Classroom controversy

University investigates student complaint that a professor’s comments were racist

Earlier this semester, professor Richard Rose was giving a lecture to his statistics class at Chico State. As a way to help the students visualize the problem at hand, he asked them to imagine that he was an evil slave master trying to find people dumb enough to trick into becoming slaves.

The example was supposed to help students understand standard normal distribution, a foundational statistics theory. But a black student in the class took issue with it. After a short confrontation with Rose, she left the class and ultimately filed a complaint against him, alleging racial harassment and discrimination.

The incident demonstrates how comments made during a lecture or class, whether intentionally offensive or not, can have a powerful effect on students—particularly minorities. “I think sometimes people make an assumption that just because you’re a professional, you know everything; just because you’re a faculty member, you know everything about how to teach inclusivity—but you don’t,” said Tray Robinson, director of Chico State’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

University officials confirmed that they’d investigated the student’s complaint, but wouldn’t comment on its outcome. Rose was removed from teaching the course, however, and replaced with another professor. Rose, who has taught at Chico State since 1970, still teaches other classes.

Rick Ford, chair of the Math Department, declined to offer the university’s rationale for ousting Rose, saying in an email: “My only direct knowledge concerns personnel actions that I’m not permitted to discuss.”

In his Holt Hall office, Rose told the CN&R he wasn’t trying to be hurtful when he approached the student’s desk, questioned her about the example and proceeded to explain that his ancestors consisted of slaves as well as slave owners. He said he often uses absurd examples in class and the last time he revealed his ancestry to “a fine black man,” it led to a “very pleasant conversation.” But, he admitted, that wasn’t the case this time.

The student, a freshman from Oakland, told CN&R that she felt Rose had deliberately disrespected and embarrassed her in front of the class, and she wrote that in her complaint to the university. Rose offended her by bringing up slavery—which “really had nothing to do with the content of the class”—and singling her out in a room with only a few black students, she said, prompting her to walk out and call her parents. On the phone, she recalled, “I cried because I was so angry.”

“You don’t have to be a racist,” the student, whose name is being withheld for privacy reasons, recalled telling Rose.

Robinson was one of the first university representatives to speak with the student after the incident. Every semester his office hears from students who feel discriminated against on campus, he said. Chico State aims to provide a safe, enjoyable experience for all students, but some faculty struggle with diversity and inclusion, he said.

“When you’re in a position of privilege, it’s hard for you to see how other people feel and think about things,” he explained. “If you’ve never been poor, if you haven’t been homeless, if you haven’t been on welfare, you’re not going to know what that’s like,” he added, noting reasons why people might feel marginalized during lectures.

Robinson said people “deliver some very intentional acts” meant to agitate, but he thinks most people just don’t realize their comments can be upsetting.

Cody Borrero, a sophomore who was present during Rose’s lecture, described the professor’s sense of humor as exaggerated and said he often made controversial comments in class.

For Rose’s part, he told the CN&R that he was “flabbergasted” when he heard about the student’s complaint. After Student Judicial Affairs called him to talk about the incident, he sent her an email, which he shared with the CN&R.

“Still, I have no certainty of what triggered your pain,” he wrote. “Whatever exactly it was that hurt you, I do very deeply apologize… If you could bring yourself to tell me precisely what I did, I could try to avoid that particular word, or action, again.”

Calls to Rose and the student to determine if a resolution was reached were not returned as of press time, and university officials confirmed that the investigation was recently closed but wouldn’t comment on its outcome. Rose said he doesn’t know if he’ll teach next semester, citing his age as one of several reasons to retire. He turns 70 in September.

As of now, Robinson said, Chico State offers a number of opportunities for campus community members to learn about diversity and inclusion, including a training exercise open to faculty, staff and students for confronting one’s own biases. But some students think such education should be expanded, he said, so university officials are exploring the possibility of requiring diversity training for everyone on campus.