TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Editorial:  'Cowering Oregon Law Faculty Need To Learn What Decency, Tolerance And Diversity Really Look Like'

Oregon 2

Following up on my previous posts (links below):  

The Oregonian editorial, Straitjacketed at the University of Oregon:

Despite Donald Trump's ascension to the presidency, political correctness has risen nationally in recent years and placed a choke hold on communities that depend most on free speech and the freedom to fruitfully resolve differences. It's a damaging irony that's come home to Oregon.

In Eugene, at the University of Oregon, a law professor held a Halloween party at her off-campus house this year and wished to provoke a discussion about racism in society and some of its premier institutions. One of those institutions is Brown University, on the other side of the country, where the law professor's daughter attends medical school and had noted a lack of diversity. So University of Oregon School of Law Professor Nancy Shurtz, a tax specialist who'd previously chaired the law school's diversity committee, decided to "play" the protagonist in Dr. Damon Tweedy's memoir, Black Man in a White Coat, by greeting visitors in a white coat, stethoscope and blackface. Happy Halloween.

It didn't play out. Bad idea? Check. Miscalculation? Check. Offensive? In every way. Stupid, even? Yes. Black face is a relic of 19th Century theater and correctly viewed as a modern form of racist stereotyping. It's ugly. It's no joke. And it's no way to open a conversation, not even on Halloween: Putting on blackface is to grab the third rail against tolerance.

But was Shurtz' action malevolent? No. Racist? Unwittingly. Harmful? Yes, but not because it was so wrong-headed or because there was evidence offered by aggrieved individuals. Instead, the incident has become harmful to the brand of the law school, 23 of whose faculty members were so cowed by the event that they asked Shurtz to immediately resign. In shame. As an idiot. Significantly, as in: not one of them.

This is dangerous, hive-minded stuff. It carries the whiff of fascistic decrees that act, over time, to crush individuals and tamp down fruitful disagreement. Meanwhile, it coddles the privileged: faculty, law students and prospective law students, whose protection both real and promised places them in a padded world immune from even perceived discomfort. Who now would dare speak provocatively in a climate in which a distinguished colleague is asked by peers to quit because, well, she made a mistake? If Shurtz finds herself needing a lawyer, may it be a U of O-minted sharpshooter who could show cowering faculty members what decency, tolerance and diversity really look like. ...

Shurtz is on administrative leave as the incident is investigated. She has apologized and in her apology shows she is mystified by her own capacity to get it so wrong. Meanwhile, there is no publicly available record of behavior by Shurtz that would indicate she is a racist. Reasonably, Shurtz has not resigned. And she should not resign. ...

Ease up, U of O. Take a deep breath. One of your own messed up, but not so badly things can't be set right in such a manner as to edify both students and faculty. Generosity and wit, not tyrannical brow-beating, typically characterize healthy, diverse and free communities.

The Oregonian, Academic Group Criticizes UO For Punishing Law Professor for Blackface Costume:

The University of Oregon's decision to place a law professor on administrative leave for wearing blackface to a Halloween party at her own home was "unwise" and "appalling," according to professors group. ...

"This attack on Dr. Shurtz's academic freedom is a direct consequence of the environment of politically correct partisanship and the ideological narrowing of higher education in the state that needs to be changed," said Bruce Gilley, the president of the Oregon chapter of the National Association of Scholars. Gilley said Shurtz should be immediately reinstated by the university.

School of Law Dean Michael Moffitt said Nov. 4 Shurtz would be on administrative leave pending an investigation by the school's Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity. ...

In its statement issued Tuesday, Gilley's chapter said it "hopes that Professor Shurtz will vigorously defend her legal rights in the case. "OAS reminds university officials that they undermine the purpose of higher education when they cower before ideological enforcers on campus and bully university members into conforming with their demands."

Prior TaxProf Blog coverage:

Legal Education | Permalink


This kind of thing is a good example of why Trump won

Posted by: mike livingston | Nov 13, 2016 3:41:51 AM

Not only should she not resign or be fired, but maybe she can star in a comedic remake of "The Human Stain." Not Nicole Kidman, but what she did is certainly evidence she has the mind of a 30-something.

