Monash tutor’s use of ‘N-word’ in class was within ‘academic freedom’

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A Monash University teaching associate who was suspended after using the ‘N-word’ in class returned to tutorials on Thursday night, after an investigation found he used the racial slur under ‘academic freedom’.

Gary Lacey, who has worked at the university for 23 years, was reported for using the word in a class ‘From Freud to Friends: Ethnic Identity in Popular Culture’ in late February.

Gary Lacey said he apologised to his students when he realised they were upset.

At the time, students were offended and complained.

In an email to students, course coordinator Associate Professor David Slucki said the university had “fully investigated the matter” and found that Lacey did not engage in serious misconduct or misconduct and “has not breached university policy around behaviours in the workplace and integrity and respect”.

“As such, Dr Lacey has been reinstated to his role, effective immediately,” Slucki wrote.

Lacey, whose wife is Kenyan, told The Age at the time of the suspension that he apologised to his students when he realised they were upset and said he didn’t mean to offend them. The incident happened at the Clayton campus.

Monash University’s Clayton campus.Credit: Wayne Taylor

“I have apologised profusely. I’m genuinely deeply sorry I’ve offended people,” Lacey said.

“This was an academic discussion – it’s not the case of a racist running around using racist language. I did make a commitment to change that behaviour.”

Lacey said the incident happened in a class where they were discussing the use and history of the word, and had given context.

One student, who asked not to be identified, and is in the course but wasn’t in Lacey’s class during the incident, said she was disappointed by the decision.

“I think it’s a big disruption to the class for the last two weeks of semester to change tutors again. And the whole process with the investigation took around 10 weeks, which I think is pretty poor.”

On social media, some students have been threatening to boycott Lacey’s classes.

Monash Student Association president Sebastian Schultz said students were concerned about Lacey being reinstated, and still angry about the original incident but he said some were also understanding when it came to the university’s decision.

“There are a few people who are really concerned about the lack of transparency and that’s really what we are concerned about more than anything else,” he said.

In a statement, the MSA said it had reached out to the university to find out how this was determined and what evidence was presented.

“Students deserve to understand the consequences that were imposed, and how the university is working to ensure such offensive behaviour is not exhibited by staff again,” he said.

“While the MSA acknowledges the importance of academic freedom, Monash must guarantee its students a learning environment free from prejudice, with transparent consequences for anyone who uses discriminatory language or behaviour.”

A Monash University spokesperson said a tutor had returned to work after an investigation into students complaints about his conduct in February this year.

“The investigation found the employee exercised academic freedom within the meaning of clause 10.2 of the Agreement and the corresponding Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom Policy, and did not engage in any misconduct,” she said.

“The employee fully cooperated with the investigation, has offered apologies to the students and has agreed to modify language.”

Monash University Council adopted the Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom Policy in May 2021, which is a commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom as defining values of the university, in policy, practice and culture.

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