A drama professor instructed college students they bought their emotions harm too simply. They determined to struggle again


Coastal Carolina University theatre professor Steve Earnest stands under a grove of trees near his home on Saturday, November 13, 2021, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Earnest has been involved in a controversy with minority students on campus after he refused to apologize after minority students' names were listed on a whiteboard in a class. A committee of professors swiftly found the concern to be based on a misunderstanding: the list was an attempt by a visiting artist to help minority students connect with other non-white students on campus. "Sorry but I don't think it's a big deal," Earnest wrote in an email to faculty and students. "I'm just sad people get their feelings hurt so easily." The controversy has resulted in boycotts of his classes, and he has since been delegated to other duties at the University. (Randall Hill/ For the Los Angeles Times)

Coastal Carolina College theater professor Steve Earnest close to his house in Myrtle Seashore, S.C., on Nov. 13. The politically conservative professor grew to become the middle of controversy after commenting that college students of shade bought their emotions harm too simply after a misunderstanding on campus in September. (Randall Hill / For The Instances)

It began with a misunderstanding.

A Black theater scholar at Coastal Carolina College instructed a visiting drama trainer she needed to attach with nonwhite college students, so the trainer drew up an inventory of names on a whiteboard, then forgot to erase it after they left the studio.

When a number of different college students walked in, they noticed the listing and have been left with the suspicion that these on it had been singled out with racist intent.

A committee of professors investigated and promptly despatched out a departmentwide e-mail clarifying what had occurred that September day. Searching for to calm college students, the professors wrote that the reason “by no means undermines the emotions that any of you’re feeling concerning the incident” and that the school was “deeply sorry.”

The visiting trainer additionally wrote an apology: “Irrespective of the great intention. … I nonetheless need you to know I’m an fool and I’m sorry.”

Issues may need ended there. However at a time when faculty campuses have turn out to be middle stage for the polarizing problems with race, identification and what constitutes hurt, the theater division was primed for battle.

Enter Steve Earnest.

“Sorry however I don’t suppose it’s an enormous deal,” the 62-year-old drama professor, who’s white, wrote in a “reply all” e-mail. “Im simply unhappy individuals get their emotions harm so simply. And they’re going into Theatre?”

Inside minutes, his iPad lit up with messages, principally from Black theater majors.

“Considering like that’s a part of the issue,” wrote Kelis Herriott, a 21-year-old senior. “This division is a joke.”

“Develop up. Full Offense,” wrote senior Jihad Levermore, 23, addressing Earnest, including that as a substitute of inquiring privately and making an attempt to be taught, “you determined to chalk it as much as sensitivity.”

The professor replied that evening. “Thanks for your entire hate mails!” he wrote, including, “Deleting this chain.”


Raised by her grandparents within the small South Carolina metropolis of Georgetown, Herriott fell in love with appearing throughout a governor’s summer season program for highschool college students.

Immersing herself in Shakespeare felt like a private awakening. Taking part in a 70-year-old man within the Sam Shepard play “Buried Youngster” was an opportunity to channel the dialect and life expertise of her grandfather.

Upon her enrollment at close by Coastal Carolina College, which had wooed her with two scholarships, Herriott was assigned an advisor: Earnest.

At first, he struck her as laid-back and lenient. However as she bought to know him extra, she got here to see him as out of contact and awkwardly inappropriate. Two incidents stood out.

The primary one was when he returned to campus after a fellowship in China. “Oh, wow, seems to be such as you’ve formed up properly!” she stated he instructed her. “You look so good now!”

Herriott understood that he was complimenting her on having misplaced weight — she had weighed greater than 200 kilos when she joined the division — however it nonetheless felt improper.

Then, simply this fall, he suggested her to audition for out of doors Shakespeare theater corporations that have been in search of range and “positively casting individuals such as you.”

She puzzled if he instructed her that solely as a result of she is Black.

For his half, Earnest stated that he did not recall ever mentioning her physique and that whereas her race might assist in the hiring market, her expertise — her voice and her stage presence — was her greatest promoting level.

Herriott, who by no means noticed the whiteboard, was not shocked Earnest thought the scholars overreacted. However she was shocked he thought it was acceptable to say so. Or that different professors had not jumped into the e-mail thread to inform him to cease.

Lower than 24 hours after sending his first e-mail, Earnest tried to make amends.

