording him, apparently without his knowledge, and later uploaded the audio to Facebook and YouTube, titling it: "Phil Adamo justifying his use of the N-word."

During this recorded conversation, Adamo said he knew he'd made a mistake "the moment it came out of my mouth." He also noted that he'd not been "operating at 100 percent" and said it was "horrifying" to think he was "contributing to people feeling attacked."

He later wrote a note to honors students in which he stated that he considers the classroom to be "a place where any and every topic can be explored, even those topics considered to be taboo," and that he would "weigh the consequences of absolute academic freedom versus outcomes that lead to hurt, racial trauma, and loss of trust."

You can read more background on the fallout from the October class from the Augsburg Echo here, and Inside Higher Ed here.

The suspension

Adamo was removed from his teaching and honors program director duties for the rest of the fall semester, which as mentioned earlier, has now been extended to this semester.

In its statement, Augsburg said that while the initial reports came in following the October seminar, it has since found "a variety of concerning issues" relating to "student experiences beyond that specific event."

CityPages notes that Adamo's suspension has sparked a discussion about free speech, with the professor receiving support from the Minnesota council of the American Association of University Professors.

However, some members of the Augsburg faculty wrote a column in the Echo saying his use of the N-word "caused harm to our students."

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