McCauley: An unknowing barrier-breaker for Emerson#039;s black professors

by Beacon Staff • February 25, 2009

Performing Arts Professor Robbie McCauley didn't notice any strange treatment during her six-year bid for tenure at Emerson. That makes her unique, as she is the only black professor in Emerson's history to win tenure without a lawsuit.

McCauley said she had heard rumors her tenure in 2007 was special, rumors confirmed by last week's iBeacon/i, which detailed the suits of the colleges' other two tenured black professors Mike Brown and Claire Andrade-Watkins in the 1970s and 1990s, respectively.

"I didn't know that they sued," she said of Andrade-Watkins and Brown, who both filed discrimination suits against Emerson to earn tenure. "I thought my journey was normal. I thought we were in the 21st century."

McCauley, an OBIE Award-winning playwright and nationally recognized director and actress, was hired in 2001 on Emerson's tenure-track. She quickly became involved in diversity-education on-campus, directing plays about racism and co-chairing the Faculty Assembly Perspectives on Race, Identity, Sexuality and Multiculturalism committee.

But when she read of the tenure battles of Dr. Roger House and Pierre Desir, two black professors who are lodging complaints against Emerson with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, McCauley said she couldn't help feeling confused about her own tenure process.

"One might think that [my tenure] presented progress, but if it goes backwards then what's the progress?" she said in an interview in her office last week. "I don't know if I was an aberration."

Grafton Nunes, Dean of the School of the Arts, doesn't think so. He said McCauley deserved her tenure as she has been a distinguished voice in the American avant-garde theatre for more than three decades.

"She has also contributed greatly through her writing and directing of community-based theatre productions exploring issues of race and class around the country and the world," Nunes wrote in an e-mail message. "She is a very special artist and teacher, and we are fortunate to have her at Emerson."

While McCauley said she would not categorize her tenure track as easy, she did say she never faced any unjust difficulty during her bid. The college has denied allegations of institutional racism, citing through Vice President of Public Affairs David Rosen that race does not factor into individual tenure decisions.

Former students interviewed for this story said McCauley's experimental style encouraged them to mirror her risk-taking.

"She's the first teacher where I felt like I could be anything up there and I could be really comfortable," said Erez Rose, a junior who had McCauley for an emsemble acting class last year. "She really puts all these electric, colorful ideas out there."

Junior Jill Waters said she felt McCauley held the class to a higher standard, pushing them to more organic and truthful interpretations of their characters in the play they were performing.

"She was amazing and her approach to it was so free," the BFA acting major said. "We could do anything we wanted to try out and that helped us become a better actor, a more risk-taker actor which is very important to our careers."

Emerson is currently implementing a Diversity Plan, or four-point movement to recruit and retain a more diverse faculty and student body. McCauley, however, dismissed the new plan as "window-dressing."

The plan, which was e-mailed to all students and staff by Vice President of Public Affairs David Rosen two weeks ago, is titled "Creating a Culture of Inclusion" and describes how Emerson hopes to increase diversity among its students and faculty. The strategy includes creating activities and programs that will enhance student diversity; fostering a campus environment that is accepting of multiculturalism; retaining and enlarging a curriculum that prepares students for a diverse world; and establishing a program that will increase campus diversity.

"Emerson isn't any worse or any better," McCauley said. "They have blurred vision on their view of 'the other' and on the complicated question of differences. I just hope the administration will speak up and see that this can be a teaching moment."