Around three weeks ago, the Fountain Hopper reported that Stanford Law School Professor John Donohue shouted the racial slur “chink” during an altercation arising from a basketball game. The Daily quickly followed suit, reporting an account that differed significantly from that of the FoHo which, most notably, did not include the usage of any racial slur.
However, since that initial flurry of conflicting reports, we have heard absolutely nothing on the matter from anyone for the past three weeks, least of all anything resembling a reasonably certain recounting of what actually happened.
On the one hand, one could view the incident as another juicy piece of campus gossip — as the FoHo seemed to have — and focus on the did-he-or-didn’t-he portion of this saga. However, I think that doing so understates the gravity of the situation at hand, which extends significantly further than the reputation of one man.
Professor Donohue — by no fault of his own — is part of an educational institution and system that can be deeply hostile for students from marginalized backgrounds, who must carefully navigate to figure out who they can confide in, who they can expect understanding and sympathy from and, most importantly, who can be expected to treat them fairly and without prejudice.
Seldom are these questions answered with the kind of verifiable evidence that is admissible in court; rather, they are answered with such things as rumors, whispered knowledge from upperclassmen, tidbits grasped from old course reviews and, unfortunately, disputed accounts from the Fountain Hopper. And yet, the answers to these questions are also incredibly important because they determine who to request to be an advisor, who to ask to write a letter of recommendation or who to take a class with.
And right now, I cannot say that I would be fully comfortable taking a class with Professor Donohue.
This is not an easy sentiment for me to convey without implying that I believe the FoHo and that I believe Donohue did, in fact, shout racial slurs when, in reality, I believe neither of those things. And, given the available evidence, I would even agree that he probably didn’t.
But, the problem is that “probably” is not good enough of an answer when it comes to racism. I have been called that ugly word — “chink” — before on many an occasion, and if I want to be sure to avoid being called it again, “probably not racist” will not be sufficient. It would be asking too much of me or anybody else to not err on the side of caution and simply take the risk on a professor being “probably not racist,” especially when vague rumors and probabilities about who might be problematic or not are all we ever work with.
By making its allegations, the FoHo not only undermined the personal reputation of Donohue, it also undermined many students’ faith in the assumption that they would be treated with dignity and fairness by him and, by extension, any other member of the Stanford faculty.
This perception is, incidentally, not helped by the fact that Donohue threatened the person with whom he had an altercation with the possibility of “deportation despite not knowing the individual’s name or citizenship status.” Admittedly, this is a minor point in the grand scheme of things, but in another sense, it highlights the degree of power Donohue has by virtue of his position and why students have an inherent interest in knowledge that will inform of his biases and his partiality.
This is what makes the prolonged silence after the initial incident so problematic. It should be neither novel nor controversial that students should be entitled to know whether their professor is someone who shouts racial slurs at people.
Surely, that answer is available somewhere. If nothing else, one of the few points that the Daily and FoHo reports agree on is that a University investigation was launched on the matter, and I strongly urge the University to share the results of those findings to offer some much-needed clarity on this matter.
Shortly after the incident, my fellow columnist Chapman Caddell declared that “the FoHo let us down.” Indeed, the FoHo’s brash, sensationalistic reporting on this incident leaves much to be desired; and if the allegations of racial slurs do turn out to be false, the FoHo must be held accountable because the gravity of the situation demands it.
In the meantime, however, we are still no closer to knowing what really happened after three long weeks, and that means it’s not just the FoHo who has let us down.
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.