N.C. State supports civil discourse, embattled professor

Administrators and professors at North Carolina State University have come to the support of embattled Prof. Philip Muñoz. Muñoz’s Political Science 205 class on Law and Justice was the site of an alleged racial attack Feb. 19, when a white female student, angered by the heated comments made about America and its treatment of blacks by a black student, Najja Baptist, told Baptist “go back to Africa.”

At the time the comment was made, Muñoz — who had not long entered the classroom and had not yet started the class — stopped their argument and said that class discourse would be civilized and academic. Baptist took Muñoz’s comments to be aimed at himself and not at the girl, because he said Muñoz looked at him when he said it.

Baptist furthermore alleged he was racially attacked in the following class, on Feb. 21, when fellow student Derek Hardesty called him a “f—— yuppy.” In a Technician article, Hardesty did not deny calling Baptist a “yuppy,” but he did deny he used profanity. He also said he apologized to Baptist after the class, offered to take him to lunch, and left thinking they would resolve the misunderstanding, but Baptist said he refused because he “wasn’t going to lunch with someone who made a racial slur against me.”

Baptist organized a silent protest against Muñoz’s class, having 15 students who weren’t class members line the wall of the class and pass out flyers denouncing the class’s racial climate. Baptist later filed grievances with the Office of Student Conduct and Office of Equal Opportunity, choosing against filing a grievance with the College of the Humanities and Social Sciences (which contains the Political Science Department) upon the advice of his advisor, Prof. Floyd Hayes, an associate professor of multidisciplinary studies. Hayes told Technician that going to CHASS “makes no sense” because “they are biased against Najja.” The grievances allege that Muñoz, Dr. James Svara, head of the political science and public administration department, and Dr. Monica Leach, assistant dean and director of diversity programs within CHASS, failed to respond promptly and appropriately to the comments, and that Muñoz fostered a racially hostile climate in his class.

Hayes told Technician that had Muñoz specifically denounced the white female’s comment as racist, “there would be no cause to criticize the department.” Hayes appeared on WKNC’s “The Boiler Room” and called for actions to be taken against the students who offended Baptist. “These students need to be suspended, severely reprimanded, or placed on some kind of probation for a period of time,” he said.

University officials pledged from the outset to look into the matter and stressed the importance of civil discourse. On “The Boiling Room” CHASS dean Linda Brady said the goal was to “engage controversial issues in a way that does not personalize those issues and that conversation.” In an open letter to the N.C. State community, Stuart L. Cooper, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, and Thomas H. Stafford, vice chancellor for student affairs, discussed how university officials were continuing to “investigate all complaints according to the existing and appropriate procedures” and noted the importance of “academic discourse, free expression and debate as a means of seeking knowledge and understanding” and “civility, respect, and tolerance.” In remarks delivered at the “Campus Dialogue on Race” that university administrators put together with civil discourse in mind, Chancellor Marye Anne Fox said that “N.C. State University recognizes that all forms of harassment and discrimination are incompatible with its values and goals and will not be tolerated” but also that “members of our community will not rush to judgment in taking easy offense.” Indeed, while the investigation was ongoing, officials said little about the particulars of the incident.

Earlier this week Brady announced the results the investigations. The charges against Muñoz, Svara, and Leach were “unfounded” and “unsubstantiated by information gathered during the course of the investigation.” Brady said that “Muñoz, Svara and Leach acted promptly, appropriately and within their spheres of responsibility to address comments that were made on Feb. 19 and 21 as soon as the comments were made or became known to each of them. These individuals responded in a way that clearly indicated that personal attacks and intimidation would not be tolerated in the classroom.”

Furthermore, she noted, “the verbal exchanges that occurred have not created a racially hostile environment in the classroom. Professor Muñoz has encouraged full participation from all students in the class and supported the participation of individual students. As discussed above, after stating his standards for discourse in the class on Feb. 19 and Feb. 21, he elaborated the standards for class discussions on Feb. 26 and again on Feb. 28. Professor Muñoz has continued to lead the class in challenging discussions about controversial public policy issues. All students involved in the verbal exchanges that have occurred continue to attend class and participate in these discussions.”

“Ideas must be challenged constantly in an atmosphere in which we use reasoned arguments to explore the multiple sides of every question. That’s what college is all about,” Brady said. “If we cannot address issues in this way on a university campus, then we cannot expect to deal with issues constructively in society at large. Students may experience some discomfort in this kind of dialogue, but it is important that dialogue occurs. Every student and faculty member must be free to express his or her views, under the protections of academic freedom and the First Amendment and within the bounds of civil discourse. Professor Muñoz has upheld these principles in the execution of his responsibilities as an N.C. State faculty member.”

Also this week, Muñoz and Svara received a public statement of support from the political science faculty. The faculty wrote that they “consider Professor Muñoz a gifted teacher and scholar and Professor Svara a leader of unimpeachable integrity. We believe that both men dealt with the abovementioned incident in a wholly appropriate and professional manner.” The statement was signed by Sanford Kessler, Michael Vasu, Abraham Holtzman, Charles K. Coe, Roland Stephen, Michael Cobb, Robert Moog, Nicole Darnall, James E. Swiss, Philip Pavlik, Marvin S. Soroos, Dan W. Figgins, A. Taylor, G. D. Garson, W. A. Boettcher III, Traciel V. Reid, Elizabethann O’Sullivan, and J. Oliver Williams.