Denied tenure, two black professors to lodge complaints with state equal employment agency

by Beacon Staff • February 11, 2009

Two black professors, who allege they were denied tenure in May because of their race, are filing complaints against Emerson College with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

Dr. Roger House, who filed his complaint in June, and Pierre Desir, who said he plans to file, were the only black faculty members among five up for tenure, and they were the only ones denied, according to several school officials who were involved in the decision. They will be forced to leave the college at the end of the semester. a href="http://www.berkeleybeacon.com/media/paper169/documents/b0cy7djz.pdf"Click here to download House's complaint in .PDF format./a

Both were rejected by their schools' deans after winning approval from their colleagues and department chairs. They claim they were unfairly judged by the administration and that less qualified white professors have received tenure in the past. Emerson administrators denied allegations of racism.

Their departure will leave Emerson with 10 full-time black faculty members of 163 total, according to Eric Sykes in the Office of Academic Affairs. Out of 68 tenured professors, three are black. While six percent of all faculty members are black, only four percent of tenured professors are.

The complaints are currently under investigation by the Massachusetts Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

House, a history professor in the journalism department and Desir, a visual and media arts professor, were supported by students and colleagues interviewed for this story.

"It saddens me that a college that has made a point of stating its profound commitment to diversity would miss the opportunity to tenure two diverse faculty, two black male faculty who are well respected by students and colleagues," said Jerry Lanson, a journalism professor and former department chair.

House said he was recruited on a tenure-track six years ago, believing he'd be a good candidate for tenure.

"I was hired with the understanding that I'd have that option," he said, "and I've been jumping through hoops from day one."

Seven years ago, Grafton Nunes, the dean of the School of Visual and Media Arts, hired Desir from Ithaca College in New York to teach cinematography and film on Emerson's tenure track. This spring, Moore and Nunes rejected Desir's tenure because they did not feel his cinematography work constituted real filmmaking, according to Desir and documents and letters obtained by iThe Beacon/i. His work has appeared at film festivals in Sundance, Toronto and New York, according to Emerson's Web site.

"One-hundred percent of my classes this semester are cinematography classes. I was recruited as a cinematographer. They recruit black faculty members but they haven't retained black faculty members," Desir said in a telephone interview. "It may simply be flat-out racism that they don't want to give tenure to black males."

Nunes did not respond to requests for comment; his assistant said he is currently on vacation.

Emerson's tenure process is internal and provides job security to professors who have a strong record of published research, service to the institution and excellent teaching. See box at right.

House, who has a Ph.D from Boston University, received the unanimous support of his former and current students, the journalism department faculty and department chair Janet Kolodzy during the tenure process. He also received the unanimous support of the Faculty Senate's Faculty Status Committee and the department's tenure committee.

Kolodzy said she sat in on House's classes and did not dispute her support for his application, but said she could not further discuss any personnel projects.

"I respect Roger immensely," she said. "I cannot speak about [the tenure application] process, though I do respect him very much."

Dean of Communications Janis Andersen was the first to reject House's bid. She supported his application in teaching and service but disagreed with the faculty regarding his scholarship, requesting that House publish the equivalent of two books, he said.

In order to be tenured, faculty must have at least one book published, one book in the process of being published or a series of articles published, school officials said. The Faculty Handbook is less clear about the requirements. iSee below./i.

House, who teaches African American History, is in the process of publishing his first book, a biography of Chicago blues legend Big Bill Broonzy, due out this year from Louisiana State University Press.

"There was no sound basis for [the administration] creating a publication expectation like that for me when it did not apply a similar standard of publication to the white faculty who [were] already tenured," House said. "[...] It seems they have different tenure standards for different people based on race. It's a question of fairness. Was this a fair process?"

In a telephone interview, Andersen confirmed House's tenure was denied last spring. She would not discuss House's individual application.

"This is not breaking news," Andersen said. "You can report this next week, next month, next year, it's not going to change."

Following Andersen's rejection, Moore also denied House's tenure. Liebergott and the Board of Trustees followed suit. Georgina Callendar, a junior film major, said she hoped the college would try to retain its black professors for the benefit of its handful of black students.

Callendar, who is black, said, "At least if you see a professor of color and not just someone serving food, you think, 'Maybe I have a chance.'"

House said he contacted the MCAD because he needed an independent source to review his case against the school, but said he has no hope of being given tenure, because he is a black male professor at Emerson.

"When you talk to Linda Moore," he told a iBeacon/i reporter, "ask her, 'If Barack Obama was a professor at the college, what chance would he have of being tenured and promoted?'"

Through a spokesperson, Moore said she could not meet with a iBeacon/i reporter and referred all questions to Vice President of Public Affairs David Rosen.

"I can tell you that the college is deeply committed to recruiting promoting more faculty of color as stated in the recently released strategic plan for diversity at the college," Rosen wrote in an e-mail message. "However, the overarching goal of achieving diversity does not apply in any direct way to individual tenure decisions."

bHow Tenure Works/b

Emerson's tenure process requires approval from the professor's department and department chair.

Once approved by the department, the application must be accepted by his or her school's dean and the Faculty Senate's Faculty Status Committee. Finally, Vice President of Academic Affairs Linda Moore decides. Her recommendation goes to President Jacqueline Liebergott and the college's Board of Trustees.

In order to be tenured, faculty must have at least one book published, one book in the process of being published or a series of articles published.

According to the 2008 Faculty Handbook, a professor's work is deemed scholarly if it "e

ffectively communicates" or is appropriately organized and presented through a suitable medium.

The tenured faculty members and the chair of each department define expectations for accomplishments appropriate to the discipline or disciplines of the department, according to the Faculty Handbook. Prior to implementation, the department chair forwards the standards to the school dean and the vice president for academic affairs for approval.

A complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination is mediated by a member of the commission during a meeting with both sides. A decision on behalf of the complainant might entitle them to back pay, emotional damages fees and reimbursed attorneys fees.