KU prof loses job despite being cleared by investigation

A professor at the University of Kansas has lost her job after allegedly inappropriately using a racial slur in class, despite a lengthy investigation that cleared her of all charges.

In November, several KU students filed complaints against Professor Andrea Quenette, alleging that she had inappropriately used the n-word during a class discussion, though Quenette vigorously denies that she used the word in a discriminatory nature, saying she was simply “retelling a factual example about an issue elsewhere.”

“I believe it is well within the purview of my job to discuss these issues and indeed, it was related to the focus of the class for the day,” Quenette explained in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “My words were not intended to hurt anyone but rather to make a larger point that the solutions to race and diversity issues on our campus must directly address the specific problems our campus faces.”

Indeed, the discussion of racial slurs likely was “within the purview” of her job, not only that day, but all days, since the class was a crash course on pedagogy for graduate teaching assistants, meaning its explicit task was to address the proper way to disseminate controversial information to students.

Her students, however, insist that she used the slur in a derogatory manner, accusing her of saying, “As a white woman I just never have seen the racism…it’s not like I see ‘nigger’ spray painted on walls,” but Quenette later explained that the full context shows that she was discussing the difference between campuses like KU and other more urban universities, where racial graffiti can regularly be found on campus.

Nonetheless, her students sent an open letter to KU’s administration demanding she be terminated, doubling-down on their claims that she used the slur in a derogatory, rather than educational, manner.

“The usage of racially charged rhetoric ignores the plethora of phenomenological data we have about the way students of color experience the university,” the students argue in their letter. “Most immediately concerning are the ways this terminology functions as terroristic and threatening to the cultivation of a safe learning environment.”

Quenette’s husband, Scott Quenette, told Campus Reform that the letter was conveniently crafted to disparage his wife, stretching the truth well beyond the original accusation.

“I can tell you unequivocally that the open letter written about her was carefully curated by several students in an attempt to pile on accusations above and beyond the original discrimination complaint,” he said.

At the time, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) even sent a letter to the school’s administration explaining that her comment was made in response to specific questions from students in regards to how to approach particularly sensitive issues.

“Her comments were made during a single class session in response to inquiries from her students specifically seeking her opinions on how to approach particular issues in their own teaching,” FIRE explains. “Thus, the comments were germane to the classroom subject matter and advanced an academic message. Quenette’s comments were not intended to insult or denigrate her students but were instead intended to demonstrate the limits of her knowledge and perceptions of racism in society, as the students’ letter acknowledges.”

FIRE goes on to note that Quenette’s right to speak freely on these issues “violates no KU policy,” but the students dispute that claim in their complaint, saying that “by imbuing racist language, remarks, and viewpoints into the pedagogy her students were meant to replicate,” Quenette was “training us to perpetrate acts and ideas violating the policies of the university.

“Therefore, her speech is not protected by the First Amendment and employer discipline for her remarks is not only legal, but necessary based on her breach of contract,” they conclude, adding, “We want to be absolutely clear that we will not attend this class, we will not accept being graded by Dr. Quenette … and we will not feel safe to learn and grow as teachers and scholars while under the supervision of Dr. Quenette.”

Despite FIRE’s best efforts, the school placed Quenette on administrative leave pending an investigation into the allegation, which cleared her of all charges four months later.

Now, however, the school has informed Quenette that it will not be renewing her contract in 2017 on the grounds that she did not conduct sufficient research to continue on her track towards tenure, even though she was put on leave during the time frame in which she was expected to carry out her research.

Mr. Quenette told Campus Reform that the school’s tenure review committee even recommended that his wife be allowed an additional year to catch up on her research because of her unique situation.

“They conveniently also used her lack of research to legitimize the action. The Progress Toward Tenure Review Committee and Andrea's department both wanted to give her another year to catch up before conducting another review, but the dean summarily rejected that recommendation and decided unilaterally to non-reappoint,” he explained. “This is a very important detail that has been glossed over nearly everywhere.”

He added that Dean Carl Lejuez conducted several interviews after the fact with students who brought forth the allegations, claiming that it was these interviews that inspired Lejuez’s decision to terminate his wife’s employment.

“When Andrea was cleared and supposed to return to work, the dean conducted dozens of interviews with the students, who had become one cohesive unit by that time, some of them were actually interviewed together. It was based on these interviews that his decision was made,” Mr. Quenette remarked.

Notably, Lejuez began his tenure with KU in February, several months after the initial incident occurred, meaning he wasn’t around for the majority of the investigation into Quenette’s case.

Mr. Quenette, who spoke on his wife’s behalf because of a high volume of media requests, touched on how difficult the situation has been on him and his family.

“This has been miserable for us,” he said. “The last 6 months, she has questioned her entire career. I've had a tough time convincing her she did nothing wrong. To have nearly everyone turn on her so instantly, it's been devastating. Thankfully our kids are small so they don't understand, but they know when she is sad, which has been a lot.”

He went on to note that his family relocated to Kansas for this job, but they are now stuck there away from their relatives.

“We moved our family halfway across the country for this job. Neither of us is native to Kansas so now we're here for almost no reason,” he explained. “I’m hoping Andrea can find a job in the corporate sector so she can get away from this toxic atmosphere.”

Campus Reform asked Mr. Quenette about the possibility of pursuing legal action, but he said he and his wife are not sure what their next step will be at the moment.

KU spokesman Andy Hyland declined to discuss the issue with the Lawrence Journal-World, saying he cannot discuss personnel matters.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski