Two of these men are just like the others

by Beacon Staff • February 11, 2009

ssue:/b The denial of tenure for two esteemed black professors.

bOur view:/b Emerson's homogeneous faculty raises suspicions of institutional racism.

Before Tuesday, this space was slated for a critique of Emerson's toothless new plan to facilitate diversity on campus. Then, as now, we believed the plan to be a lot of boilerplate. It emphasizes ancillary issues at Emerson by suggesting workshops and new classes to foster multicultural acceptance, while nearly ignoring the root cause of our lack of student diversity: a dearth of financial aid money.

That is still true. Without adequate financial aid, Emerson will never achieve true equality among diverse socioeconomic groups. Without enticing poorer prospects with increased assistance, Emerson may succeed in attracting relatively rich white and black students. But poor students will always be left out, and that hurts minority groups more because, in our country, they are the poorer ones. A single $1,500 scholarship for "diverse" students is a joke.

Events, however, intervened on Tuesday. iThe Beacon/i learned of the tenure battle two black professors, cinematography professor Pierre Desir and history professor Dr. Roger House, are waging. Their applications for tenure-though enthusiastically endorsed by their departments' faculty and chairs-were denied in May. Their bids died after being rejected by Deans Janis Andersen and Grafton Nunes, the Board of Trustees and President Jacqueline Liebergott, iBeacon/i reporter Gabrielle Dunn reports on page one. The other three professors up for tenure were approved. They are white.

Now, Desir and House have prepared complaints to file with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination alleging they were denied based on race. It's very early in the process but, regardless of the outcome, both professors will lose their jobs by the summer (denied tenure is essentially a deferred layoff). It's also so early that passing judgment on the merits of each professors' case is imprudent. This much we do know:

- When House and Desir leave in May, Emerson will have only 10 full-time black professors, and just three tenured ones. At least one of them, journalism Professor Mike Brown, had to file a petition with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to get his. (We're guessing Professor Brown would want us to note the EEOC was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)

- Do the math, and you see hints of the "institutional racism" some professors claimed exists at Emerson: While black professors make up six percent of the total professorial population, they represent just four percent of the tenured lecturers. So, despite the deplorable dearth of diversity in the ranks of regular full-timers, it's 33 percent tougher for black academics to make tenure than whites.

- There's a history here. In 1977, Brown filed his petition to the EEOC, finally winning tenure in 1979. In May 2001, Marketing Communications Professor Ali Kanso El-Ghori, then the only Arab professor at the school, filed suit with the MCAD, alleging discrimination. It's unclear whether he won, but it's possible 9/11 derailed his plea. He is no longer at Emerson. Now, two black professors are filing complaints in a year they comprised 100 percent of the professors denied, while all three white professors won promotion.

So the diversity plan did get one thing right: It needs to work diligently to attract-and retain-quality professors of all races, creeds and genders. Welcoming professors House and Desir back to the faculty would be a nice start, if they will have us.,iBeacon/i staff