What Happens When a SAIS Professor Uses a Racial Slur in Class?

Read Time:10 Minute, 22 Second

Matthew Schleich and Maya Prakash

Edited by Amy Ouyang

Student complaint challenges University policies; BSU drives the conversation forward

Dr. Piero Gleijeses was lecturing his Race and Empire: The United States from Independence through World War II students last October when he referenced the language written by a white American soldier in 1898. “N***ers with guns,” the soldier referred to his Black colleagues. “N***ers with guns,” Gleijeses said aloud in the classroom. He continued to use the word in class, and it did not seem clear if he was still quoting or if he was using this language as his own. 

Valencia Shuler, a Black student in Professor Gleijeses’s class, couldn’t believe what she had heard. 

“I texted my mom,” Shuler says, “I couldn’t believe it. He just kept saying it over and over… nobody said anything. It made me feel so uncomfortable.”

To express her discomfort privately, Shuler decided to speak with the professor over the phone. She wanted to clarify the situation. 

“He was disrespectful and condescending,” Shuler notes of the meeting. “I expressed that it made me and some of my classmates uncomfortable, however, he said he felt it was important to use this language. He told me ‘to use the term African American would be silly’… He kept asking me how I would better teach the class, and every time I would try to […] give alternate language that he could use, he would tell me I was wrong.”

Dr. Gelijeses confirmed the meeting in a call with The Observer, stating, “I needed to use the language of the time… I think it is absurd to suggest we censor the past.”

He also corroborated that he did not express regret for using the word and that he did not issue an apology to the class nor any student individually. After explaining the context of his lecture for some time, he referenced aloud the diary of the white American soldier again, “N***ers with guns.” He continued to use the word on the phone, and it was unclear whether he was quoting anything as he repeated the word twice more. 

“Look at my class reviews,” Dr. Gelijeses asserts. “I have been teaching the course the same way for 20 years and have not received a complaint.”

After her meeting with the Professor, Shuler came face to face with a question that many students have previously wrestled with: how do I report a racially insensitive incident to my school? Ultimately, she confided in a friend on the SAIS Black Student Union (BSU) board and to a trusted advisor, who, only after recounting her experience, she discovered was a mandated reporter. However, it is confirmed that one student anonymously reported the incident to another school official.

Inside the School’s Response 

After hearing about the incident, Khorey Baker, SAIS’s Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, submitted a report to the JHU-wide Office of Institutional Equity (OIE). On a Zoom call, Baker confirmed to The Observer that, as a mandated reporter, he is required to notify the OIE of any incidents concerning racial equity. From here, the complaint and the University-backed repercussions lie solely in the judgment of the OIE investigators.

The OIE is, by design, meant to protect the privacy of all involved in a complaint. The OIE, whose offices are located at the Homewood campus in Baltimore, did not respond to The Observer’s request for an interview or to comment. However, through various interviews with affected parties, we have pieced together the OIE’s pattern of involvement in this case as comprehensively as we could.

Following Korey Baker’s notification to the OIE, only one anonymous Race and Empire student was contacted by University officials to give their side of the story. Although Shuler had spoken to a mandated reporter, the OIE officials did not contact her. The OIE followed up by email asking for the student who reported the incident to encourage others to give similar evidence. Still, it is unclear if other students’ accounts were collected. Five days later, the student who had contributed to the OIE was contacted again by email. The OIE said, “[we have] received other complaints about the conduct that you reported, and we have therefore decided to move forward with investigating this matter.”

OIE also contacted Dr. Gleijeses, and he gave his side of the story. Then, after a lengthy pause in communication between Thanksgiving and Winter Break, all parties were notified by email that the case had been terminated without further OIE action. 

BSU’s Independent Advocacy

The SAIS BSU, having caught wind of what had happened, took action in a different way. BSU Social Media & External Communications Chair Laura Shaw says that the BSU emailed the Deans on November 2. They got a response thanking the BSU for notifying the administration and saying they would follow up soon. However, Vice President Kayla Smith said they had heard nothing from the administration after a week. The student group then decided to pressure University officials to take actions beyond what was required by OIE regulation. On November 10, the BSU held a meeting to understand how their members felt about what happened and how they collectively wanted to move forward. 

BSU President Chloe Richardson says their job is to “advocate for BIPOC students on campus, and so part of that advocacy is doing what they think is best and what is in their best interest.” They took notes on the demands of the organization, which was an apology from Professor Gleijeses and for the administration to create a reporting process outside of the complicated, not confidential, and not-well-publicized OIE procedure. Their top priority, however, was that students who came out wouldn’t face academic retaliation – though it is unclear if the administration could ever secure this point. 

They collected a SAIS-wide Google Form list of students’ experiences with microaggressions like this in and outside of the Race and Empire class. Many students of different backgrounds had, at some point in their short time at SAIS, encountered an at-best uncomfortable and at-worst hostile environment in the school on all three campuses. The BSU Executive Board had opened up responses following the Race and Empire incident, not expecting the number of students who would come forward. The list highlighted how frequently SAIS students face disturbing events like this and how many go unreported. Additionally, it was clear that many students did not know where to go. 

