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The R Word

October 20, 2011

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The e-mail to some faculty members at the College of William & Mary came out of the blue, reminding them to be careful about the language they use in class and, specifically, asking them not to use the word "retarded" in class.

Its appearance last week perplexed some professors and prompted one or two to tell the student newspaper that administrators were questioning their professionalism. Several experts on faculty speech said that the missive was unusual, but that rather than a threat to academic freedom, they saw a sincere effort to protect potentially vulnerable students.

"…[T]he word retarded has returned in slang usage to mean dumb or stupid, but this is not an appropriate way to use the word in class,” Kelly Joyce, the dean of undergraduate studies, wrote in her e-mail.

Joyce said via e-mail that “[r]epresentatives of our Student Assembly who are participating in a national campaign, 'Spread the Word to End the Word,' asked me to reach out to Arts and Sciences faculty in support of that effort. I agreed.”

One professor at the college, who asked not to be identified, said he was mystified by the e-mail. “There was no explanation in the e-mail,” he said. “I just wanted to know what the basis of this was. As far as I can tell, this is a response to a non-problem.” If there had been an incident (or incidents) related to the use of the word, he said, the faculty members involved could have been talked to directly, instead of a broadcast e-mail.

“Anytime language is dictated by the dean to faculty, it causes a little bit of hesitation,” he said.

Todd Mooradian, the faculty assembly president at the college and a professor at the Mason School of Business, said the e-mail definitely did not raise academic freedom issues.

“If we view an action like this … as an infringement on our freedom of speech or academic freedom, then we need more to do with our time and we need to take our freedoms more seriously -- they are not nearly that fragile,” he said in an e-mailed message.

In 2008, the Special Olympics started a campaign through a website to combat the use of the word. Two years later, President Obama signed a law removing the term “mentally retarded” from federal health, education and labor laws.

Experts said the dean’s e-mail seemed to encourage civility and understanding.

Robert M. O’Neil, professor of law emeritus at the University of Virginia and an authority on First Amendment issues, said an e-mail like the one sent out at the college couldn’t possibly hurt.

“Faculty do set the standard for students and their use of potentially disparaging language could be harmful,” O’Neil said. “I found the dean’s statement a strong and appealing statement designed not to inhibit, rather to encourage, civility and understanding.”

Often, faculty members use self-imposed restraints to avoid being put in an awkward position. “This is very different from a speech code, that bans the use of some words. Now, that is inappropriate,” he said.

Both O’Neil and Robert Shibley, senior vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, were unable to provide examples of similar communication to faculty members at other colleges or universities.

These sort of reminders are more frequently sent to students, Shibley said. “It is understandable if some professors feel that they do not need to be told what to do,” Shibley said. “But this seems like a sincere effort.”

Another legal expert, Neil Hamilton who is director at the Thomas Holloran Center for ethical leadership in the professions at the University of St. Thomas, in Minneapolis, said any negative reaction was an unintended consequence of the disability service office just doing its work.

“The diversity office, following what it is recommending to faculty, can listen to the feedback it is getting from faculty and adjust its efforts to minimize a negative reaction,” he said.

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Comments on The R Word

  • Posted by Divot on October 20, 2011 at 1:45pm UTC
  • This is really interesting. In the mid 1990's, I was a professor at a university in the deep south in a College of Education. We were given a list of "politically correct" terminology (it probably wasn't called that) for those with disabilities of all kinds. I find it interesting that the cultured east coast institutions haven't been practicing the use of these for many years. It is not curtailing one's speech freedoms; it is simply encouraging all to avoid using what has become "slang" for mental (or physical) impairments.
  • Posted by William Marcellino , Grad Student at Carnegie Mellon Univesity on October 20, 2011 at 3:45pm UTC
  • As an epithet or slang description "retard/retarded/mentally retarded" is pretty objectionable. But I'm not at all prepared to give up the precise, technical use of the word. In fact, I think the verb form is still on the GRE vocabulary list.
  • How retarded
  • Posted by Prof Challenger on October 20, 2011 at 3:45pm UTC
  • The Dean's message, that is.
    If it's already been agreed by presidential decree that mentally disabled people aren't "retarded," then why are we concerned if someone uses the word as slang for "lame"? Come to think of it, I suppose next we're going to ban the L word because it might be offensive to those who can't walk...
  • Maybe I'm biased, but...
  • Posted by Canadian Commentator , I work in a Dean's office... on October 20, 2011 at 5:15pm UTC
  • Having had faculty members at my institution respond grumpily to messages I've sent on behalf of my Dean's office, I likely bring a bias to the table.

    Students ask for a lot of things of a Dean: lower tuition, improved social space, abandonment of a grading curve, the removal of a professor for not being a good enough teacher.

    We encourage students at our universities to engage in civil society. Sometimes this means supporting a student effort to get Faculty involved in a 'shave your head for cancer' campaign. Sometimes it means forwarding the kind of message above as part of a student effort on a national campaign.

    Instead of looking at this as another reason to take offence at a perceived mandate creep of a Dean, let's look at it as it actually is: the Dean's attempt to encourage student engagement in civil society by saying yes to one of those requests it is easy to say yes to.

    Sure, we can assume that faculty in the Arts and Social Sciences are professional and considered enough in their conduct to be behind the cause, but there are better things for faculty to get tied in knots about.