Professor Nancy Shurtz of the University of Oregon is in hot water right now over her choice to dress as a black man for a campus Halloween party. In her defense, she claims she chose the costume based on a book she liked called “Black Man in a White Coat” which was written by a black doctor.

As someone who covers college news on a daily basis, I have to wonder how the professor didn’t know this would cause huge problems for her.

Paul Caron of the TaxProfBlog shared a letter to Shurtz from 23 Oregon law professors calling on her to resign:

Dear Colleague,

If these allegations are true, and you did in fact wear blackface to a Halloween party, you need to resign.

It doesn’t matter what your intentions were. It doesn’t matter if it was protected by the First Amendment.

Blackface is patently offensive. It is overtly racist. It is wildly inappropriate. It reflects a profound lack of judgment. There is no excuse.

We are angry that you would alienate our students, staff, and faculty of color. We are angry that you would destroy what others have worked hard to build.

Your actions implicate all of us and our community.

If you care about our students, you will resign. If you care about our ability to educate future lawyers, you will resign. If you care about our alumni, you will resign.

In another post, Caron outlines her defense citing a report from KEZI News:

Students are outraged by the incident and have even started a petition demanding her resignation. The petition needs 100 supporters before it can be delivered to the dean of the law school.

Shurtz sent a letter to students explaining why she chose her costume. She said she read a book and wanted to portray the character. She also said she apologizes and never meant to offend anyone.

“I chose my costume based on a book that I read and liked—Black Man in a White Coat. I thought I would be able to teach with this costume as well (or at least tell an interesting story).

When I asked my daughter who is at Brown Medical School the demographics of her medical school class, she said “they do not give those statistics out mom”, but later when she asked the administration, they said there was not one black male student in the class. She and others were outraged. She was able to get the administration to assign a portion of this book (the one where the black medical student was thought to be the janitor) out to students.

I am sorry if it did not come off well. I, of all people, would not want to offend.

Here’s a video report from KEZI:

Eugene Volokh commented at the Washington Post:

Oregon law professors call for colleague to resign for ‘Black Man in a White Coat’ Halloween costume

My view: There’s nothing inherently racist about using dress or makeup to pretend to be black, or white, or Hasidic, or what have you. Indeed, if someone wore blackface and imitated an accent in a way that mocked blacks, she could be faulted for mocking blacks (just as somehow dressing up as an Orthodox Jew to mock Orthodox Jews could be faulted for that). But the notion that making oneself up to look black is just somehow per se racist strikes me as very hard to defend, whether one is trying to play President Obama (or, for that matter, Othello) or the title character in a black doctor’s memoir (“Black Man in a White Coat,” which is apparently what the professor was dressing as) or Michael Jackson.

Indeed, the whole point of dress-up events is to dress (and make yourself up) as something you are not. The fact that some people have made themselves up as blacks in the past in order to mock blacks doesn’t tell us that all such makeup is improper — much less that it should be cause for resigning. And the policing of what people do at parties at people’s homes only makes matters worse.

Nor am I influenced by the notion that the professor should resign because her decision shows “poor judgment” because she should have known that this would be offensive. Perhaps she wasn’t as careful as she might have been — but it’s appalling that people should feel the need to choose how they dress for costume parties with such care.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed also covered the story, adding this:

Punishing a Professor for Blackface

If Shurtz does not resign, some legal experts believe her actions — however foolish — are in fact protected by the First Amendment.

“Simply dressing in blackface or as an African-American at a party is indeed constitutionally protected expression that UO, a government agency, cannot punish,” said Robert L. Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

He cited a 1993 decision by a federal appeals court to block George Mason University from punishing a fraternity that held “an ugly woman contest” fund-raiser in which some fraternity members posed as caricatures of black women. The appeals court found that this event, however offensive, was protected by the First Amendment. “If such a skit is protected expression, this professor’s expression surely is as well,” Shibley said.

John K. Wilson, an independent scholar who writes regularly about academic freedom issues, agreed. Via email, he said, “When dealing with an extramural activity, there’s generally no valid punishment unless it shows incompetence in doing their work. That obviously doesn’t apply in this case. There’s no reason why wearing an offensive costume makes you a bad law professor.”

What a mess.

Featured image source.