Student creates online petition over slavery assignment

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Photo by Peter Burleigh

On Saturday, Aug. 22, a student at the University of Dallas posted a petition on Change.org, an online platform used to make and share petitions. The student, who is Black, petitioned UD to remove an assignment in an American Civilization I class that required students to write a five-page paper on the rationalization of slavery. 

According to the assignment’s prompt, students were asked to “try and understand the mindset of those in the United States that supported or at least tolerated plantation slavery,” because one may not “defend against” the argument “no matter how reprehensible” if the argument is not understood properly. 

The petition condemned this prompt for what it described as insensitivity during the Black Lives Matter movement, and called for the elimination of “racially bias[ed] assignments from the curriculum” at schools in general. The petition focused on a screen shot from the course Brightspace page that described the assignment as writing on the “justification of slavery.”  

“Given the current situation, the things we are battling in the Black and brown community, the things we are battling already on top of [this assignment], that topic is just not something you want kids writing on,” said the junior business major. “My whole viewpoint on this is that writing about it could potentially unlock something in someone’s mind. If you have to write a five page paper justifying slavery, then surely somewhere along there you are going to pick up something like ‘oh they might have been right.’” 

The student spoke to Associate Dean of Constantin College David Andrews and the professor on Aug. 28, six days after the petition was created. 

The University News is not naming the professor or the student involved in the events described at the behest of the university administration.

Administration officials issued the following statement: 

“The University made this instruction out of respect for the individuals and concern for their privacy. As an institution committed to the equal dignity of every human being, we can agree and state unequivocally that slavery was (1) a reprehensible practice; (2) an affront to everything the University of Dallas professes; and (3) worthy of study and understanding so the tragic and horrific sins of the past are never repeated.”

The student who started the petition described her discussion with Andrews and her professor. 

“After starting that petition, getting a lot of signatures and a lot of support – even coming from UD students which was great – I was able to sit down with the dean and the professor and kind of express that this is tone deaf. It is seen as very unethical and taken in the wrong way,” the student said. 

The student had concerns that without the petition, they would not be taken seriously. 

“UD has a big problem of dismissing situations and issues on campus, they kind just throw the motto in your face and keep it moving. That is why I took the alternative route,” the student said. “As sad as it is to say, it happens a lot within the minority community. We can bring forth an issue and it’s dismissed. Like it’s not a big deal and it goes to the next person and that’s all you hear about it.”

In an emailed statement, the professor expressed understanding about the student’s concerns and described the intention of the assignment.

“At no time was it meant to be an exoneration or exaltation of these underlying causes, but a condemnation [of slavery],” the professor wrote. 

“After talking to the student and family members, it became clear that the title and prompt could be misunderstood,” the professor wrote. “I added that I have not received any prior objections in this area in the approximately 15 years the assignment has been assigned.”

The student initially advocated the abolishment of the assignment in question, but that was not the outcome.

“I agreed to change the title and be more specific in the prompt,” the professor wrote, “but that the basic concept of the paper would remain the understanding of these causes and specific rather than implied refutations to these arguments.”

Rather than being removed from the syllabus, the assignment was altered by adding the following sentence:

“In order to demonstrate your understanding of those underlying arguments then proceed to respond as to why they are immoral, wrong, false, etc. preferably using responses available before the Civil War such as it is in direct contradiction of the Declaration of Independence or Justice’s Taney’s opinion in the Dred Scott decision is based on false facts, etc..” 

The professor, who gave permission to quote from the revised prompt also made a video explanation which he posted to Brightspace.

“I think that this is an example of miscommunication that is especially relevant to on-line courses,” the professor wrote. “My usual procedure is to visit with each student individually at the beginning of the school term so that any potential issues might be discussed and addressed at that time.”

“History’s relevance is because of the context it provides, and this paper is intended to provide that context,” the professor wrote. 

Currently, the petition is signed by 674 people, but, because Change.org is available to the public, it is unclear how many current or former students of UD signed the petition. 

The student has kept the petition active in an effort to discourage similar assignments, she said. 

3 COMMENTS

  1. At UD students should not seek to “abolish” or ‘cancel’ assignments that they do not agree with. Studying history, and the arguments made by people in the past, is part of a full education. This assignment is perfectly reasonable and necessary to a full understanding of American History. I can understand the miscommunication with the title/description for some students, but the professor did more than enough to address certain students’ lack of understanding. People need to remember that a University is not a platform to correct professors who you do not agree with or to showcase one’s “virtue” to the world. The University is a formative institution meant to help the students study life’s deepest questions and develop virtue. Part of an education is learning the arguments people have made in the past. At a University, students who have little experience and knowledge compared with their professors do not decide what topics are “something you want kids writing on”. (Also, these are not kids and a University is not a daycare). If we are afraid to allow adults to study the arguments that led to great evil in the past, like slavery or Marxism for example, how will we understand how to fight against dangerous ideas today? I find it preposterous to claim that this assignment could “potentially unlock something in someone’s mind” that would lead them to think that the pro-slavery arguments “‘might have been right’”. We do not ignore aspects of history based on this type of immature fear. If we are to fear anything, we should fear what will happen to a nation that does not understand history. By the logic of this student, we would only read one side of every argument…the “right” side. However, in most cases the “right” side of an argument is not as clear cut as the examples of slavery or Marxism for example. We seek to study both sides of every issue at UD, and no one is told what to think or how to think. We leave that for places like Berkeley or Harvard where free thought is shut down and racial discrimination in admissions abounds. At UD, we do not neglect studying the truly important things just because the biggest sophist, “the many”, may deem them “tone deaf” at a particular moment in time. No, at UD we are concerned with much longer spans of time than the fashions of the present moment. At UD, we are concerned with much larger things than what may seem “tone deaf” to a 20 year old. This is why we study the manifestations of the Good, Just and Beautiful throughout history, and the manifestations of what is not good just or beautiful. We study history in order to avoid the mistakes of the past and to live more noble lives in the future.

    • I actually can’t believe an undergraduate would think they know there is no academic value in an exercise. I admire the patience that the UD faculty and administration displayed, after decades of educating, when some student came along and decided they understood education better.

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