Doane University reinstated a librarian Monday who displayed old photos of students in blackface in an exhibit about Doane’s past.
Doane President Jacque Carter said the university needs to learn from the episode. “Mistakes were made, but they are also part of being human,” Carter said Monday in a message to the university community.
The situation generated tension on the Crete campus over academic freedom, professionalism, censorship and sensitivity. Some faculty members came to the library director’s defense, saying suspending Melissa Gomis, or putting her on paid “administrator leave,” suggested that controversial content in other subjects might lead to discipline, too.
Other faculty members said Gomis used poor judgment in displaying the two blackface photos from the 1920s. Given nationwide controversies over blackface, they said, Gomis should have known better than to use the two photos.
Both photos show a group of at least 30 people posed before the camera, with a few in the crowd in what appeared to be blackface.
Gomis took the photos down when a student complained that they were repulsive, biology professor Kate Marley said. Marley said Gomis in no way intended to condone racism but instead wanted to show practices at parties over time in the exhibit.
Then the entire display, titled “Parties of the Past,” came down. The display was in a hallway leading to the Doane library. Gomis couldn’t be reached for comment.
Marley said the administrative leave required of Gomis doesn’t bode well for the climate of academic freedom at Doane. Many disciplines deal with sensitive issues, she said, and professors must feel free to explore them.
Carter sent a letter to Doane staffers last week, saying, in part: “Blackface has a history of dehumanization and stereotyping, which perpetuates systemic racism in society. Displaying these images runs counter to Doane University’s values and beliefs.”
Carter said in Monday’s letter that the photos lacked “appropriate educational context,” information and caution. If those elements had accompanied the photos, “there would not have been concern,” he wrote.
Mark Orsag, professor of European history, said the two photos had no place in the exhibit. “I would say it’s poor judgment,” Orsag said. “I have no issue with how they (administrators) have handled things.”
Luis Sotelo, Doane’s chief diversity officer, said the matter cropped up as the university makes a push toward greater understanding of racism embedded in the institution. Sotelo was hired as the university’s first chief diversity officer two years ago.
Sotelo and Carter said the matter will prompt formal, universitywide discussions. Sotelo said, “I always say the more dialogue that we have, the better the opportunity that we have for solutions to rise to the top.”
The Doane chapter of the American Association of University Professors wrote late last week that the administration’s demand for removal of the entire exhibit “was overt censorship coming from outside the library” from a person “with no training in library and archival science.”
Brian Pauwels, an associate professor of psychology at Doane, said the feelings of discomfort and pain that resulted from the photos’ display shouldn’t be minimized. He realized that, he said, when he talked about the situation with some students.
But the librarian must be permitted to make decisions because she is a professional, he said. He might object to a book in the library, he said, but it’s still her call as to whether to leave the book where it is.
“That’s what we’re supposed to do at a university is talk about difficult things” that might be avoided outside a university setting, Pauwels said.
If a student erects a controversial art piece, that could lead to censorship. “Where does it end?” Pauwels asked.