The University of Oregon will no longer tolerate “offensive” viewpoints on race, gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs from its professors—a change that may mean even tenured faculty are in danger of losing their jobs over anything students deem as “harassing” language.
Oregon law school professor Nancy Shurtz was suspended following an incident at a Halloween costume “get-together” at her home.
Shurtz, who invited her students to the informal gathering, showed up to her own party dressed in blackface, wearing a white doctor’s coat and stethoscope. Shurtz claimed the costume was a protest—a visual reminder designed to demonstrate that “she finds it reprehensible that there is a shortage of racial diversity, and particularly of black men, in higher education”—and a way of honoring the author of a recent reflection on minorities in medicine, Black Man in a White Coat.
Students at the party had mixed feelings about Shurtz’s “protest,” and the costume dominated discussion at the law school in the weeks following, with students disagreeing—often vehemently—over the propriety of Shurtz’s “speech.” A report on the incident notes that what followed wasn’t always pleasant discourse: “some of the witnesses reported that the students’ reactions to the event were racially insensitive or divisive.”
The school blamed Shurtz, not just for her own shortsightedness, but also for the ensuing drama. The school’s administration called her actions, “harassment,” and moved for her suspension, with an eye to her eventual dismissal.
But Oregon went so far that it has a number of professors worried that their unpopular viewpoints could spark enough controversy to get them fired, too. Not content to limit their criticism to Shurtz’s own actions, the professors blamed her for inciting a wave of harassing behavior, and claimed the full event rose to the level of “discriminatory harassment” under Title VI.
“[T]he existence of a racially hostile environment that is created, encouraged, accepted, tolerated or left uncorrected by a recipient also constitutes different treatment on the basis of race in violation of title VI.”
The administration claimed that Shurtz, whose speech is actually protected under the University’s own free speech policy, fomented racial hostility among the students, because there were “strong conflicts of opinion” on whether her behavior was appropriate, and because students felt “anxiety” and a “lack of trust” in their professors as a result.
They justified their finding by noting that, as a public school, they have to protect those they serve. “The State, as an employer, in maintaining the efficiency of its operations and avoiding potential or actual disruption outweighs the employee’s interest in commenting on the matter of public concern.”
Under that logic, any professor who makes any statement that eventually creates ripples of discontent among the student body would be eligible for dismissal, if not prosecution, according to law professor Eugene Volokh. Any controversial speech that causes any small disruption, or offends any number of students, or even so much as forces another professor or administrator to handle an additional workload is actionable.
That’s not good precedent—and based on Heat Street reports alone, could mean a lot of out of work professors in the near future.