Almost immediately, they wrote a letter addressed to a collection of SAIS Administrators asking that they hold Dr. Gleijeses accountable for his actions. The Board expressed that they wanted to keep the letter internal so that they could maintain a good relationship with the administration and hopefully achieve some progress that way. 

In the letter, the BSU stated “we understand the importance of maintaining historical accuracy in the lecture, but this excessive use of racist language was too far.” The note caught the attention of the University; a meeting was scheduled between the BSU E-Board and Dean Steinberg for November 15. Though the University declined to comment on the contents of this meeting, The Observer was able to review the meeting notes kept by the BSU. 

The meeting notes explain that Dean Steinberg doesn’t believe Dr. Gleijeses to be a racist but that using slurs is “unacceptable.” Ultimately, Dean Steinberg concluded that Dr. Gleijeses should not teach courses in which he feels compelled to use slurs as a part of the curriculum. Despite the BSU’s request, even this remedy would not be put into writing. Additionally, the Deans notified the BSU that Dr. Gleijeses would not be giving an apology. The BSU’s meeting document notes, “since he has acknowledged that he isn’t sorry, we will not be receiving a public apology.” An apology was a major point of contention in this case. 

“The bare minimum that we were requesting was an apology– and to know that SAIS has a faculty member that was not willing to admit that maybe they caused harm, or maybe they were wrong, is deeply concerning,” Smith told The Observer.

Following the Deans meeting, the BSU authored a letter to the student body. They described the professor’s unwillingness to apologize, but the overall tone of the letter was positive. The BSU praised the swift action on behalf of the SAIS Administration to respond, and they celebrated Dean Steinberg’s “verbal assurance” that Dr. Gleijeses wouldn’t teach his Race and Empire course again. However, the letter does not mention the circumstances of the agreement; Dr. Gleijeses felt that using the N-word was mandatory to teach the course, so his ban was self-imposed. 

They hoped to drive conversation and were intentional with their language in this school-wide message. They wanted students to see that their demands were not met and that their goal, while not to break ties, was to achieve some positive change. But it took a lot of work to gauge genuine support within their peer group and amongst the administration. 

Richardson says they tried to be “as collaborative and open to working with the administration as possible… even some Alumni wanted us to go further, but we gave the administration every opportunity to get this right.” 

Shaw recognizes that SAIS bureaucracy may be slow and institutional reform difficult. Still, they were “disheartened” and “disrespected” that they didn’t even get an apology, and there was no attempt to change reporting. “[Their efforts] are not enough… I didn’t feel heard, I didn’t feel welcomed, and I didn’t feel understood,” she comments.

What Now?

While the BSU’s active role in shaping DEIA policy on campus has made significant differences– for example, their advocacy on behalf of Shuler, explained in this article– the organization finds itself under significant strain. “It’s beyond the scope of what a student organization should be,” comments Richardson.

“It’s a warm feeling to know that members of the community see our club as one that would advocate for them… [But] a lot of this work takes stamina,” says Smith. “To feel like you’re doing it on your own is not fair. We’re not getting paid for this…” meaning the club’s advocacy work. “If you’ve noticed for Black History Month that SAIS Hopkins is putting on all these events, those events are ours. They did not work with us. They did not reach out to us to help us collaborate… Being a student leader, where you’re advocating and putting on events, but you also have to be wary of your own life, is exhausting.”

Even Homewoods’ BSU, which has been around for much longer than the SAIS BSU and has more access to nationwide BSU resources, writes JHU BSU President Jayla Scott in an email correspondence, would not know what to do in an issue like this. 

“I will say in relation to other racist incidents – like a noose hanging in a construction site during summer 2020 and students being racist to Black students on Reddit calling us “basketball Americans” after it was revealed that Johns Hopkins was a slave owner – the administration literally didn’t say anything.” She believes students tried to report these incidents but met a similarly frustrating result: nothing happened.

In light of this incident, many questions are raised about the depth of academic freedom: why does Dr. Gleijeses have the authority to decide when he can use the word, and why isn’t the safety and security of students being considered? What will this professor-based discretion policy look like now that the SAIS administration has set this precedent? And, with such a short institutional memory, will a lack of institutional response and transparency make it easier for this kind of event to happen again? 

These issues remain unresolved. Future SAIS students, likely lacking in institutional memory, will grapple with these same questions in a changing DEIA environment. Shaw discussed DEI training for faculty and staff, which is required for students, and Smith suggested reinstating the diversity council for future SAIS students. Richardson says SAIS should do a mixed methods study on how diverse the SAIS curriculum, student body, and staff are and publish those results for transparency purposes. 

But, for now, the SAIS community will watch to see how the administration repostures in the face of scrutiny.

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