Doane University officials criticized for handling of exhibit that included blackface photos

Two national free speech and academic freedom groups have criticized Doane University for temporarily sending home a librarian who erected a controversial exhibit.

The groups, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, and the National Coalition Against Censorship, asked in a Monday letter, “Can Doane University faculty teach without fear? … Take action: Tell Doane not to censor faculty.”

At issue is an exhibit erected this spring by Doane’s head librarian, Melissa Gomis. The exhibit contained two photos from the 1920s of some students in blackface. The title of the exhibit was “Parties From the Past.”

Doane administrators said the inclusion of the photos was insensitive. Several people across the country recently have been criticized after they were found to have posed for photos in blackface.

Gomis took down the two photos when a student complained that they were repulsive. Then the entire exhibit was taken down. Gomis was sent home on paid administrative leave for several days.

Some professors said faculty members, including Gomis, should be able to explore sensitive issues in curriculum and displays. Other professors said Gomis showed poor judgment and weren’t critical of Doane’s administration.

“It’s a letter of concern,” FIRE’s Adam Steinbaugh said Monday. Such criticism by the two national groups may have “ongoing repercussions for the university’s reputation,” he said.

FIRE said it had contacted Doane and received a “no comment” from the university’s attorney, who called the matter an internal personnel issue. Doane’s president, Jacque Carter, couldn’t be reached for comment Monday afternoon. The school spokesman, Ryan Mueksch, declined to comment.

The joint letter quoted a FIRE official as saying the “punishment of a faculty librarian for refusing to censor the school’s difficult past is one of the worst academic freedom violations we’ve seen this year.”

The letter went on to say that administrators at Doane “seem to think they’re better suited than faculty to judge when and how tough subjects can be taught. That’s not how academic freedom works.”

The letter also says that while a private university is not bound by the First Amendment, one that makes “voluntary academic freedom promises to its faculty (is) contractually and morally bound to uphold them.”

Carter eventually reinstated Gomis, saying that committing errors is “part of being human.”