“I sincerely apologize for my statements that triggered harm,” he wrote, providing to fulfill with college students. “I do have one thing of an empathy situation that I might enhance on. My very own kids will attest to the truth that I’ve ingrained in me the outdated ‘simply suck it up and transfer on’ mentality.”

The apology fell flat.

That evening, Herriott requested herself: “Why am I doing all this homework to go to class and be awkward? And for different individuals to should go to Steve’s class — like nothing occurred.”

And so she gathered different college students to prepare a boycott.

“I ought to have management over my training to take away poisonous individuals, no matter freedom of speech, or no matter,” she stated later. “Hate speech is hate speech.”

That Monday morning, dozens of scholars, wearing black, skipped courses. Messages have been pinned on doorways and noticeboards throughout the humanities and humanities constructing: “Fireplace the racist,” “TIME TO RESIGN” and “Black Actors Matter.”

Quickly, native TV crews descended on the ten,000-student campus, which is about two-thirds white. By the top of the day, a dean had ordered Earnest to not come to courses.

After working on the college for 16 years, he was now not allowed to show. He stated no administrator instructed him what rule or coverage he had damaged.

“I’m unsure how I can defend myself, once I don’t even know what I’m accused of doing,” he stated.


If there was one factor Earnest tried to instill in his college students, it was toughness. He would warn them that appearing is a brutal career filled with rejection and requires a sturdy exoskeleton to outlive.

He himself is a uncommon species on the planet of theater: a Donald Trump-voting conservative from a small city in Alabama with a deep ardour for avant-garde European theater.

Among the many movies his freshmen watch in school is a postmodern remake of Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” that features a scene by which a father locations his penis on a desk whereas his blind daughter swings at it with a hammer.

In his house workplace, he shops pens in a mug that reads “LIBERAL TEARS.”

He did not say an excessive amount of about his political opinions on campus. New social mores on consolation and security, race and intersectionality felt unsettling to him and in his view made educating extra fraught.

And that was earlier than the police homicide of George Floyd in Minneapolis final 12 months launched a nationwide reckoning over racism.

That summer season, alumni took to Fb to allege racism within the division, together with a “Eurocentric colonized” curriculum and professors who had mispronounced their names and typecast or ignored them for roles in performs due to pores and skin shade.

Alumni additionally created an internet site — “We See You CCU Theatre” — and a petition calling for the “deconstruction” of “racist buildings” within the theater division that was “at the moment a dangerous atmosphere for BIPOC college students.”

They famous that in 2015 the division staged two variations of William Inge’s “Picnic” — with one forged white and the opposite Black. Two years later in “Our Nation’s Good,” a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker that opens with a prisoner being whipped, white college students performed Royal Marines operating a penal colony in Australia whereas college students of shade performed the convicts.

It wasn’t lengthy earlier than division leaders launched a response: “We failed. We, the CCU Theatre division, have been negligent in our accountability to render care and compassion. … We acknowledge the ache and triggering.”

The division instituted a number of modifications, forming a “range, fairness and inclusion” committee, updating a pedagogical listing of performs to incorporate extra various voices, internet hosting digital city halls and requiring college to attend workshops together with “Anti-Racism as a Day by day Follow” and “From Snap Judgements to Micro-aggressions.”

In his Dramatic Concept and Criticism class, Earnest observed that at any time when the subject of race or gender got here up, college students have been fast to dismiss his opinions.

“You do not know,” he stated they might inform him. “You are of the improper class and particular person to speak to me about this.”

The give attention to identification, the whirlwind of Zoom workshops and diagrams of oppression all made Earnest really feel — as an older, white, Christian, able-bodied, cisgender male — as if he was strolling round campus with a goal on his again.


After Earnest was relieved from his educating duties, he labored on the humanities and humanities faculty’s annual report, printed an article within the journal European Phases and auditioned for appearing gigs.

Fearful he would lose his job, he additionally took an actual property licensing examination.

Most distressing to Earnest was the frenzy of directors to facet with the scholars. He stated that in a college Zoom assembly the division chair, Eric M. Corridor, had characterised the phrases in his e-mail as “white supremacist language.”

“I consider individuals burning crosses and sporting white robes,” Earnest stated. “And that is about as far-off from me as I can ever think about.”

Corridor stated in an e-mail to the Los Angeles Instances that “I don’t recall making that assertion.”

To college students, Earnest’s dismissal of their considerations concerning the whiteboard episode was a part of a sample of racial insensitivity and boundary crossing, together with an incident final November that had earned him widespread scorn within the division.

