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Department chair: Racial climate at SDSU reaching a 'boiling point'

Emilyn Mohebbi / KPBS
San Diego State University is shown in this undated photo.

Earlier this month, a tenured SDSU philosophy professor, J. Angelo Corlett was reassigned by the University administration after using racial slurs in a class where he had been teaching race, language and ethics for years.

The incident sparked outrage among many students and has raised questions about academic free speech and the overall experience of being Black on SDSU's campus.

Adisa Alkebulan, Ph.D. chair of the Africana Studies department at SDSU and also a University Senator, joined Midday Edition on Tuesday with more on the implications of the incident. The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.


Q: What have students told you happened in the classroom with Professor Corlett?

A: Well, what they've shared with me is that it started off as a discussion about language and racism and racial slurs, but it would eventually descend into a situation where the professor was just irresponsibly throwing the word around as a way to really intimidate and inflame and agitate students.

Q: Just to be clear, what word was he throwing around?

A: He was throwing around the N-word.

Q: Is this something students have complained about before?


A: Apparently it is, and I only recently learned of this because, as professors, we don't really know what other professors are doing in their classroom. So I just recently heard from students that there's been a very, very long history of using that word, but not just using the word, but complaints from students as well. So this is not new in terms of the issues that students have had with Professor Corlett in that word.

Q: Students have been reluctant to speak out about this particular incident. Why is that?

A: Well, a lot of them are not comfortable with sharing any information or stepping forward out of fear of retribution from the university, fairly or unfairly, but that's how many of them feel, and we have to understand that these are young people who did not come to San Diego State University and, in general, don't come to college to be revolutionaries. They come to learn. They come as kids, as a lot of us see them, but this is not the type of thing that they hope for and expect to experience in college.

Q: What can you tell me about the nature of Professor Corlett class and what can you tell me about him? You all have known each other for two decades?

A: Yes, we have known each other for quite some time, and what I can say is that many of his courses deal with issues of race, social justice, he talks about reparations. So in a general sense, I've always understood that about his focus, his academic focus. But only recently, again, have I learned about the interaction that he's had with students for a number of years. One of the things that he often talks about or I should say, one of the things that students have been coming forward and talking about is that he intentionally tries to agitate the students, and, according to them, he bullies them and he puts in his syllabus instructions for them not to share his syllabus or they would - my words, not necessarily theirs, I'm paraphrasing what they said - but if they share his syllabus, they will feel his wrath. So that's the kind of relationship I am now beginning to understand that he has with his students.

Q: If this is a class on racism, language and ethics, where do you think Professor Corlett went wrong in his teaching?

A: Well, I think he went wrong when he stopped talking about the N-word in the academic context. In other words, when you're talking about race, racism, racial appetites. Personally, I understand the use of that word in context, but I think the lesson went awry or the lesson effectively ended when he began to throw the word around because he told his students that he could use that word. So according to them, he used it more than 40 times, again, because he could, he told the students that the only way that he could be fired was if he raped or murdered a student. So at that point, the lesson was effectively over and something else was happening.

Q: This isn't the only incident Black students in particular have had to deal with on campus. What's the climate been like, and for how long?

A: Well, the the racial climate is probably the worst now that I've seen in my 20 years at San Diego State. But I will say that there's often been hostility for Black students and really faculty and staff as well at San Diego State. So there is a history of anti-blackness at SDSU, but I think at this moment it's kind of reaching its boiling point.

Q: What's made the climate so bad? What are students experiencing and what are our staff and faculty experiencing?

A: Well, certainly as far as students are concerned, it's a regular experience for their classmates and others to call them the N-word. Only a few years ago was the newly opened Black Resource Center vandalized and folks were hurling the N-word at students coming in and out of the Black Resource Center — or where we talk about when the library at the University rejected the John Coltrane Memorial Black Music Archive without any discussion with faculty in general, but certainly not with Africana Studies or the Black Resource Center or even considering how Black students would feel about the University inexplicably rejecting this music that represents their culture. So there are just a number of different issues right now that kind of typifies the Africana experience at San Diego State University.

Q: Why did you want to share your thoughts about this?

A: Well, our students are hurting, and by extension, I'm hurting. I see the impact that the environment is having on our students right now. I was in a meeting recently with Black students, and they were literally crying — and many of us are, not just our students. But the focus I want is to be on our students that are dealing with this racial battle fatigue. And as I mentioned before, they didn't come to San Diego State and we don't come to college to have those experiences. But unfortunately, those are the experiences that we've been having, so that's why I'm speaking out about it.

Q: An organization called FIRE has gotten involved with this particular incident with Professor Corlett, they say, in defense of academic free speech. What's your perspective on that organization and why they've become involved in this issue and others at SDSU.

A: So FIRE, they focused initially on the land acknowledgement and I don't think that it's a coincidence that this land acknowledgment is about a people of color and a university that was making an attempt to honor the culture and traditions and existence of Indigenous people, particularly the Kumeyaay, on our campus. But, because FIRE as an organization and those who support them, they don't really see us. They don't see Indigenous students, they don't see Black students. So the impact of their actions on Black and other students of color is just simply not a concern of theirs, but rather this idea, the so-called freedom of speech. So this organization has demonstrated what it values and it does not value human beings.

Q: The University sent us a statement about this incident with Professor Corlett saying, in short, the University holds in highest regards all protections for academic freedom. After reviewing multiple complaints from students, the University considered the severity of the situation and the support needed for it's students and reassigned the professor — what do you think of SDSU's response to all of this and its decision to reassign Dr. Corlett rather than something more severe?

A: Well, I support the university's decision with regard to Professor Corlett. But one of the things that I am concerned about is that Corlett is really symptomatic of a larger problem at San Diego State. So on so many levels, it's easy to focus on one professor who is problematic or behaving badly in the classroom, as opposed to dealing with some of the more systemic cultural deficiencies of the university.

  • The Federal Reserve meets Tuesday and is expected to raise interest rates in an attempt to bring down inflation. Next, an SDSU department chair said the reassignment of a tenured professor over the use of racial epithets in the classroom is a symptom of "larger cultural deficiencies" at the university. More stories on KPBS Midday Edition.