The University of California, San Diego, removed an instructor from the classroom for the term, following racist remarks he made during an organic chemistry lecture last week.
According to a video of the class—which the university was recording for student use, and which has since been shared widely on social media—the instructor, Robert Ternansky, exited the lecture hall to address noise outside. Speaking to people out of view, Ternansky said, “Sí, sí, señor. Ándale, ándale. Arriba, arriba.”
Returning to class, Ternansky then asked students, “How do you say ‘quiet’ in Mexican?” He continued, “Huh? Help me! All I knew how to say was ‘Ándale, ándale, arriba, arriba,’” or “hurry up,” roughly translated.
After some students’ seemingly awkward laughter, Ternansky said, “Did I insult them?”
He added, “Someone tell me if they start running in here with their weapons.”
The people in the hall have elsewhere been identified as campus workers.
One student who posted a clip of the incident to Instagram wrote, “Lets [sic] make sure something is done in response to this. UCSD should be a place that people of all ethnicities, cultures, and identities feel comfortable at. The Latinx population at UCSD may not be high but that does not mean its [sic] okay to say the things Professor Ternansky said.”
Via email late last week, Ternansky told students in the class, “I am writing to acknowledge my inappropriate comments in lecture and to sincerely apologize to all of you for my behavior. These comments do not align with our campus values. I will follow up with a more formal apology shortly and will also apologize personally during Tuesday’s lecture time.”
By Tuesday, however, Ternansky had been removed from teaching his two assigned courses for the fall quarter.
Steven Boggs, dean of UCSD’s physical sciences division, announced Ternansky’s effective suspension in a statement saying this was to ensure a “productive learning environment for all.”
“This incident serves as a painful reminder of how offhand comments and ‘jokes’ can expose biases and stereotypes which are antithetical to our ongoing efforts to create an inclusive and respectful environment for everyone,” Boggs also said. “We sincerely apologize to those who have been impacted, including the university service workers and Spanish-speaking communities.”
Ternansky’s department chair, Vicki Gracia, and the unit’s vice chair of equity, diversity and inclusion, Stacey Brydges, said in a separate email to students, faculty and staff, “We are appalled by the disrespectful and racist remarks made by a chemistry instructor this week in one of our undergraduate classes and are deeply sorry for the impact on our employees to whom these comments were directed our students and our Latinx to Chicanx communities in particular. The well-being, safety and success of all our students are a top priority of the department of chemistry and biochemistry, and it is the individual and collective responsibilities of all members, including our faculty to foster a respectful civil and inclusive culture inside and outside the classroom.”
‘A Very Complicated Situation’
Many students have called on UCSD to take further public action—up to dismissal—against Ternansky, who is not tenured but who holds a continuing appointment.
Rommie Amaro, a chaired professor in Ternansky’s department, did not respond to a request for comment but said on Twitter that she was “outraged to see a colleague making openly racist remarks while teaching & am personally affronted as a #Latinx faculty member. Grossly offensive & objectively in violation of the UC Faculty Code of Conduct.”
The university system’s Faculty Code says, in part, that professors must “avoid any exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students.”
Based on the video, Ternansky wasn’t discriminating against students directly, but he intimated to students that Spanish-speaking campus workers only speak “Mexican,” and that they may be violent. He did so in a notoriously challenging science course at an emerging Hispanic-serving institution that has numerous programs dedicated to increasing diversity in the sciences—in the city of San Diego, where the population is 30 percent Latino, according to federal data.
The faculty also prohibits “discrimination, including harassment, against university employees or individuals seeking employment.”
The university says it won’t comment further on any personnel actions it takes in the case.
Ternansky did not respond to a request for comment.
Jubilee H. Cabellon, co-founder of UCSD’s Society for Latinos in Physical Science (SLIPS) and a graduate student of chemical biology who said she has been a teaching assistant to Ternansky twice, told Inside Higher Ed that this was “a very complicated situation.”
“Organic chemistry, I went through it myself and it’s very difficult. You don’t need to be targeted as a minority group with any kind of offhand comments,” Cabellon said. “But it is the opinion of the SLIPS group that one should be allowed to make mistakes and apologize for them. We also stand in solidarity with the students who did feel personally attacked or targeted by these comments.” (Cabellon said that Ternansky, in her experience, “tends to say things without thinking first,” but that he’s generally receptive to student feedback: “There are times where he has made certain jokes. He’s made a couple of gender jokes, but then he usually follows up with, ‘I hope that didn’t offend anyone.’ And then, usually, we end up taking him aside. We’re like, ‘That did offend,’ and then he apologizes.”)
Ternansky is far from the first professor to be removed from a classroom for making offensive comments. But Cabellon said that getting a new instructor in the middle of the term has exacerbated the situation for some students, who are now concerned about how their grades will be impacted. Instead of quickly suspending Ternansky, she said, UCSD perhaps should have allowed him to apologize directly to students and to the group of campus workers he maligned.
UCSD may need to improve its faculty diversity, equity and inclusion training, she added, and should convene a meeting for students to discuss the Ternansky case.
“It might be good to hold a town hall meeting where students can come and vocalize exactly how they felt about the situation, instead of taking everything from social media, where things can get very out of hand,” Cabellon said. “I understand that there was an urgency to the situation, especially since all this kind of transpired over the weekend, and they wanted students to feel comfortable during this school week. But they’ve just ended up in a very awkward situation.”
Michelle Franklin, university spokesperson, said that UCSD doesn’t have mandatory diversity training for faculty members, but it introduces its principles of community, including valuing cultural diversity, during faculty orientation. The School of Physical Sciences and the department of chemistry and biochemistry have their own diversity initiatives, she said.