A letter to the Ball State Board of Trustees from Cathy Day

August 4, 2018

Dear Members of the Board of Trustees,

I’m writing today to express my disappointment in your decision to continue Ball State’s relationship with alumni donor John Schnatter.

I’m a Ball State faculty member and the acting chair of the English department. You may remember me from the December 2017 board meeting; I presented on the “Stars to Steer By” career program that helps students in the College of Sciences and Humanities find meaningful careers. Afterwards, I had lunch with Rick Hall and Jean Harcourt, and I remember feeling so proud that day to be a Ball State faculty member.

I wish I could say the same today.

What surprises me the most about the Board’s statement was your reading of the context in which Schnatter used a racial epithet.

You say:

“In the course of the conversation, he recited his understanding of another’s use of the “N word”. He did so not in a derogatory manner seeking to demean any individuals or groups; rather it was used as an example of improper conduct.”

But here’s what Forbes had to say about the conference call in question.

“On the May call, Schnatter was asked how he would distance himself from racist groups online. He responded by downplaying the significance of his NFL statement. “Colonel Sanders called blacks n—–s,” Schnatter said, before complaining that Sanders never faced public backlash.”

In that situation, it was not necessary to actually say the epithet out loud. Rather, Schnatter could have said, “Colonel Sanders called blacks the n-word,” or “all kinds of horrible names,” to get his point across. According to Forbes, Schnatter then elaborated in order to make this point: Hey, why am I facing backlash for my public comments? I didn’t even say n—-r!

And then he said “n—-r.”

I’d like to share a personal story with you that informs how I read the context of those spoken statements.

Like Schnatter, I grew up in Indiana—in a town and in a family where racial epithets were often spoken. I’m sorry to say that I learned a version of “Eenie Meenie Minie Moe” that used a racial epithet. Once in graduate school at the University of Alabama, I was choosing between two small groups, and when I got to that point in the rhyme, I barely caught myself before I said the word out loud to a mixed-race classroom (at that school! in that state!). I was so ashamed that that word was still in my head. Everyone noticed. After class, a white student came up to me and said, “You were going to say the n-word, weren’t you?”

Note that the white student said “n-word,” not “n—-r.” He could have seen my near-gaffe as an opportunity to say the word, but he didn’t. Instead, he shook his head sadly. “It’s hard to get that word out of your head, isn’t it?”

The next class, I asked my class how they felt about the use of the word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which we were then reading, and as a group, we decided that we wouldn’t use the word n—-r in class, even when we reading directly from the text. Some white students took umbrage with this decision, but the African-American students made it clear—it hurt them to hear white people use that word, especially classmates, especially a teacher, an authority figure.

The Schnatter conference call in question was intended to help him with his image, to help him make fewer gaffes, and what he said in that meeting is not about free speech, but about a failure of empathy, a failure to recognize that, as an authority figure, he should be held to a high standard of conduct. A man of good sense and good character would not have used the opportunity to utter the word, as Schnatter did.

Do people deserve forgiveness when they make a mistake? Of course, but Schnatter doesn’t seem interested in learning from them. Given articles like this, it’s only a matter of time before Schnatter makes another gaffe.

I beg you to reconsider your decision and cut our ties with Schnatter before even more damage is done to Ball State’s reputation and image. I beg you to stand by the Beneficence Pledge and hold him accountable. How can I, as the chair of an academic department, reprimand students and faculty for failing “to treat each person in the Ball State community with civility, courtesy, compassion, and dignity,” when the university will not do the same?

Sincerely,
Cathy Day

Prof. Cathy Day
Associate Professor & Acting Chair
English Department/ Robert Bell 297
Ball State University
Muncie, IN 47306

Note from Cathy: Until the Board of Trustees reverses its decision, I have decided to black out my social media profiles in protest. I urge others to do the same.

 

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