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Tenure fight just the latest racial skirmish for Emerson

Talia Whyte

Complaints filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) by two black Emerson College professors have shined a spotlight on what some say is a problem that has long plagued the school — poor handling of on-campus diversity.

“There is a legacy of racism here I thought would have been reformed already, but clearly it hasn’t changed,” said Roger House, an assistant professor in the school’s journalism department, who filed a complaint in June 2008.

House came to Emerson in 2000 after stints at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University, Boston University and Mt. Holyoke College. He applied for tenure at the school, which specializes in communications and media arts, in 2007.

It is typical for the academic tenure application process to include reviews and evaluations by everyone from the student body up to the school’s senior administration, all of which are closely considered before the decision is made to promote a professor. House said he had the full backing of his students and fellow faculty members, but his momentum halted when his tenure application reached the desk of Janis Andersen, dean of Emerson’s Department of Communication.

According to House, Andersen supported his teaching and service to the school, but did not approve his application, citing a lack of scholarship produced during his time at the school. Following Anderson’s action, Emerson Vice President of Academic Affairs Linda Moore made the decision to deny him tenure.

By Emerson’s policy, professors who are denied tenure are given one more year of employment, and are then forced to leave their position at the college.

Many colleges and universities include the amount of scholarly work produced by professors as an element in evaluating tenure applications. However, House contends that while Emerson is a teaching institution, his contributions to scholarship were judged on standards typically used by research institutions. He maintains that his selection as a 2003-2004 Fulbright scholar — combined with his experience as a reporter at the Providence Journal, a freelance writer whose work has been published in GQ and The Nation, and a producer of radio and television documentaries — should have sufficed.

“I was troubled by the process,” House said. “It seemed like I was held up to a different standard. There have been white professors with fewer credentials that have been given tenure.”

Pierre Desir, the other black professor who filed a complaint with the MCAD, said he also believes that different standards were used when he applied for tenure than were used for some of his white counterparts.

Desir joined the Emerson faculty in 2002 to teach cinematography in the college’s Department of Visual and Media Arts. The independent filmmaker, whose work has been screened at Sundance, as well as film festivals in New York, Toronto, London and Chicago, is now the only cinematographer on staff. Like House, Desir had the support of his students and fellow faculty members, but was denied tenure by the school’s administration on the grounds that he had not produced sufficient scholarship.

According to Desir, Grafton J. Nunes, dean of Emerson’s School of the Arts, told him that because he had not completed a film during his time at Emerson, he had not created enough work to justify being promoted. Desir, however, claims that completion of a film was not necessarily part of the terms in his contract with the school.

“It seems like they switched up the agreement with me over what I should produce while teaching here,” Desir said. “I am trying to understand why they would deny me. It makes no sense to me.”

House and Desir were in consideration for tenure last year along with associate professors Brooke Knight, Martie Cook and Pierre Archambault. Knight, Cook and Archambault, all of whom are white, all had their applications accepted and received tenure. According to Desir, the school claims the other three professors, who specialize in the fields of digital media, sound and screenwriting, were judged on different criteria than he and House were; for instance, the screenwriting professor was asked to get one film optioned as part of his contract.

Desir and House said they filed their complaints with the MCAD rather than with the school’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors because they did not feel they would get anywhere with an internal procedure.

John Anderson, associate professor of communication studies and a member of the governing council of the union’s Emerson branch, declined comment for this story. In a letter to the editors of the Berkeley Beacon, Emerson’s weekly student newspaper, published in the paper’s March 5, 2009, edition, Anderson wrote that the union is “concerned about the tenure denials for two of our African American colleagues last year,” but that “unfortunately, the tenure process is no longer part of the union contract.”

David Rosen, special assistant to Emerson President Jacqueline Liebergott, told the Banner that the college cannot comment on the pending matter. However, Rosen released a statement explaining that tenure “recommendations were based on reviews of the scholarship and other work of these individuals in accordance with the procedures for tenure review enumerated in the Faculty Handbook.”

“Emerson College is deeply committed to recruiting and promoting more faculty of color as stated in the recently released strategic plan for diversity at the college,” the statement said.

According to statistics provided by Emerson’s Office of Academic Affairs, out of the college’s 163 total full-time faculty members, 24 are people of color and 11 come from outside the United States.

House said he believes the college’s statement is hypocritical, noting that he was asked by the school to help write the diversity policy in the strategic plan, and is now being given the boot.

“When you look around the Boston Common, it looks like 21st century Boston, but Emerson looks like 1970s Boston,” he said. “How can Emerson prepare students for diversity if the school seems resistant to diversity?”

House and Desir are the latest professors of color to cite racism as a reason why they were not given tenure — but they are not the first.

Professors Michael Brown and Claire Andrade-Watkins were both denied tenure — Brown in 1977, Andrade-Watkins in 1990. Both were later reinstated, Brown in ’79, Andrade-Watkins in ’93, after filing suits against the college. As it stands, Brown is the only tenured assistant professor at Emerson who hasn’t been promoted to a full professorship, while Andrade-Watkins would be the only full-time black faculty member in the visual and media arts department if Desir were to leave. In 2007, performing arts professor Robbie McCauley became the first black professor to be granted tenure at Emerson without a lawsuit.

Some other Emerson professors of color left the college without filing complaint after being denied tenure. Filmmaker Andrew Millington was one of them.

Besides Andrade-Watkins, Millington was the only other black professor in the visual and media arts department between 1997 and 2003. He was forced to leave Emerson a year after being denied tenure, and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Radio, Television and Film at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

To this day, Millington said, he has still never been given a clear reason for why Emerson denied his tenure application; however, as he looked back on his days at the college, he said he now sees how it fosters an atmosphere of hatred. He referred specifically to a 2001 incident in which the campus student humor magazine, Hyena, published racist, sexist, sacrilegious and homophobic remarks.

“The environment there gives people permission to do this,” Millington said. “There was a town hall [meeting] about [the magazine], but it wasn’t clear to me what was going to be done about it.”

It will take approximately 12 to 18 months for MCAD to review the complaints filed by House and Desir, according to House; by the time a decision is reached, both professors will likely have been forced to leave the school.

Desir said he hopes that as America’s multicultural landscape continues to evolve, so too will Emerson College change. But for now, he said, he is not so hopeful.

“If Emerson were graded on diversity, they would fail,” he said.