University of Oregon law professor Nancy Shurtz, who was at the center of controversy in fall 2016 after a photo of her in black makeup at her Halloween party circulated online, will return to campus in July, following her one-year sabbatical in Florida.
Shurtz said after the incident that her costume was inspired by the memoir of a Black doctor dealing with racism in the U.S., and she intended for the costume to “provoke a thoughtful discussion on racism in our society.” Many in the UO community criticized her costume for including blackface makeup; over 1,200 UO students signed a petition calling on her to resign and 23 of Shurtz’s fellow faculty members penned an open letter calling on her to resign as well.
After the incident, she made an official apology to the UO community, which in part said, “I intended to create a conversation about inequity, racism and our white blindness to them. Regrettably, I became an example of it. This has been a remarkable learning experience for me.”
Following the incident, the university launched an investigation that found Shurtz guilty of violating UO’s anti-discrimination policies. As a result, Shurtz was placed on administrative leave. Shurtz will return to campus in July and teach classes in the fall.
“My heart is racing,” Shurtz said in an email interview with the Emerald. “Is the question am I ‘excited’ or ‘terrified’? This leave and sabbatical has been a long one, so I have missed being home and am eager to get back to the great Northwest, my home of 38 years.”
The findings of the investigation were published in a report released on Nov. 30, 2016. Despite the investigation’s conclusion that her costume violated UO’s policies, Shurtz says she did not wear blackface.
“That term is reserved for derogatory, mocking, and demeaning depictions of African-Americans,” she said. “At my private, off-campus Halloween party, I sought to challenge racism and provoke thought by depicting through my costume, a book — Dr. Damon Tweedy’s A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine. … At no time did I portray Dr. Tweedy, but I did want to honor him as a man of courage and insight.”
After the incident, UO Ethnic Studies professor Michael Hames-García contradicted Shurtz’s opinion in an editorial submitted to the Emerald:
“The possibility that Shurtz’s act was done with no deliberate racist intent to harm makes it worse in my view. It confirms everything I suspect and fear daily about the ignorance and callous disregard for black humanity among my colleagues and students,” Hames-García wrote.
Ofer Raban, a constitutional law professor at the law school, said that Shurtz is “legally and morally entitled to return to the law school.”
“The report failed to address Oregon constitutional law which is more protective of free speech rights than the federal constitution,” he said. “That’s relevant to the case and it wasn’t addressed.”
The part of the Oregon Constitution regarding freedom of speech says, “No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever; but every person shall be responsible for the abuse of this right.”
Raban continued by saying that the findings of the conduct investigation didn’t take this part of the constitution into account.
“The report conceded that Nancy Shurtz’s expression was aimed at promoting racial equality, but that fact did not play any role in the legal conclusions,” he said.
The report says that UO policy prohibits even “unintentional discrimination.” The report stated that, “It is likely and even probable that her costume had a greater negative impact on students of color, because of the historical connotations of, and uses for, ‘blackface.’”
In a statement provided to the Emerald, UO spokesperson Tobin Klinger said the incident has had “a significant impact on the law school and the larger campus community,” but steps, such as curriculum review and school-wide workshops, are being taken to improve relations within the community.
Shurtz said that she cannot accurately predict what it will be like when she arrives on campus.
“The atmosphere can be expected to be challenging. I am going to try to exhibit the principle that one can make human mistakes and learn from the lessons,” she said. “I am going to teach that one needs to recognize a core of inner goodness that provides the basis for sound values and inner strength.”
Shurtz said that she has to be open to all forms of criticism and that rebuilding trust is a day-by-day process.
“I am hoping that a true exchange of thoughts can ensue and deeper mutual understanding attained. I am a human being.”