To the casual observer of contemporary academia, Don Matthews was doing his students a solid by shutting up. It would behoove many present-day teachers to follow his example. However, for administrators at Naropa University, in Colorado, where Matthews teaches religious studies, his refusal to say a word in class over the course of an entire week was a bridge too far. Early last week, they suspended him (with pay!). Now he is accusing the school of racial discrimination.
The belief that he and blacks in general are the deliberate victims of systematic racial oppression is nothing new for Matthews. Despite 17% of the student body self-identifying as “of color,” Matthews has long contended that there is lack of diversity on campus. Last year, he filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. It was the sense that his students were conspiring against him because of his skin color that led to ultimately to his silent protest as well as to threaten more than 30 of them with defamation lawsuits.
Reacting to Matthews’ claim that the administration’s actions were racially motivated, Naropa President Charles Lief insisted the case is being dealt with according to university policies, telling the Daily Camera of Boulder:
If this was a completely random set of circumstances and facts and nobody had a clue if the faculty member was male, female, African American, white, whatever, we would have taken the same steps. We're not looking for him to leave. We want him to stay. [Emphasis added]
But Matthews isn’t buying it. "I knew it was my time," he said. "I knew they were going to target me." He added:
I just want to be treated fairly. This is just another example of how African American scholars and administrators who press for diversity have been treated. We get targeted.
Now he is conducting his protests — this time with sound — outside of classroom. He and his supporters claim they want the university to bring in an independent mediator to deal with issues of bias and racism on the private school's campus. Said Matthews:
The best possible outcome is that Naropa develops a program to deal with institutional racism. That's why I filed the complaint, to try to change this institution.
In support of his contention that the university is racist, Matthews cites other black faculty members and administrators who left. He mentions Stuart Lord, the university's first black president (shown here), who resigned after two years on the job. Another Daily Camera article, this one from 2011, is vague about the reasons for Lord’s departure. It quotes the Naropa Board of Trustees as stating, “The university and Dr. Lord have arrived at a mutually agreed-upon arrangement, with the leadership transition commencing next week." A spokesperson for the university adds that Lord’s decision was based on “personal and family considerations." Granted, these are telltale signs of an acrimonious parting, but there could be a host of factors that precipitated the decision. I searched headlines using an assortment of key words in an effort to ferret out the truth, but it appears that both parties agreed to remain silent. If Matthews knows the “real” reason, he is not saying.
But in other regards, Matthews said too much, at least back when he was speaking to his students. One of the complaints filed against Matthews is from a student who claims he was singled out and told he needed therapy. Others claim they were afraid to walk back into class.
Lief remains a Matthews devotee:
Don Matthews is a faculty member who teaches at the edge, and that's important to us. He's provocative. He brings a different perspective, which is obviously unique to Naropa and unique to Boulder. He's an African American, Christian minister who comes to the university from an urban world that, frankly, many people here are not familiar with.
It was no secret when he was hired that he was going to be a provocative faculty member. My view is that when you're going to teach at the provocative end of the spectrum, then you have to be pretty aware of where the line is.
It sounds as though Matthews has no idea where the spectrum is, much less the line.
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