CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek is back in the news in what people call a case of “self-repeal”. After calling herself a “slave owner” at a faculty meeting, Bilek announced her early retirement in response to what she described last year as a temporary but serious loss of judgment. We previously discussed Bilek’s troubling view of free speech after Conservative law professor Josh Blackman was prevented from speaking on “the importance of free speech.” Bilek insisted that the break in free speech was free speech. She has now effectively finished her own speech, at least as dean of CUNY. She has also sent herself to counseling in order to overcome her “prejudices”.
Last October, Bilek also broke news when she insisted that a law student who threatened to set fire to a man’s Israel Defense Forces sweatshirt simply “gave her opinion”. The student was charged with not only making the threat, but also holding up a lit lighter. Critics asked if Bilek would have taken the same view with a sweater for other reasons or groups.
Dean Bilek emailed the CUNY community announcing that she would be quitting her job following the incident in November. She said that in a discussion of a proposal that some believed would have different effects on racial minorities, she referred to herself as a “slave owner”. No transcript of the meeting or the verbatim quotation is included in the correspondence or reporting. Bilek wrote:
“In a misguided attempt to draw an analogy to a model of reparation to blame myself as dean for racial inequalities at our school, I thoughtlessly referred to myself as the ‘slave owner’ who should be held accountable. I realized it was wrong when I heard it say it myself and couldn’t believe the word had come out of my mouth. “
It is also not clear why Bilek found an apology insufficient, as she used the term self-criticism to deal with what she viewed as inequalities in the minority professorial school. Bilek sends a message that intent is negligible and that an apology is insufficient to address an unintentional crime while using a word in a faculty meeting.
As we discussed recently, there is an increasingly widespread position that intent no longer matters when the use of terms is considered offensive, even when used as a basis for termination. Recently, a New York Times editor was fired for using the word “n”, although it was agreed that he would use it as an answer to a question rather than an intended slur. Veteran reporter Donald McNeil Jr. was fired after the newspaper bowed again to a cancellation campaign. Intent doesn’t matter, every utterance is potentially a one-shot criminal offense. Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of the Times, and Joe Kahn, Managing Editor, stated in a memo: “We will not tolerate racist language, regardless of its intent.”
Similarly, we discussed professors who were studied to use the “n-word” in class for purely educational reasons. More recently, the faculty has been geared towards using the term as an acronym or the censored version of the term. In such cases, not only did intent no longer matter, but also freedom of speech or academic freedom.
The message sent by Bilek is that you may have non-racial intent (in fact, intent to advance anti-racist policies) but that even after apologizing for using such a word, you should step back. Four months after using that word in a faculty meeting, Bilek says resigning is required to repair the damage she has caused.
In my career I have seen occasional cases of offensive language used by the faculty. Professors, like all human beings, are imperfect. You make mistakes, including using rash or offensive terms. There was a time when faculty could discuss such controversies and resolve (and learn from) in good faith as part of a community. I intervened with a professor on such a case over 20 years ago after students complained. He was genuinely shocked and apologized to the students. He worked hard to avoid other sexist comments, and the students told me they were impressed and delighted with his effort. That was of course before the demolition culture emerged at our locations.
Obviously, Bilek can stick to her own standards both when resigning and when starting counseling sessions. Any academic can draw their own conclusions as to whether they can continue to work in their positions after such a controversy. There is concern, however, that many are likely to cite this resignation as a basis for demanding resignations or terminations from faculty members in similar positions. In fact, such claims are rife as the recent campaign to force the resignation of Professor Aaron Kindsvatter of the University of Vermont after creating a video arguing that the on-campus anti-racism program is racist treatment of white faculty and the student represents.
Again, if we are honest with calls to “talk about race,” we need to leave room for discussion, including unintentional but offensive statements as part of those discussions. I have criticized Dean Bilek for her views on freedom of speech. However, I do not think she is a racist, and I believe that she sincerely and deeply regrets her use of that word. We need to have some margin for error in our discussions and interactions. We need dialogue rather than shame if we are to come together as a nation and address issues of racial justice.