Comments on race upset students at sea


An open lecture on Semester at Sea made some students uncomfortable when a non-Pitt professor,… An open lecture on Semester at Sea made some students uncomfortable when a non-Pitt professor, discussing racial genetics, allegedly said black people are inherently inferior in the areas of math and science.

The comments made during the lecture last month appeared again in one of the professor’s classes, confirmed Pitt Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Robert Hill. A group of concerned black students met with Susan Hansen, academic dean of Semester at Sea, to express their concerns about the professor’s lecture and what they described as an uncomfortable atmosphere aboard the ship.

An e-mail from some of the students aboard the ship to members of the Semester at Sea and Pitt communities also mentioned what the students described as a tense environment.

Hill said the University is in contact with professors who visited the class.

“In fact, matters have calmed down and the situation as described has improved,” he said.

Paul Watson, director of enrollment management for the Institute for Shipboard Education, said the atmosphere on board was tense for a while and that it is ISE’s job “to make sure that the learning environment is not hostile.”

Watson noted the quick response of Hansen and the faculty on board, explaining that as soon as they learned about what had happened, faculty members began to sit in on the professor’s class.

“The very next day the class met, Dean Hansen attended the class,” Watson said. “It was dealt with right away.”

Pitt, Semester At Sea’s academic sponsor, is in charge of appointing a dean through an advisory committee made up of Pitt faculty members. Though the dean always comes from Pitt, the University relies on ISE to make final decisions about the ship’s faculty and does not hire professors directly. Pitt also decides which courses will be taught on each voyage.

Daron J. Christopher, a Pitt student on Semester at Sea, is in two of the professor’s three classes. Christopher said in an e-mail that he finds the professor to be “challenging and frustrating, but engaging, and certainly a fair educator.”

Christopher said the professor “eternally plays devil’s advocate” and always takes the opposing view in discussions with students. He said ISE and Pitt responded to a few students who complained “incessantly to the dean.”

Jennifer Anukem, an SGB member, agreed with Hill and Watson that the situation on board has improved. She said she has received e-mails in recent weeks from students on the ship who also agree.

Anukem defended the students’ actions and said she believed that they did the right thing in bringing their complaints about the professor to the faculty.

“This is not something that should be taken as a joke,” Anukem said. “I can’t believe I could be sitting in a classroom,being told I was genetically inferior.”

Hill said Pitt does not hire the professors on Semester at Sea, but that all professors on board follow Pitt’s Academic Integrity Code. Hill said professors have to follow certain guidelines when teaching, but that “we do value the academic freedom of professors to deem what is appropriate for their class.”

Pitt’s Academic Integrity Code exists in part to guide “student-faculty interactions in the classroom and other academic contexts,” according to Pitt’s Web site.

“I’d like them to be held accountable based on the guidelines of the Academic Integrity Code,” Anukem said of non-Pitt professors on the ship.

Watson stressed the difficulties of anticipating and stopping situations in which a professor’s teaching style or viewpoints could be offensive to students.

“Do I think we can prevent this from happening?” Watson asked. “That’s something that will continue to be examined.”

Editor’s note: Daron Christopher is a former Pitt News columnist.