Editors note: An earlier version of this story inaccurately attributed a quote about the blackface photos to Doane’s Diversity Officer Luis Sotelo.
Perkins Library Director Melissa Gomis was escorted off campus and placed on administrative leave Monday after displaying a photo of students wearing blackface.
Gomis being escorted off campus angered faculty members who question whether administrators have violated academic freedom.
Political Science and Sociology Professor Tim Hill believes this is a “textbook academic freedom violation.”
The photo was part of a “Parties from the Past” exhibit outside of the Perkins Library, said Chief Diversity Officer Luis Sotelo. There were over two dozen photos, of which two featured Doane students in blackface costume for Halloween. The photos were from the mid-1920s.
The photos were part of Doane’s historical archive, said Chris Wentworth, Physics professor and American Association of University Professors (AAUP) representative. A student, or a group of students, saw the photos and reported them because they were offended. Gomis proceeded to take them down, he said.
The two photos were removed on April 19 and the entire exhibit was taken down on April 29, Sotelo said.
Reprimanding Gomis, who is a faculty member, is a clear violation of academic freedom, Wentworth said. Higher education is a place where students should have their perspectives challenged, he said.
“Yes, the photo is very insulting, but it has significant historical value,” said Wentworth. “The fact that we can just ignore things that are offensive is very troubling and dangerous. You should be offended. But [displaying those photos] is not enough for administration to place a sanction.”
The faculty handbook addresses academic freedom. It states: “Faculty are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to the specific subject.”
But there is not a further explanation on what is or is not included in academic freedom on campus. This is part of the problem, Hill said.
Gomis talked with other faculty about the educational benefit of the photos before she put them up, Hill said.
“Sometimes difficult conversations need to be had,” Hill said. “I don't know why she put them up but I know she took the question seriously when thinking whether or not to put the picture up. The institution should give her the benefit of the doubt.”
History Professor Mark Orsag disagrees and believes that offensive material shouldn’t have been on display at all, he said.
Until now, Sociology Professor Nathan Erickson said that he had always felt comfortable deciding what to teach in his own classes.
“No one wants to advocate for the use of blackface,” he said. “But (Gomis) went ahead and took (the photo) down and was responsive to a student’s needs. And after you’re responsive, then you get in trouble? That’s a big problem.”
Erickson also thought Gomis was illustrating actual history at Doane as an important lesson for students, he said.
“It is central to a liberal arts education to know the truth about our past,” he said.
Gomis declined to comment.
President Carter commented on the incident in an email to students on Monday.
“On behalf of Doane University, I want to apologize for the display of these photos and for the hurt that they have caused,” he said. “Such an insensitive action is unacceptable and will not be tolerated now or in the future.”
Wentworth views placing Gomis on leave as another way administration is not cooperating with faculty, he said.
“There is a deep alienation with the President and the Arts and Sciences faculty,” Wentworth said. “(There is also) distrust between many faculty and the administration. I’m pained by this. This is not the kind of learning environment I want to be in.”
Administration is now investigating the “surrounding facts,” Sotelo said.
Wentworth and Hill agree that the administration made a crucial mistake by not investigating the issue before removing Gomis, they said.
“For administrators to make those judgments and not involve other faculty members is a violation of AAUP guidelines and a violation of the common understanding of academic freedom,” Hill said. “It's in the best interest for the school not to go further into this.”
The local AAUP chapter will be looking into this issue in the fall, Wentworth said. The organization might offer remedial training for administrators to understand academic freedom.
“The administration is not equipped intellectually to handle these issues,” he said. “There are so many offensive things from history. If we refuse to look at those, then we are treading down a dangerous path.