The University of Wisconsin-Madison has apologized to a black student who during a class last year was shown a clip of the movie “Blazing Saddles” that features racial epithets.
During a seminar for working professionals, an instructor showed a scene of the 1974 comedy in which blacks are shown working on a railroad, according to a complaint filed by the student. Whites call the workers racial epithets and an overseer orders them to sing like slaves.
The student complained and the school’s Office of Equity and Diversity, which investigates racial discrimination, got involved. That prompted an apology in March from the Department of Professional Development and Applied Studies, which offered the course.
“It was an insensitive error to use a video clip that included inflammatory and offensive language, and it will not happen again,” department official James Campbell wrote. “We strive to plan and offer quality programming that meets the needs of an array of professionals and are sorry we fell short of that goal in this instance.”
Campbell said the student’s employer received a refund of the $230 cost of the training workshop, which the department decided not to offer again after “closely reviewing the evaluation comments.”
The apology letter was obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request that sought investigation reports by the Office of Equity and Diversity in the last year.
The university would not release the name of the instructor or precisely why the clip was shown, other than to “help make points in the curriculum.” The workshop dealt with mental health assessment and diagnosis.
University spokesman Brian Mattmiller said the instructor showed poor judgment but was not disciplined.
The instructor is not a university employee but has taught in the department on a contract basis for 20 years, Mattmiller said. The incident was the first time “Blazing Saddles,” the Mel Brooks film that is a satire of Western movies, was shown, he said.
Mattmiller said other students were offended by the clip and discussed their concerns verbally. The student’s complaint said two of the 40 students in the class were African-American.
“I did not attend the training to hear this type of derogatory, inflammatory, humiliating, painful and non-educating language,” the student wrote in the complaint. “This was a pointless and racist act on the part of your instructor.”
Mattmiller said the apology took nearly three months from the day the complaint was filed because the university lost the original complaint and had to ask the student for a second copy.
In seven other instances, the Office of Equity and Diversity found no evidence to back up claims of harassment and discrimination in the last year. The office monitors personnel policies to ensure compliance with affirmative action rules, provides discrimination training and investigates discrimination and harassment complaints.
The other cases it handled include:
• A male nurse at University Health Services claimed he was discriminated against after his job was not reclassified into a higher pay scale. The investigation found his bosses had legitimate concerns about his performance and behavior, including that he often smelled of alcohol at work.
• An employee at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Health who was fired for not showing up to work claimed she was treated more harshly than white colleagues. The investigation found no discrimination.
• A graduate student claimed an assistant professor who she worked under sexually harassed her. The professor denied the allegations and no other evidence surfaced to prove them.
• A candidate for the special assistant to the Dean of Students claimed she was passed over for the job because of her age. The interview committee determined she did not have the right credentials, the probe found.
The university blacked out the names of employees and students who complained and those who were accused of wrongdoing. Publicizing their names is unfair since no wrongdoing was uncovered, the school said, and would discourage others from complaining in the future.
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