A campus debate erupted over the limits of acceptable classroom speech when a veteran professor’s use of a racial slur in a class on hate speech prompted some students to walk out and the course to subsequently be canceled by the professor.

Professor Lawrence Rosen canceled the course because he felt he couldn’t get it “back on track,” the department chair said.
Photo: Nick Donnoli/Office of Communications
During the first meeting of the anthropology course “Cultural Freedoms — Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography,” taught by professor emeritus Lawrence Rosen, a small number of students walked out of the classroom following Rosen’s use of the N-word in a question about cultural taboos: “What is worse, a white man punching a black man, or a white man calling a black man a n****r?” Among the class of 65, about eight were black students, according to Destiny Salter ’20, one of the students. 

Students challenged the use of the term by Rosen, who used the word three times during the class, according to The Daily Princetonian. At one point a student who had walked out returned to the classroom and confronted the professor, using an expletive, before walking out again. Some students demanded that Rosen apologize; he did not, and said he used the word because it “was supposed to deliver a gut punch,” the Prince said. 

In the wake of the incident, the University issued a statement saying that “the conversations and disagreements that took place in the seminar led by Professor Rosen ... are part of the vigorous engagement and robust debate that are central to what we do” and that it would look for ways to encourage discussions about free speech and inclusivity with the class and the campus community. Before the class could meet for a second time, however, Rosen sent an email to students canceling the course. 

Anthropology department chair Carolyn Rouse, who defended Rosen in a letter to the Prince, said he had “started the class by breaking a number of taboos in order to get the students to recognize their emotional response to cultural symbols,” and said he had used the same example in past courses without prompting the type of response that resulted this year. She said Rosen’s decision to cancel the course was his alone, and that he made it because he felt he “couldn’t get the course back on track.” 

Rosen, who did not respond to PAW’s request for comment, is completing a 40-year career at Princeton, having won awards for his teaching and having received one of the first MacArthur Fellow grants. He has often been identified with progressive movements, Rouse said. 

News of the course cancellation came just hours before the February CPUC meeting, where President Eisgruber ’83 expressed support for Rosen on grounds of academic freedom. “I respect the pedagogical decision he made, although I also appreciate it’s a controversial one,” Eisgruber said. “You’ve got to have the freedom to speak up or to say things that may be upsetting to people ... but we also provide the support so that if people are going into those arguments, that they actually feel able to speak up.” Diversity and inclusion do not compete with free speech, he said — rather, they are complementary values. 

The anthropology department will make course syllabi clearer on what students should expect, according to Rouse. “In the past, there was much more homogeneity in the academy and the sense that everyone was coming from the same point of view and perspective,” she said. But as universities have become more diverse, she said, “we can’t make presumptions that our students know where we’re coming from.” 

Politics professor Keith Whittington, author of a new book on why universities must defend free speech (see the March 7 issue of PAW), said that among the faculty, “Everyone understands these are risky and difficult classes.” He said professors should try to explain “why it is you do these things, what you’re trying to accomplish in a class like that, and what the difficulties are.” Trying to craft rules saying “you can’t do that” could hamper the ability of faculty to teach and of students to learn, he said, but “you also should be listening to students to hear what their concerns are.”

Salter said she had joined the class “knowing we would be discussing controversial issues, expecting some conversation about the use of the N-word to come up. My problem was I don’t think you need to use hate speech in order to discuss it in a productive way.”

During a Feb. 21 Whig-Clio event, students debated whether Rosen ought to have used the word in the classroom. After the debate, students voted 34–11 that the professor should not have used the term. College Pulse, an unscientific online survey platform, asked Ivy League students about their views on the incident. Of the 400 Princeton students who took the survey, 39 percent were sympathetic to Rosen, 35 percent were sympathetic to the students who walked out, and the remainder were not sure or not familiar with the incident.