RALEIGH, N.C. — Meredith College is investigating a professor who allegedly used racially offensive language several times in a class last fall, as some students and alumnae demand that the professor be fired.
At least one student reported the incident in November, though a Meredith spokesperson said the school's "Executive Leadership Team" just learned of the complaint this month.
Sarah Marshall, a Meredith College alumna, set up a virtual news conference Tuesday to bring attention to what she called the "traumatic events" that occurred during the class and to demand action from Meredith College leaders.
"I have personally experienced that racism from certain professors and the administration at large," Marshall said. "There's often been the feeling that there is nothing that can be done about it."
Marshall said she was speaking on behalf of Meredith students in the class who did not want to be identified. She also said the incident was posted on the Instagram account @dearmereco, which shares student experiences of Black, Indigenous and people of color at Meredith.
The repetitive use of racial epithets is "psychological and academic violence against Black students," Marshall said.
Marshall said Veronique Machelidon, a department head and professor of world languages and cultures, used the racial slur multiple times in a Nov. 18 class to describe Black and Afro-Creole American people. Students in the class were offended and objected, though Machelidon continued to use the slur, according to Marshall.
At least one student reported the incident to Sarah Roth, dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, Marshall said. According to Marshall, Roth did not expedite the report but "intentionally slowed the process" and placed the burden on the students to explain to the professor why the term was offensive and should not be used.
During the next class, the professor justified her actions by saying she wasn't "from America," and "a lot of people don't know the n-word," the Instagram post said. Machelidon is from Belgium, according to her university bio. By the end of that class, the professor acknowledged that it was better to say "the n-word" instead of using the actual slur.
Machelidon also sent an apology email.
Yolanda Taylor, a North Carolina lawyer who spoke at Tuesday's press conference, said the alleged actions by the professor were insensitive.
"Challenging a person's truth and experiences is actually bringing the mantle of white supremacy into the classroom," Taylor said. "You are saying, because I'm not oppressed, my opinion or what I value is higher than your opinion or what you value."
She said this was an example of a "lack of awareness and racial insensitivity" by the professor, who teaches culture and should be aware of the context of this language.
"She was lifting a racist belief in the classroom," Taylor said.
The News & Observer reached out to Machelidon, who referred questions to the college marketing team.
Meredith College sent out a statement Tuesday saying that the executive leadership team learned in mid-February about "a professor using racially-offensive language in a class" last fall and immediately launched an investigation.
"We regret the pain this incident has caused our community and are addressing the situation," the statement from News Director Melyssa Allen said.
Allen confirmed that Machelidon is still employed by the university, but did not offer additional details about the personnel matter.
The college is clarifying the processes outlined in the student handbook for students to report incidents like this to leadership to make sure complaints are resolved, according to Allen.
She also noted Meredith's commitment to "fostering a diverse, inclusive and respectful community" and the school's anti-racism initiative launched in the summer of 2020.
Marshall said students have made several formal and informal complaints to Dean Roth, who has "belittled and silenced the voices" of students of color who have reached out for support.
The News & Observer reached out to Roth, but hasn't heard back.
Marshall on Tuesday announced a list of demands that were sent to Meredith College President Jo Allen in a letter from other alumnae, students and community members.
"We call on you, President Dr. Jo Allen, to commit to these demands and demonstrate to the public Meredith College's efforts to work toward anti-racism beyond efforts and emails," the letter said.
"Black, Indigenous, students of color do not feel safe enough on campus, in academic and social spaces, to share their concerns about racial discrimination in their learning institution without fear of retribution and with little confidence that the matters will be handled appropriately," the letter said.
The demands include firing Machelidon without paid leave or severance; a public apology from Meredith College, Machelidon and Roth; formally investigating Roth; and requiring mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training for all Meredith employees who are not Black, Indigenous or people of color.
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