State News

Legislators threaten funding, professor over ‘The Problem of Whiteness’ class

Wisconsin legislators recently called for UW-Madison to remove a course called “The Problem of Whiteness,” and threatened budget cuts if the university didn't comply.

Image By: Leah Voskuil

Wisconsin legislators have come out strongly against a UW-Madison class called “The Problem of Whiteness,” suggesting it may impact the university’s upcoming budget if administrators don’t take action.

Criticism over the African Languages and Literature course increased early this week, when Chair of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, demanded the removal of both the class and the professor.

“UW-Madison must discontinue this class,” Murphy said. “If UW-Madison stands with this professor, I don’t know how the University can expect the taxpayers to stand with UW-Madison.”

Legislators who disapprove of the course say that taxpayers will not be happy to pay for a state university that teaches a course like this.

Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said the university needs to explain to the “hardworking families of Wisconsin” why their money is being “wasted to advance the politically correct agenda of liberal administrators and staff.”

The course description says the class will explore how race is experienced by white people and how they consciously and unconsciously perpetuate institutional racism.

The instructor of the course, assistant professor Damon Sajnani, said he plans to begin the class by tackling the creation of white supremacy and how it could be the responsibility of white people to stop it.

“I am extremely concerned that UW-Madison finds it appropriate to teach a course called, ‘The Problem of Whiteness,’ with the premise that white people are racist,” Murphy said. “Even more troubling, the course is taught by a self-described ‘international radical’ professor whose views are a slap in the face to the taxpayers who are expected to pay for this garbage.”

According to Nass and Murphy, UW-Madison’s decision to offer controversial courses could affect funding.

The UW System will find out how much funding it will receive in the next biennial budget in the upcoming months.

In a statement Tuesday, UW-Madison responded to the growing controversy by defending the course, stating it is important for deeper understanding of race issues and not intended to isolate a particular ethnic group.

The course’s name refers to the challenge of understanding white identity and non-white identity across the globe, according to the statement. University officials emphasized that the course is voluntary.

“The course is a challenge and response to racism of all kinds,” university officials said. “There is a long academic tradition at UW-Madison and in higher education for allowing individual faculty freedom to design courses reflecting topics that they and their department consider important.”

In his press release, Murphy attached tweets from Sajnani, including one where Sajnani said he was watching CNN and enjoying listening to the song “Officer Down.” Murphy described the tweets as vile and suggested Sajnani approved of the July shootings of police in Dallas.

The threat of funding cuts has provoked criticism from UW-Madison professors, some of whom believe removing the course and Sajnani would hurt academic freedom.

“GOP politicians threaten to cut UW funding based on specific course content. And we wonder why faculty are concerned about gutting tenure,” tweeted Mark Copelovitch, associate professor of political science and public affairs.

A similar course offered at Arizona State University called “U.S. Race Theory and the Problem of Whiteness” was brought into the national spotlight last year, according to USA TODAY. The professor, Lee Bebout, received over 60 threatening emails and ASU was deemed “Anti-White” by protesters. The class was not offered the following semester.

Despite criticism and budget cut warnings, as of Wednesday, the “Problem of Whiteness” is still being offered for the Spring 2017 semester.

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