Tenure troubles span 30 years

by Beacon Staff • February 18, 2009

Since 1880, one black professor has earned tenure at Emerson without suing the college and enduring a years-long lawsuit: Performing Arts Professor Robbie McCauley, who was tenured in 2007. Before-and now after-her promotion, Emerson's history with multicultural tenure-track professors has been marred by acrimonious departures and litigious retention.

The trend began in 1977 when Mike Brown-the first black professor to seek tenure at Emerson-sued the college, alleging discrimination in a case he won in 1979.

More than a decade later, Cape Verdean film Professor Claire Andrade-Watkins waged a similar battle, ultimately winning tenure after a three-year lawsuit. It continued this year, as professors Dr. Roger House and Pierre Desir have prepared complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Since 1996, 13 such complaints have been filed by Emerson faculty, students and employees.

Some of those suits have been as innocuous as the one made by the student who believed her poor grade (C+) in a class was based on her nationality (Canadian). Others, like House and Desir, have leveled more serious accusations. The college has maintained, in every case, that race has never affected tenure decisions.

Through Vice President of Public Affairs David Rosen, the administration declined to comment further. President Jacqueline Liebergott, who, along with the Board of Trustees, has the final world on all tenure decisions, wrote in an e-mail it would be inappropriate to comment on pending MCAD legal action.

But some faculty members, including Jerry Lanson, a journalism professor and former department chair, said the academic world can be plagued with institutional racism.

"What I think sometimes can happen in the world of academics in general terms-and I want to stress general-both in the hiring process, they look for people like themselves, and in the review process, they look for people who contribute in ways familiar to them," said Lanson, who co-led the Faculty Campus Dialogues on Race in 2006, in an interview last week.

A iBeacon/i investigation uncovered seven cases of professors who felt, or whose colleagues felt, they were wrongfully denied tenure because of their race or ethnicity since 1977. Some of the professors formally fought back, others quietly moved on to other institutions, but only Brown and Andrade-Watkins remain at Emerson. These are their stories so far.

bProfessors Roger House and Pierre Desir, denied tenure 2008/b

House and Desir were the only black professors up for tenure-along with three white professors who were tenured-last May. In June, House, a history professor in the journalism department, filed a complaint with MCAD alleging his application was rejected based on his race. Desir, a visual and media arts professor, said he plans to file in the coming weeks.

Both were rejected by the deans of their school after winning approval from their departments' faculty and chairs, according to school officials involved in the decision process.

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