Dean apologizes for Katrina comments

by Beacon Staff • November 30, 2005

Sigman said that his demeanor at the event was unfortunate, and that he supported the efforts of the college to eliminate racism on campus.,Stuart Sigman, dean of the School of Communication, formally apologized to the Faculty Assembly for his actions during last month's panel discussion on racism in the wake of Hurricane Katrina at the group's Nov. 22 meeting.

Sigman said that his demeanor at the event was unfortunate, and that he supported the efforts of the college to eliminate racism on campus.

At the same meeting, a Faculty Assembly committee recommended new initiatives for promoting diversity and racial understanding at Emerson. Linda Moore, vice president for Academic Affairs, said that she would work with the committee to address the recommendations.

During the question-and-answer period of the Nov. 1 Town Hall Meeting on Katrina, Race and Poverty, several students said they saw Sigman bypass students waiting in line to ask questions in order to voice his opinion on the issue. Addressing the panel, Sigman, who is white, challenged the panelists' notion that the problems experienced in the aftermath Katrina disaster was based solely on racism. Following the forum, three students sent unsolicited opinion articles to The Beacon complaining about Sigman's actions.

"I apologize for offending anyone at the early November meeting," Sigman said in an interview after the Assembly meeting. "I believe that issues of race and ethnicity are ones we need to find appropriate contexts to work through people's different perceptions."

After Sigman's remarks, Robbie McCauley, co-chair of the Faculty Assembly commitee Perspectives on Race, Identity, Sexuality and Multiculturalism (PRISM), read a statement about the lessons drawn from the incident.

"We at the college must transform our behavior, and undo/unlearn outdated and broken ways of speaking and thinking," McCauley said. "We feel that this is the time to address the ways in which people, perhaps unwittingly, use power to secure their own position and silence others."

McCauley recommended five initiatives in the "process of unlearning racism" at Emerson, including mandatory "unlearning oppression" workshops for faculty and staff and diversity training for search committees in the faculty hiring process.

Four years ago, Sigman helped draft the original proposal for the creation of the Center for Diversity in Communication Industries (CDCI).

President Jacqueline Liebergott and the Board of Trustees founded the center with the intention of "promoting diversity in all of its forms on campus," Sigman said after his apology.

He also said he is "very proud" of the accomplishment.

Sigman said he supports the center's efforts and still participates in many of its planning meetings.

Moore said that it is too soon to say whether or not the CDCI's programs have been successful.

"I will work with the committee to address the recommendations," Moore wrote in an e-mail. "I have already spoken with two consultants who do diversity training for institutions."

According to Moore, 12.6 percent of full-time faculty is African, Hispanic, Asian and Native American, while the national average is 13 percent. There are currently two African-American tenured faculty members, said Moore, who is white.

McCauley said the diversity among students and staff is "dismal," but that the discussion of racism has opened up since she arrived at Emerson in 2001.

"I was lonely," McCauley said of her early experience as an African-American professor at the college. "It's better now, not so much because of the numbers, but because the conversations have changed."

McCauley said that Emerson should make special efforts to attract students and faculty of color.

"People are learning to accept the dialogue about this subject," McCauley said. "That recognition resonates in the larger society. If you don't move forward, then the society remains in a position where, at top institutions, white privilege is considered okay."

Emily Carlson, a senior writing, literature and publishing major, said the college should make an effort to attract a diverse student body, but should not select applicants based solely on race.

"I don't necessarily agree that people should get into a school just because of their background," said Carlson, who is white.

McCauley said that discussions of race on campus should not be focused on personal opposition or argument.

"Contention is not the best thing," McCauley said. "It should not be a win/lose situation. We all need to put our feet into this change."