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DePaul professor speaks out on school's racial issues
by Liz Baudler
2016-06-08

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By Liz Baudler

As DePaul University comes under fire for hosting gay conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos on campus and how the administration subsequently handled furor surrounding the event, questions about the school's racial climate have surfaced. Sociology professor Shu-Ju Ada Cheng has found herself an unexpected sideshow.

Cheng, who is resigning from DePaul effective at the end of the quarter, had posted a statement to DePaul's president, Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, on her personal Facebook page. Holtschneider responded to calls for a statement about Yiannopoulos by condemning not only the speaker, but also Black Lives Matter protesters who shut down the event. He went on to apologize to the DePaul College Republicans, who invited Yiannopoulos to campus.

In part, Cheng's statement reads: "Universities, like all institutions, are not neutral platforms. … In time of political crisis, universities have the responsibility to take a moral stand. To believe that universities are simply neutral platforms for 'equal' exchanges of ideas, the so-called free speech rooted in the market ideology, is delusional. … It is a hypocrisy to believe that one can promote diversity without tackling the racism that underlines all educational institutions.

"The incidents that took place during these past two days are just symptoms of the historical institutional racism embedded in this institution. … Your handling of this case is shameful and embarrassing. It is a lack of moral courage in the disguise of intellectual objectivity and positional neutrality. The lack of position is a position, and your chosen position is to reinforce the existing inequalities. Shame on you."

Her letter was picked up by conservative news sites such as the Daily Caller, and others like Breitbart.com soon followed. Cheng said reporters for those sites never talked to her to confirm any details of the story. ( The Daily Caller emailed her but she did not initially respond. ) Cheng said that they conflated the reasons for her resignation with her statement about Yiannopoulos.

"I actually did email back a few journalists, I said, no, I did not quit because of this. That was never the story. All the right-wing—no one talked to me," Cheng said.

However, Cheng said her resignation does have its roots in the same tension that the Yiannopoulos event seems to have exacerbated. "I wrote that letter from the position of an existing faculty of color. And I pointed out it's a symptom of a long pattern. There has been a history of faculty of color being denied tenure and leaving," Cheng said.

She described incidents of faculty members of color, including herself, being denied classes while white professors were assigned multiple sections of the same course area. "You could schedule four graduate courses in criminology in one quarter and you can't schedule one gender class?," she asked. "And guess what? Who are these people who are teaching? These are all white men and white women. Including adjunct faculty members and people who don't have Ph.Ds." She said she emailed the department to point out the issue., stating, "I have been in this program for 14 years. I say, 'You just look at the facts. Who is benefiting from this? Who are the privileged?'"

Cheng also noted both incidents of microaggression ( referring to the degradation of any socially marginalized group ) and a lack of desire to engage with current sociological discourse from other faculty members.

"We were supposed to put up decorations on the wall with sociological terms," Cheng recalled. "So the idea is to come up with sociological terms that are relevant. Somebody suggested 50 to begin with. It was in the summer, the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. I say, 'I'm sorry, this is 2015. Let the terms reflect what's going on. How about let's add three terms at least? One is privilege, the other one is inequality.' A senior white woman wrote me individually to say, 'I don't like the term privilege, because "privilege" is the same as "right"'. She told me she is writing an article arguing that using the term privilege is what she termed 'moralistic' and 'problematic.'"

Cheng said that she explained the meaning of privilege over email and offered to open the issue for public debate. At meetings geared toward rebuilding the department, the same woman refused to consider Cheng's perspectives.

"Our department is in chaos. Nobody wants to be the chair. People are leaving," Cheng said. "In that first meeting with the dean, the same senior faculty member said, 'I really don't want to talk about the past. Everything's good in our department.' I just finally let it all out with that senior white woman. I talked about the institutionalized racism in our department. I say, 'You know what hurts? That you can't even acknowledge when I'm telling you, pointing you to all these realities. That's what hurts.' By the end of that conversation, she simply said, 'Ada, I just don't agree with you.' I was sitting there with you for two hours talking about institutional racism. If you tell me, 'I disagree with you,' that means you reject my reality."

"This whole idea in academia, we're simply about agree and disagreement, that's very problematic," Cheng continued. "In that moment when you say, 'I disagree with you,' it's not just about disagreement—because when we disagree, the reality is still there."

The articles about Cheng's resignation have provoked widespread online harassment and hate mail, some of which she's quoted on Facebook and emailed to DePaul faculty. "I showed you less than 1% of what I received. I feared for my own safety and had to check in [on social media] every two hours," Cheng wrote to her colleagues.

She also wrote back to the Daily Caller's reporter. "I said 'I'm getting hate mail. It's on you if something happens to me. You misinterpreted and you misrepresented [my letter] in terms of I say that universities should not be neutral platforms, when in fact, that's not what I'm arguing.' He said, 'Well, I posted the letter.' I said, 'How many people actually read the letter?' He said, 'It's you, you have the problem if you don't represent it correctly.' I said, 'No, If you read that letter carefully, you know what my premise is.' And the thing is, if you can't get that… That's why I'm getting all of these hate mails."

As Cheng wrote her colleagues, "Of course I am for freedom of speech. I grew up in an authoritarian regime in Taiwan. … However, I am not going to stand for someone to spew hate speech in the name of education and learning."

Cheng is looking at the hate mail with both a critical and comedic eye. "You can go check Rate My Professor. I taught 15 years, I got 31 reviews. For the past few days, I got another 31 reviews," she said. "There are classes I've never taught. Just go look at some of the reviews. 'Fat dyke' is one of them. And it is so interesting to see … xenophobia and racism, homophobia—all kind of linked together. 'Fat dyke' … where does that even come from? I was, like, 'Wow, this just taught me about the America we live in today.' You tell me when you look at that all of these hateful emails, you tell me where do they belong? Are they free speech or are they just hate speech?"

Cheng also said other faculty members of color are getting hate mail. "I feel sorry for the students. If I'm getting these emails, my Black colleagues, Black students, what are they getting?" she said. She expressed uncertainty about how to go forward, particularly with her experience with the media so far.

"I was struggling with, how do I reclaim the narrative?" she said. "I ask people, 'Should I let it die down?' Some of them say, 'Let it die down,' in the sense that, if I continue, how much energy do I have? Am I ready to do this? Do I have enough support to do this? Do I want to do this? The inability of journalists to even appreciate the complexity of the issue: All they want to see is, 'Did you quit because of this?' There are so many other issues. They don't want to deal with the story about … all of these emails. They want to deal with 'Did you actually quit for this?' That's my experience with everyone."

Note: At the time of the interview, Cheng had not heard from DePaul's administration: they reached out to her a few days later. Windy City Times' attempts to reach DePaul for comment were not returned.


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