A Towson University adjunct professor was fired last week after using a racially insensitive term in his art class.
Allen Zaruba, a local artist who had taught at Towson for 12 years, said he was discussing provocative works depicted in textbook chapters on the body and identity when he used the term.
"I crossed the line," he said. "I made a terrible, terrible mistake."
Zaruba, who is white, said his black stepfather used racial terms freely and that "I never quite got the horror of the word."
"But I will never use that term again," he said. "It is absolutely transgressive."
"As soon as I said it, I thought, 'Lord have mercy,'" Zaruba recalled. He said students did not have a strong apparent reaction but he nonetheless apologized at the beginning of the next class.
On Thursday, three days after uttering the remark, Zaruba learned he had been fired in a phone call from interim department Chairman Stuart Stein. He said Stein told him the racial slur was "never, never, never to be used anywhere on campus."
"It was determined that the comment he made was inappropriate for the classroom, especially in the context it was used," said university spokeswoman Marina Cooper.
Cooper said one of Zaruba's students and a parent complained to provost Marcia Welsh. She said there were no disputes about the facts of the incident. Though a report in the campus newspaper The Towerlight said Zaruba was examining legal options to fight his dismissal, he said Tuesday, "I am sorry, and I am not going to contest the provost's decision."
News of the incident was just spreading across campus Tuesday morning, students said. Deverick Murray, president of the Black Student Union, said most of his members had probably not heard about it and that the organization had not arrived at an official response.
Adam Jackson, president of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a campus group that promotes social justice, said he didn't know the context of the incident but was intrigued by Zaruba's wording, which included reference to "a corporate plantation."
"I think that the university firing him on the base of using a racially charged word is an excuse to escape criticism from across the university," Jackson said. "At worst, it could be a racially insensitive analogy, but to call the university a 'corporate plantation' would be a deep statement that directly challenges the politics of this university."
Cara Ober, a fellow adjunct professor in the art department, said she was sad to hear of Zaruba's dismissal because he had served as a mentor to many successful artists.
"He's incredibly passionate about teaching," Ober said. "Very energetic, very exciting in the classroom. I think he's an excellent teacher."
She declined to comment on the university's handling of the situation but said, "In general, artists tend to be more extreme in our opinions and the way we express them. We get ourselves in trouble."
Cooper said the president's office had not received much reaction to the situation.
Zaruba, 58, taught three classes this semester and said he was devastated that his mistake might cost him future teaching opportunities.
"I have given my life to this," he said, noting that he spent the 2003-2004 school year in South Korea on a Fulbright teaching fellowship.
"I believe in helping art students to make the future better. I love them all dearly."
He said he also works as a prison minister for Rock City Church of Parkville.
Despite taking responsibility for his error, Zaruba said his firing raises troubling questions about the power of political correctness in modern society.
"Are we in for another state of McCarthyism?" he said. "We have to have compassion and realize that people are not perfect."