Black professors used in promotions, denied tenure

by Beacon Staff • April 15, 2009

Black professors make up 12 percent of all Emerson faculty, but their images appear far more often in the college's promotional material and publications, a iBeacon/i survey of those materials has found.

In fact, three professors who have filed discrimination complaints have played prominent roles in selling Emerson to prospective students. Those professors, and several college administrators, say the discrepancy between real and promoted diversity at Emerson is no accident.

Professors Roger House and Pierre Desir, who have filed discrimination complaints against Emerson with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, as well as film professor Claire Andrade-Watkins, who had to sue the college in 1990 to gain tenure, have all been featured in recruitment efforts and pamphlets. Emerson's admission materials often prominently feature minority professors to potential students, even as the college has historically denied academic tenure to non-white candidates.

Just three years after she won her bitter discrimination lawsuit against Emerson, the college featured Andrade-Watkins on the cover of its admission view-books. In her case, Andrade-Watkins successfully argued Emerson had denied her tenure because she was black, the same reason she said she was sought out for a promotional photo shoot.

"They came and took pictures of me like glamour shots," she said in an interview in her office in February.

Director of Creative Services Chuck Dunham, who designs admission packets, said he receives "directives" to use photos of multicultural students and faculty in recruitment packets from admission officials. When asked if he thought including more black students in admission materials helps recruit black students, he said, "I think a lot of people go by that."

"You try to represent the college's make up and diversity in an honest way," Dunham said. "As someone who lays out the book, I try to be honest as to what the balance is, but I don't have final say. The admission office approves it."

House and Desir, before they were denied tenure last year, were both used to promote the college. House was twice the Journalism Department's featured professor, and Desir recruited black high school students to Emerson's visual and media arts department, where he teaches.

House, a history professor, was featured in the college's 2002-2003 and 2005-2006 admission viewbooks in two nearly identical "Journalism Professor Profiles."

In the book, House is given a four-picture, double-page spread and his accomplishments, such as documentary productions for National Public Radio and an upcoming book on Chicago blues legend Bill Broonzy, are touted in a blurb below.

"I allowed the college to use my image in its publications because I thought it had a genuine commitment to diversity," he wrote in an e-mail message. "Unfortunately, the administration lacks the will to do the right thing."

Dr. William Smith, director of the college's Center for Diversity, acknowledged a discrepancy between Emerson's recruitment and promotional materials and the actual diversity make-up of the school.

"The contradiction comes from, if Roger was still here and Pierre, then it's not false advertising," he said in an interview in his office. "But the inconsistency comes when the poster boy is knocked out of the box."

Since 2006, Desir has worked at a summer recruitment program called YMCA Black Achievers in Greater Boston. The program brings minority high school students to Emerson's campus for a motivational taste of college life, and so the college can woo them. Desir said Smith approached him to represent Emerson's film program at the YMCA.

"When a student of color comes to visit Emerson College and sees all white faces, it doesn't look welcoming," Desir said, explaining that he was sent to the program to help recruit black students. He is one of two black professors in Emerson's VMA department.

"They always put students of color up front to say, 'Oh, look at them' but then I hardly have any in my classes," he said. "It's a diverse world out there and Emerson students are not being prepared. They use us to promote themselves as a diverse institution."

Smith said he was unsure of who would represent the VMA department at Black Achievers once Desir leaves Emerson.

"Well, that's a difficult question," he said. "I'm going to be optimistic and say I look forward to new hires who will be diverse."

Dunham described a new admissions recruitment brochure he helped to design called "Inclusion." The brochure, which was also worked on by admissions official Ronn Beck, will be sent to programs like Upward Bound, the US Department of Education's plan to support the college careers of high school students from low-income families, and to guidance counselors at predominately black schools.

The packet includes a large photo of black, Hispanic and Asian students and faculty on the front. On the inside, there is the same photograph from the front of the "Creating a Culture of Inclusion," Emerson's new diversity plan.

The plan, released in September of last year, includes strategies for the college to recruit more multicultural students and faculty. House, in fact, was one of the professors who worked on the plan.

In 2007, the year he was to apply for tenure, he said the Office of Academic Affairs asked him to conduct a study of the college-wide curriculum to find out how Emerson could prepare its students to work and live in a diverse society. The assignment required House to research the studies of diversity think-tanks, review the policies at comparable institutions, audit course syllabuses at Emerson and conduct a sample survey of students and faculty.

"In truth, it was hardly an assignment for one junior professor without expertise or resources," House said in a follow-up e-mail message. "In comparison, Boston University and Harvard University had established special committees of faculty members and administrators to conduct similar curriculum evaluations. When conducting the study, I continued to teach courses, serve on other committees, work on research and prepare for the tenure process."

House said he submitted his report to the Office of Academic Affairs several months later and his work inspired "Goal Four" of the diversity plan, which outlines "diverse curriculum." However, he said he remains perplexed and disappointed at the course of events after submitting the study.

"First, the Office of Academic Affairs used my work without saying as much as 'Thank you,'" House said. "Then it recommended that my application for tenure and promotion be denied."

Smith said the way Academic Affairs treats professors handicaps the efforts of the Admission Office and Center for Diversity to increase diversity at Emerson.

"It doesn't make me feel good. One unit is doing really good work and another unit of the college is having difficulty," he said. "In the work that I do, it presents a huge negative."