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Legislators criticize UW-Madison professor's course on race, tweets about shooting of officers
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Legislators criticize UW-Madison professor's course on race, tweets about shooting of officers

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These tweets from UW-Madison professor Damon Sajnani prompted sharp criticism from a Republican lawmaker Tuesday.

A Republican lawmaker called for UW-Madison to cancel a planned course on racism and fire its professor for posting tweets the legislator said condoned violence against police officers, warning Tuesday that the class could affect the university’s funding in the next state budget.

State Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, said he believes the course in the university’s African Cultural Studies department called “The Problem of Whiteness” is inappropriate and a waste of money. Murphy joined Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, in saying that how the university handles the controversy over the spring 2017 course could have ramifications for its request for new state funding in the 2017-19 budget.

“The state has a lot of different priorities when it comes to funding things,” Murphy said. “Is funding a course that’s about ‘The Problem of Whiteness’ ... a high priority? I’ve got a feeling it’s not.”

School officials defended the course on Monday after Nass, a frequent critic of the university, derided it in an email to Republican legislators.

“The course title refers to the challenge of understanding white identity and non-white identity across the globe,” the university wrote in a statement Monday night. It is not mandatory, and “will benefit students who are interested in developing a deeper understanding of race issues,” officials said.

But the controversy escalated Tuesday when Murphy also drew attention to tweets from the course’s instructor, professor Damon Sajnani, in a news release.

In one tweet, posted the night last July when five police officers were killed by a gunman in Dallas, Sajnani included a photo of news coverage of the shooting and wrote, “Is the uprising finally starting? Is this style of protest gonna go viral?”

In another from the same night, Sajnani linked to a song called “Officer Down” and wrote, “Watching CNN, this is the song I am currently enjoying in my head.”

Murphy said Sajnani should be fired for the “vile” tweets.

“If UW-Madison stands with this professor, I don’t know how the university can expect the taxpayers to stand with UW-Madison,” Murphy said.

Sajnani, an assistant professor in his first year at UW-Madison, declined an interview request Tuesday, citing “the preponderance of white supremacist backlash against myself and the UW community.”

In response to Murphy’s criticism and his call for Sajnani to be dismissed, UW-Madison provided a statement from Provost Sarah Mangelsdorf that said the university “supports the First Amendment rights of its students, faculty and staff, including their use of social media tools to express their views on race, politics or other topics, in their capacity as a private citizen.

“However, the celebration or incitement of violence is not consistent with our values,” Mangelsdorf added. “To that end, I repeat the call for our community members to elevate their level of discourse and engage in civil and respectful discussion that promotes greater understanding and respect for all.” UW officials later amended the statement to remove the reference to celebrating violence.

Lawmakers criticize content

Nass has sought in the past to draw attention to content in UW-Madison classes that he finds objectionable. In July, he told university officials that a course’s assigned reading about gay men’s sexual preferences would affect how he evaluated the UW System’s budget request.

In their response Monday to Nass’ criticism of the course, UW-Madison officials wrote, “There is a long academic tradition at UW–Madison and in higher education for allowing individual faculty freedom to design courses reflecting topics that they and their department consider important.”

Some UW System professors took issue with Nass and Murphy’s statements, raising concerns about lawmakers using the university’s budget to push for changes to curriculum, and criticizing the call to fire Sajnani as infringing on academic freedom and free speech.

Murphy countered that taxpayers, and by extension lawmakers, should have a voice in how their money is spent at public universities.

“We have freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean there’s freedom from consequences,” Murphy said.

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