Posted by: Diogenes | Nov 13, 2016 4:06:31 AM

So now we have a considerably lower level of respect for a U-O degree. I'm sure previous graduates are just thrilled about this.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey | Nov 13, 2016 4:52:45 AM

Isn't Halloween a holiday? Aren't parties supposed to be held for FUN? What kind of person decides to use a party to "provoke a discussion about racism in society and some of its premier institutions"? Sheesh, leave me off your invitation list.

I'll join everyone else who's defending this woman, but for the love of God she could afford to dial it back a little herself.

Posted by: Gene | Nov 13, 2016 6:01:41 AM

Doesn't the term Social Justice Warrior imply a parallel legal system. One which pays no heed to the rule of law, one in which most of us have no say, one where the rules are not written, one in which due process is ignored.

Posted by: Mike Enns | Nov 13, 2016 6:20:29 AM

Can't feel too bad for her. Had it been someone else doing such an awful, insensitive thing -- say a kid wearing a sombrero -- she would likely be first to jump down their culture-appropriating throat. Live by PC, die by PC. Boo hoo.

Posted by: kishke | Nov 13, 2016 8:11:34 AM

> This attack on Dr. Shurtz's academic freedom

Academic freedom is for teaching and research not going to a party.

I am as anti-PC as the next guy, "academic freedom" isn't/shouldn't be the hill you choose to fight this on.

Posted by: momo | Nov 13, 2016 9:10:31 AM

I wonder on which side Professor Shurtz, previously chair of the law school's diversity committee, would have stood had instead of her it had been one of her colleagues who broke a commandment. Would she have signed her name to the document calling for the idiot racist to resign?

Posted by: Miller | Nov 13, 2016 9:54:14 AM

Her biggest mistake was to apologise. She should have stood by her actions and message and told the Commisars what they can do with their totalitarianism.

Posted by: David | Nov 13, 2016 1:16:54 PM

Many years ago, while preservation efforts were still underway, I visited what's now a museum build around the Vasa, a long-ago Swedish warship whose design was so top-heavy, it sank before it left Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage.

My recall may not be perfect, but I seem to remember the commentary that accompanied a carving at the front of the ship—a lion unconcerned at a puppy that was engaging it in a mock fight. The message, I was told, was that if you're really strong, you need not concern yourself with minor threats to your dignity.

Our universities in general and our law schools in particularly have failed to take note of the opposite principle. Admit under racial quotas students that aren't up to the schools usual standards and those students soon feel threatened, out-of-place and upset. Having little innate sense of dignity, they develop an elaborate public one that becomes even more sensitive over time.

That's what we're seeing here. It also explains why, Asian students, often admitted under quotas that discriminate against them, display so little of this touchiness.

Posted by: Michael W. Perry | Nov 14, 2016 6:53:41 AM

Michael W. Perry.

I am not sure where you are going with this. It appears that you are trying to assert that the real issue here is the black student. I have not read anything about a black student forcing this professor to wear a blackface Halloween costume. Nor have I heard reports that Asian students have no problem with their professors dressing in yellow face or asserting that black students shouldn't have a problem with it. Am I missing something?

Posted by: Not Michael Perry | Nov 14, 2016 9:51:32 AM

This is why white people laugh nervously and change the subject when someone says we need to have a conversation about race. It's like hearing "I think you should tapdance through that minefield. I'll wait here and score your performance."

Posted by: Criticas | Nov 14, 2016 12:12:24 PM

"This is why white people laugh nervously and change the subject when someone says we need to have a conversation about race. "
The real reason is when a leftist says this, they dont actually want a 2 sided conversation. They want to lecture you on how bigoted you are, and how you owe them because of that. And if you try and make it a real 2 sided conversation, that just proves your bigotry.

Posted by: richard40 | Nov 15, 2016 8:13:34 AM