Princeton professor of visual arts Joe Scanlan
Minnie Cho / Fuseloft LLC

Students made their disapproval known after Princeton University said it is standing behind Joe Scanlan, a professor of visual arts who said the N-word in one of his classes.

The controversy started on Nov. 3 while Scanlan was teaching “Words as Objects.” Students had been assigned to read a series of poems by Jonah Mixon-Webster including “Black Existentialism No. 8: Ad Infinitum; or Ad Nauseam” — an example of concrete poetry, which is defined by the Poetry Foundation as emphasizing “nonlinguistic elements in its meaning, such as a typeface that creates a visual image of the topic.”

The poem is 24 pages consisting solely of the N-word, which in this case ends with “as.” The word itself appears in large print across the first two pages, and a series of “s’s” trail on for the remainder.

In a 2021 blog post, Mixon-Webster, who is Black, said “it is still a cultural priority to continue appraising the word while speculating on its implications for Black futurity.”

Scanlan, who is white, told PAW he said the word when asking his class how it functioned in the poem.

The fallout was immediate.

According to The Daily Princetonian, some students left, including Omar Farah ’23, who also reached out to administrators to file a complaint. Farah was told a few days later by Cheri Burgess, director for institutional equity and equal employment opportunity in the Office of the Provost, that an initial assessment “determined that, given the academic context in which the word was used, it does not implicate the Policy on Discrimination and/or Harassment,” according to the Prince.

In a statement, University spokesman Michael Hotchkiss said, “Princeton guarantees all faculty and students the ‘broadest possible latitude’ to speak freely inside and outside the classroom. Speech is only restricted under narrow exceptions that do not apply to this incident. Our rules recognize that these free speech protections apply to words and ideas that people may find ‘offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed,’ but these protections are essential for Princeton’s truth-seeking mission.”

David Smith ’24, a Black student in the class, compared Scanlan’s choice to use the N-word in class to former professor Joshua Katz calling the Black Justice League “a small local terrorist organization” in a 2020 online opinion column. Smith told PAW via email that he believes “Joe Scanlan intentionally and carefully planned his use of the word in order to raise another debate on free speech (akin to the Katz debacle) wherein he would emerge victorious.” Smith said he believes that Scanlan knew the class “would be greatly distressed by his use of the word.”

Scanlan has since written a letter, published Nov. 16 by The Daily Princetonian, in which he said he is “extremely sorry that I overestimated my familiarity with my students and assumed that we could enter a discussion … without making some ground rules, first and foremost, about whether we could use or even discuss the word at all. As I have heard loud and clear from my students, that was a grievously hurtful overestimation on my part.”

Princeton politics professor Keith Whittington, who wrote the 2018 Pre-read, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, told PAW that “it’s critically important that you maintain a certain level of comfort and trust with the students so you can actually engage in the educational process more effectively, and using that language, I think, just winds up pushing some students away. And so, I think most of the time, you’re much better off if you don’t do it.”

Scanlan has continued to teach, but Simon Wu ’17, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale, was appointed course co-adviser.

The repercussions have continued. Twenty-one visual arts students signed a letter calling for a University investigation and critical engagement “with the events [that] took place and their impact on students. And we call on the Visual Arts department to reconcile with the space they have held for racism and disrespect.”

The Prince reported that several visual arts students hung posters advocating for Scanlan’s dismissal at a Nov. 15 open studio event.

The Prince’s editorial board also published a column that stated that “white people’s use of the N-word has irreversibly harmed Black people and communities throughout the course of American history, and continues to have that effect today. Although Scanlan says he did not intend to hurt anyone, that is the consequence of his language.”