Controversy simmering at Mercer law school after professor uses 'N-word' during lectures

A controversy has been simmering at Mercer University’s law school after a professor used a racial epithet during a pair of lectures.

According to emails obtained by The Telegraph and confirmed by university sources, Mercer law professor David Oedel used the “N-word” in his Constitutional Law class last month.

In an email sent to law students and faculty, Oedel apologized for doing so. He said he used it in the context of quoting a black speaker at a Mercer symposium 14 years ago who was characterizing the role of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall when he was an attorney in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

“I genuinely apologize for quoting a racial epithet in my Constitutional Law class, and unintentionally being the cause of upset at the law school,” Oedel wrote in the email. “If even one student was wounded or distracted, that is one student too many, and that was my error alone as a teacher. I have learned something from this experience, and will never repeat that quotation again in any setting.”

Oedel added that he was “trying to shed an historical light on that era and the vernacular views of some African American activists about Thurgood Marshall’s role in the civil rights movement.”

Reached Wednesday by phone, Oedel said he couldn’t comment on the record about the situation.

Larry Brumley, Mercer’s senior vice president for marketing and communications, declined Wednesday to talk specifics about the incident. Instead, he issued a statement on behalf of the university that read in part: “Racial slurs are not acceptable and will not be tolerated. The faculty member has acknowledged that the use of the term was inappropriate and has apologized.”

The statement also noted that resolution of the situation is an “ongoing process” and that Daisy Hurst Floyd, the law school dean, was working with students, faculty and alumni to “identify ways to advance the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion; maintain an educational environment that enhances student learning; and foster collegiality, professionalism and constructive means of communication.”

Brumley declined to say what, if any action might be taken against Oedel, a tenured professor who was a former columnist for The Telegraph.

Brumley said Floyd met with students in the class after the incidents to get their thoughts on what course of action should be taken. Brumley said the students told her they didn’t want any disruptions in their class work during the semester, which ends in December.

In an email to the law school students and faculty, Floyd wrote: “The Mercer University School of Law has a deep commitment to diversity and to providing a learning and work environment of respect, inclusion, and professionalism. In a recent Constitutional Law class, Professor Oedel’s conduct failed to live up to that commitment when he repeatedly used a racial epithet. Such conduct is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Floyd also wrote in the email that Oedel offered both a written and oral apology to the class. She said that in response to the situation, she formed an advisory committee to study diversity at the law school.

Law professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore, a member of the committee, said members are taking the situation “very seriously.”

“We’ve been given a broad directive as well as the ability to make bold recommendations,” she said.

Brumley said the percentage of minority law school students at Mercer is about 23 percent, most of whom are black.

“As far as law schools go, it’s very diverse,” he said. “It’s one of the more diverse private law schools in the South.”

Though Oedel has offered an apology, some members of the Mercer law community remain upset.

In an emailed response to Oedel’s apology email, Mercer law professor Anthony Baldwin wrote that he was declining to accept it for several reasons, including Oedel’s alleged use of the epithet 10 times in one class and because Baldwin was unable to corroborate the historic context in which the quote was given.

Baldwin wrote that he contacted professor Leland Ware, who Oedel said made the remarks he was quoting. Ware told Baldwin he never used that epithet and was “deeply offended” by the suggestion that he did.

“Your apology can’t be genuine if you continue to sit on a false representation and facts that are not true,” Baldwin wrote to Oedel.

Tiffany Watkins, president of the Black Law Students Association, said the organization has been frustrated by the situation and doesn’t think enough progress has been made in dealing with Oedel.

“Obviously, we’re incredibly upset,” said Watkins, a third-year law student who hasn’t taken a class with Oedel. “What he did was out of line, inappropriate, unnecessary and hurtful.”

Watkins said the school’s response has been “low and unsatisfactory when it comes to the student perspective.”

“We don’t see anything overt being done,” she said. “When something like this happens, the response needs to be strong and immediate. ... It’s an insult to students.”

Tyler Findley, a second-year student who is taking the class, said that while he understands how people were offended by the epithet, the ensuing chaos within the law school has been a distraction to students in the class.

“Obviously, I don’t condone the use of the word,” he said. “In my opinion, it wasn’t being directed at anyone or derogatory. I think he was saying it in an educational context.”

Findley noted that as part of the law school learning experience, students likely will encounter situations that may make them uncomfortable. He said he worries the controversy will reflect poorly on Mercer, thus lessening the value of his degree.

“You may not always like the viewpoint” of someone else, he said.

Findley said Oedel “recognizes his mistake” and has tried to be professional.

“He cares about us all,” he said. “I feel like he’s embarrassed because he’s lost the respect of some students, and that’s deeply affected him.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.