Roosevelt University Adjunct Professor Robert Klein Engler Fired for Racial “Joke”

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“A group of sociologists did a poll in Arizona about the new immigration law. Sixty percent said they were in favor, and 40 percent said, ‘No habla English.'”

This was a “joke” spoken in class that led to the firing of adjunct instructor Robert Klein Engler on August 6, 2010 (Hiroshima genocide day!). Mr Engler, a sociologist, had taught at Roosevelt University in Chicago’s Loop for ten years. This comment was spoken ironically in a course on “City and Citizenship.” He was charged with harassment and was not specifically informed of the nature of the charge. This is egregious: administrators should directly provide information whenever an instructor is the recipient of a complaint unless there is tangible evidence of physical harm or anticipatory retaliation. The Roosevelt Adjunct Faculty Organization (RAFO), an adjunct union, originally filed several grievances with the university that Mr Engler’s dismissal violated Articles 4E, 4H, and 4K of the collective bargaining agreement. A CBA is negotiated between labour and management (in academia usually between faculty and university). The former adjunct was apparently offered a cash settlement but declined the proffer due to its alleged impecunious amount.

He did receive public support from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the nation’s most effective direct-action university-monitoring organisation. Mr Engler sent me an email today that contained an announcement for monetary solicitation. Mr Engler seeks contributions to his legal defence fund:

From: []
Sent: Sat 6/18/2011 7:01 AM
To: Kirstein, Peter N.
Subject: roosevelt professor’s update (accademic (sic) freedom)

Please help me spread the word and make Roosevelt University a better place to teach and learn. If you don’t like contributing online, please send your donation to:

Attorney Doug Ibendahl
c/o Engler Defense Fund
165 N Canal, Apt. 1215
Chicago IL 60606


Adjuncts are very vulnerable due to their at-will employment status. Even when organised in a collective bargaining unit as they are at Roosevelt, their status is quite tenuous. His statement was clearly mocking Latinos/as putative absence of English-speaking language skills. It uncharitably focused on the ethnic diversity of persons living in Arizona that passed a racial-profiling immigration law in 2010. This anti-American, Klan-like piece of legislation targeted Hispanic-looking residents who could be stopped and ordered to show identification papers. How many white people are accosted on the streets by law-enforcement personnel and required to prove through identity papers they are American or documented workers?

I wrote a book on Mexican labour in the US; I construe the Arizona law as a convenient blind to use immigration as a means to persecute people of colour in that state. Immigrants contribute to the wealth and culture of a state: not merely Europeans arriving at Ellis Island! Opposition to it such as this is based solely on culture and ethnicity which is despicable and cowardly. I do not know if Mr Engler supports the law but his comment clearly was meant through “humour” to emphasise that significant numbers of Arizonans do not speak English: apparently the adjunct’s standard of citizen worthiness.

I prefer, however, that speech not be punished. I prefer that speech codes be carefully constructed to deal with only the most loathsome and egregious forms of verbal abuse. Let’s be serious. A professor, and I am NOT referring to Mr Engler, who would refer to a student of African-American heritage in a classroom with a crude and disparaging racial remark would clearly be guilty of moral turpitude. So yes some speech maybe censored but less is best.


I believe Mr Engler’s utterance could be construed as racially insensitive. Whether it merited dismissal is based on university procedures, collective bargaining agreement provisions and perhaps the academy’s sense of what constitutes inappropriate racial referencing in a classroom. Universities should convene a faculty panel to consider charges that could lead to sanctions. Administrations should defer in most instances to peer review of charges by a faculty committee. In any event, it is important that written procedures are followed. Unfortunately non-tenure stream faculty are dismissed without much regard to due process. Instructors, however, would be wise to avoid making comments in class that could be construed as racially biased. Finally, while I condemn this remark and found it offensive, I choose to publicise his defence fund for those who believe he merits financial support.

NB: The “joke” reveals an absence of basic Spanish-language skills. If one were English-language challenged, one would probably say; “No hablo inglés.” “habla” means he/she speaks; “hablo” means I speak. “English” is  the English word for English. “inglés” is Spanish for English and is not capitalised.

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