Shannon Gibney, a full-time English professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), has received steady support from faculty across the country who charge that the college violated her right to academic freedom when they reprimanded her for teaching about structural racism.
“Our contract indicates we have academic freedom,” says Barbara Hager, who is president of the faculty union and a full-time professor of fine arts at MCTC. “If we can’t have hard conversations without being reprimanded, where can we have them?”
According to Gibney, Dr. Lois Bollman, the Vice President of Academic Affairs, accused her of creating a “hostile work environment” after two White male students complained that they felt singled out during the discussion and filed a formal complaint with the school’s office of legal affairs.
Hager, who is White, has used the incident to bring public attention to the college, which she says is in a deep crisis for its inability to publicly address diversity issues.
“There has to be healing among the faculty,” says Hager, who says that seven minority faculty have either been terminated or resigned in recent years after expressing their dismay with the college’s handling of diversity issues. She says that numerous complaints are pending with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and two other minority faculty have filed discriminatory lawsuits against the college. “We’ve not had the kind of training to welcome faculty of color. We have some racist attitudes and, of course, there is White privilege.”
Gibney declined to comment on the incident, but college officials refute Gibney’s allegations in a statement. “The college has taken no steps to prohibit faculty members from teaching about racism, including structural racism. MCTC has never disciplined a faculty member for teaching or discussing structural racism. Conversations about race, class and power are important and regular parts of many classes at MCTC and have been for years.”
College officials say that 23.7 percent of the faculty is made up of people of color—more than the statewide average. In addition, they argue that the percentage of permanent faculty of color doubled from 11 percent in 2006 to about 22.7 percent in 2002.
“Like America, we certainly have some issues, but in my opinion, we are not a campus much different from any other campus in the country,” says Dr. Whitney Harris, who spearheads the school’s equity, inclusion and diversity initiatives. “It is not a hotbed of racism.”
Harris, who is Black, and previously served as the executive director of diversity and multiculturalism for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MSCU) system before assuming the post at MCTC in June, says that he has conducted numerous trainings for faculty and staff since he arrived at the college.
“I’m not trying to paint a picture as if everything is perfect,” says Harris. “We have lots of work to do, but we are doing lots of program.”
Last year, the faculty union took a vote of no confidence against the school’s president, Phil Davis, who has been at the helm since 1998 and called for his immediate ouster.
But Steven Rosenstone, chancellor of the MSCU system, refused to remove Davis from the position.
Hager says that, under Davis’ tenure, programs aimed at retaining African Americans have been drastically slashed. She adds that, besides Harris, all of the other top administrators at the college are White.
“We need to hire more faculty and administrators of color so that they can have important discussions with each other,” says Hager, who has been at the college since 2001. “Institutional racism, structural racism and White privilege is not an abstract idea. It’s the real world.”
Jamal Watson can be reached at [email protected].