“Sorry, not engaging,” he wrote in a now-deleted touch upon an Instagram publish that confirmed a former scholar, Nikko Austen Smith, elevating a center finger to the digital camera.

Earnest stated he meant his remark as pleasant recommendation to somebody he had labored intently with as a scholar, co-founding a faucet dance membership. Smith filed a Title IX grievance towards him.

As in most workplaces, express discrimination — utilizing racial slurs maliciously or grading college students primarily based on race or gender, for instance — is grounds for termination.

Earnest’s case was extra difficult. That he had not been blatantly racist did not excuse what college students seen as an absence of empathy and a refusal to get on board with the brand new temper of sensitivity on campus.

Below stress from college students, directors needed to determine whether or not Earnest ought to be disciplined for violating these rising norms. As extra speech is construed as hurtful and even harmful, can a professor be dismissed for creating an “uncomfortable” studying atmosphere or “endangering” college students?

Probably the most painless resolution, directors instructed Earnest, could be an early retirement. However he and his spouse had too little financial savings for that, and he frightened that it might ship the improper message.

“It proves to college students you could’t converse out — when you suppose one thing, you possibly can’t say it,” he stated. “Sooner or later somebody has to face up and say ‘no.’”

The Basis for Particular person Rights in Schooling, a nonpartisan nonprofit group that defends speech and due course of on faculty campuses, took up his case. In a information launch, its attorneys wrote that stopping him from educating “just isn’t solely overly dramatic, but in addition unconstitutional.”

Conservative shops swiftly picked up the story, which they forged as one other instance of a professor who had been “canceled” for voicing unpopular opinions or presenting contentious materials in school.

Final month, Earnest filed a proper grievance with the dean of the school alleging that his rights to free speech, due course of and educational freedom had been trampled.

Earnest later acquired a letter from the college saying that his conduct was below evaluation to find out whether or not his emails “endangered the welfare of scholars” or violated the code of moral conduct requiring workers to “create a respectful atmosphere” and “nurture a local weather of equity and civility towards others. … even within the face of disagreement.”

A couple of days later, greater than two months since he had taught a category, the college knowledgeable him that the emails did not warrant disciplinary motion “presently.”

In a press release to the media, Daniel J. Ennis, the provost, wrote: “A college can’t succeed with out freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and an atmosphere that makes educational development and growth potential.”

However Ennis additionally made clear that these freedoms weren’t absolute and that the college “won’t ever tolerate offensive conduct, harassment, or bullying.”


Earnest expects to return to educating subsequent month.

He stated he could be extra cautious about his conduct, taking care to not socialize with college students or inject himself into conversations which can be “none of my enterprise.”

“I am within the midst of an atmosphere that’s at the moment in flux and altering,” he stated. “I’ve the power to adapt, even at my age.”

On the similar time, Earnest stated, the controversy had additionally given him the chance to be a little bit extra open about his conservative political opinions.

“That doesn’t I imply should placed on a red-white-and-blue shirt and prance round a corridor or no matter,” he stated. “However I don’t should be so hidden and so quiet.”

As for the scholars who led the boycott, they continue to be uneasy about Earnest coming again to campus.

“I must know that it is a division the place everyone, from no matter stroll of life they arrive from, is simply going to have the ability to be themselves right here,” Levermore stated. “That sounds so kumbaya, however I actually do desire a protected house for everybody.”

Together with Earnest?

“Um, no,” he stated. “You may consider no matter you wish to consider, however I believe that you might want to be accepting of everybody and you might want to know what you possibly can and can’t say. … Steve ought to be capable of be whoever he desires to be — so long as it would not make anyone else really feel unsafe.

“Maintaining with the occasions is vital,” he added.

Even when Levermore was dissatisfied that Earnest was returning, he stated he was not shocked. “I simply hope that he is open to development as we transfer ahead,” he stated.

Herriott stated she understands that some individuals suppose she and different college students are unreasonable for refusing to just accept Earnest’s presence on campus. However as a client who paid for her training — even together with her scholarships, she had taken on jobs at a gymnasium and a clothes retailer — she stated she shouldn’t should tolerate disrespect.

“If you put every thing in perspective, individuals do not know the complete story,” she stated. “And I assume individuals won’t ever know the complete story. And it is simply fascinating how rapidly individuals are capable of choose.”

Requested whether or not she had any sympathy for Earnest, she paused.

“I wouldn’t say I do.”

This story initially appeared in Los Angeles Instances.

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