University Decision-Making, Academic Freedom and the N Word: Towson University’s Overreaction in Firing Allen Zaruba

–Richard E. Vatz

A basic summary of the case of the firing of Towson University (TU) Adjunct Professor Allen Zaruba is as follows: Professor Zaruba, while teaching his Visual Concepts class at TU, classified himself as “a nigger on the corporate plantation.” In a comprehensive piece by Tyler Waldman in the school newspaper The Towerlight, which article parenthetically distinguished itself by having more information and more accurate information than any other print outlet, we learn that Prof. Zaruba iterated this self-description “while reviewing a chapter about identity and the body.” He almost immediately stated his profound regret and embarrassment. He recognized that the N word was a hurtful, contemptible, and academically unenlightening term.

One student’s parents complained to the provost, and three days later Prof. Zaruba was fired by the Towson University Provost, after consultation with the professor’s chairperson and others, perhaps including Towson’s president.

Regarding the propriety of the firing, I should like to offer the following observations regarding Towson University’s decision-making in this case:

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1. The decision was made precipitously. To fire a professor — even an unprotected adjunct professor — 3 days following one student’s complaint is hardly contemplative decision-making. Towson administrators received one complaint from one student and that student’s parent. The university typically seems to lack the ability to assess the representativeness of student-parent complaints and opinion. When there is a complaint by one or two, TU thinks it has a revolution on its hands.

2. The decision ignored criteria of the offender’s history and intent. There has been no indication from anyone that Prof. Zaruba has ever displayed any racial prejudice. Moreover, there is not even the allegation that his remarks had racial malice.

3. The decision ignored the tremendous presumption necessary for freedom of speech in the classroom. To truly encourage the flourishing of the proverbial “marketplace of ideas,” we must ensure that there is no chilling of free expression in our classrooms. Does TU wish to entertain complaint after complaint regarding analogous slips of the tongue or ambiguously motivated locutions in the narrating of prejudice or current and historical rhetoric? I discussed the Zaruba affair in my class – may I use the N word in narrating the situation? I didn’t, but could or should I have?

4. The argument was made by the Provost’s office that Prof. Zaruba’s remarks were “not part of the academic discussion of his classroom.” This probably references the American Association of University Professors’(AAUP) ambiguous point in their “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” that “Teachers…should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” There is no specific sanction recommended, and this is a particularly weak justification for the firing of Prof. Zaruba. All professors go off-topic, and it is never clear what “off-topic” constitutes in the humanities or social sciences.

5. The argument has been made by several sources that TU should have been more forthcoming than issuing a written statement by the Provost. Were I giving advice to university administrators, I would have told them to do exactly as they did if they insisted on making this decision: issue a statement of fact, but do not discuss the decision further publicly. Irrespective of Prof. Zaruba’s claim that he will pursue no legal recourse beyond extant discussions with his attorney, such claims are not legally binding, and a stray remark made by university officials could be legally detrimental to the university.

At the risk of sounding like Graham Allison analyzing the Cuban Missile Crisis through the bureaucratic process, I want to say that this was a failure in judgment by otherwise bright and reasonable administrators. Such good folks could and should reconsider their untoward decision-making process and decision, and they should either reinstate Prof. Zaruba or hire him back in the near future.

I would bet my AAUP membership that he will not repeat the error.

Professor Vatz has been on the faculty of Towson University for over 35 years and a member of its University Senate for over 30 years

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