University Condemns Comparison of ‘OK, Boomer’ to Racial Slur by Professor
The president of the University of Oklahoma on Tuesday condemned the remarks of a professor who told his class that the phrase “OK, boomer” was comparable to a racial slur against black people, provoking outrage from students in the class and around campus.
Peter Gade, the director of graduate studies at the university’s journalism school, made the remarks in a class on Tuesday, during a discussion of social media and journalism. In the comparison, Mr. Gade used the slur.
Many students were aghast that a white tenured professor would be comfortable comparing the phrase, an internet meme that is quickly becoming a generational flash point, to an epithet associated with the horrors of slavery and racism.
And within hours, the university’s interim president responded with a statement that criticized the professor and touched on issues of history, ethics and speech.
“While the professor’s comments are protected by the First Amendment and academic freedom, his comment and word choice are fundamentally offensive and wrong,” said the interim president, Joseph Harroz Jr.
“The use of the most offensive word, by a person in a position of authority, hurt and minimized those in the classroom and beyond,” Mr. Harroz said. “Our university must serve as an example to our society of both freedom of expression and understanding and tolerance. His words today failed to meet this standard.”
Mr. Gade, who has been a faculty member at the university since 1998, did not immediately answer an email or return a call seeking comment. Hours after class, Mr. Gade sent an email to students, apologizing.
In the class on Tuesday, Mr. Gade and his students were discussing how technology and social media were changing journalism when a student said that news organizations needed to adapt to stay relevant with younger audiences, according to The OU Daily, a student newspaper.
Mr. Gade said that the student’s comment was like saying, “OK, boomer,” referring to a phrase that has alternately been called a dismissive, even ageist retort against older people and a rallying cry of younger generations.
The class tittered at that remark, but then fell into shock as he continued: “Calling someone a boomer is like calling someone a” racial slur, Mr. Gade was quoted by the newspaper as saying.
Molly Kruse, a 21-year-old senior who was in the class, said that the word jolted her.
“I said, ‘Dr. Gade, I don’t think you should be using that word here,’” she said in an interview.
Ms. Kruse said she was too stunned to remember the professor’s response, but other students later told her he quickly moved on from the topic. Ms. Kruse, however, said she walked out of the class at that moment and went to the dean’s office. Other students later joined her.
Miles Francisco, a senior and co-director of the Black Emergency Response Team, a student group, said it was not the first time a professor at the campus had used the slur in class and justified uttering it “for educational reasons.”
Those instances have been infuriating, but Mr. Gade’s use of the word was particularly upsetting, he said.
“Here, it was, ‘Let’s compare ‘boomer’ to a word that’s rooted in historical violence,” said Mr. Francisco, who was not in the classroom. “This was a bit more jarring because it can’t even be excused as, ‘Oh, I was using it educationally or it was in the literature.”
The Black Emergency Response Team, an organization of black student leaders with the stated mission of confronting racism on campus, said on Twitter that it expected “full action to be taken against the professor and college.”
“We do not condone or accept this behavior from any member of the O.U. community regardless of occupation or student status,” the organization said. “In addition, we expect accommodation be made for the students who have experienced trauma because of this.”
In his email to students, Mr. Gade wrote, “I made an inexcusable mistake this morning in class with my choice of a word.”
“I was wrong. I am sorry. I realize the word is hurtful and infuses the racial divisions of our country, past and present. Use of this word is inappropriate in any — especially educational — settings,” he added.
He asked students to “please give me an opportunity” to show he was an instructor who was “trustworthy and respectful of all.”
Ms. Kruse said she hoped the incident spurred changes at the university.
“The fact that someone could really think that ‘boomer’ is the equivalent of the N-word, I don’t know,” she said. “I hope this is a wake-up call that our college needs more diversity and professors need to be trained in how to include all students.”
Mr. Francisco, 22, said scholars at the university had developed a program called “Unlearning,” which teaches staff members how to recognize racism, sexism and homophobia and to promote inclusion.
“There have been a lot of faculty and staff who have taken these trainings,” he said, but they are not mandatory.
“The faculty who really need it are not taking it,” Mr. Francisco said.
In a separate statement, university officials said that the First Amendment protected Mr. Gade from disciplinary action.
Deans from the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the journalism unit of the university, will attend Mr. Gade’s next class on Thursday, Ms. Kruse said that students had been told.
In its statement, the university said students “will have the opportunity to meet with Gaylord College leadership to voice concerns and have a conversation about moving forward.”
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