As It Happens

Professor fired after public dispute with student over slavery history

A University of Tennessee professor has been fired after she made a number of posts on Facebook that appeared to be directed at a student who challenged her quiz about the impacts of slavery.
Kayla Renee Parker disagreed strongly when her university professor claimed most slave families remained intact with both parents. (Olivia Johnson)

A university professor has been fired after she wrote a number of public Facebook posts that appeared to be directed at a student who challenged her quiz about the impact of slavery.

Kayla Renee Parker was a student in Judy Morelock's sociology of the family class at the University of Tennessee last semester, when she took issue with the answer to a multiple-choice quiz.

I believe with all my heart that it is important to teach students accurate history, and that we acknowledge when we are diminishing the impacts that slavery could have.- Kayla Renee Parker

That question, according to Parker, read: "Historical research on African-American families during slavery shows that:

A) Family ties weren't important in African cultures where the slaves' ancestors originated; consequently, family bonds were never strong among slaves.

B) Two-parent families were extremely rare during the slave period.

C) Black family bonds were destroyed by the abuses of slave owners, who regularly sold off family members to other slave owners.

D) Most slave families were headed by two parents."

Parker chose C, but was told by her professor the correct answer is D. 

Parker said limiting the correct answer exclusively to D downplays the effect of slavery on black families.

"I believe in the position that I was taking. I believe with all my heart that it is important to teach students accurate history, and that we acknowledge when we are diminishing the impacts that slavery could have," Parker told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"So the stance that I made was that I feel incredibly passionate that this is accurately portrayed in my classes and that black history shouldn't change from class to class."

This dispute resulted in several heated exchanges with the professor — over email, on social media and in person. Parker has penned a blog post about the experience.

She said when the professor challenged her to give her own lecture on the topic, she agreed to do so, and broadcast her presentation live on Facebook.

"I presented and I got positive feedback from my classmates," she said. "It really should have been the end of this whole debacle."

But soon after, Parker said, her phone lit up with messages from friends telling her the professor had been posting about her on Facebook.

Morelock never names Parker in any of her posts, but makes repeated reference to a student she says has wronged her. 

"After the semester is over and she is no longer my student, I will post her name, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn ... after she graduates, all bets are off," the professor wrote in one post. 

In other posts, Morelock wrote: "She's on LinkedIn trying to establish professional contacts, this should be fun!" and "I don't forget malevolent attempts to harm me. #karmawillfindyou" and "Ignore the facts, promote a misinformed viewpoint, trash me and I will fight you."

Parker believes these comments on her former professor's page are in reference to her. (Facebook )

That's when Parker says the university moved her to another class and fired the professor. 

The University of Tennessee did not respond to As It Happens' request for comment, but told ABC affiliate the professor was relieved of her teaching duties in early April and her year-to-year contract was not renewed.

The professor told As It Happens she is under order from the school not to discuss the situation.

Students defend professor 

Several of Morelock's former students reached out to As It Happens to defend her record as an educator and an activist.

"She is a wonderful woman, and to see her character nationally besmirched over allegations from one disgruntled student, is appalling and abhorrent. Especially because she is unable to speak for herself and tell her side of the story," former student Chelsea Hatcher wrote in an email. 

It honestly breaks my heart to see all of this go down after this woman has done so much for so many people.- Natalie Ebolum

"This is a woman who has literally spent her entire adult life advocating for social and racial justice. She is loudly outspoken about injustice anywhere, and is considered by many minority groups as an ally to their cause and to ensuring their well-being."

Natalie Ebolum, who took several classes with Morelock, including sociology of the family, said she believes her professor has been unfairly maligned.

"It honestly breaks my heart to see all of this go down after this woman has done so much for so many people," Ebolum said.

Ebolum said that from a sociological perspective, Morelock's quiz answer was correct, and she was generous to offer the student a chance to challenge it openly in class. 

"For it to boil over into this racial issue it is just mind-blowing to me," she said. 

Parker, meanwhile, says the professor's personal history and beliefs are not the issue. 

"Even people who consider themselves to be allies for the movement, which would be a professor who's teaching black history, they have to understand that they may say or do something that is framed in [white] supremacy," she said.

"And the first thing that they have to do is to be able to be mature enough to self-reflect and understand that they have to try to be more open-minded rather than putting up a defensive wall and believing that they cannot possibly say anything that's framed in supremacy if they're not racist."

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