NAACP, EPSJ call for House and Desir#039;s tenure

by Beacon Staff • April 22, 2009

A local NAACP branch and an Emerson student organization are pressuring Emerson's administration to grant tenure to Professors Roger House and Pierre Desir, who have alleged their applications to become associate professors were denied because they are black.

The Mystic Valley Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, of which House is a member, sent letters to the college community and the Board of Trustees last week, expressing its awareness and concern over the professors' challenge to the decision. They also noted that Emerson has not tenured and promoted a black male professor in its 129-year history, and, in the trustees' letter, they requested documentation of the college's tenure standards and its efforts to retain minority professors.

Also last week, Emerson Peace and Social Justice started a petition for the professors' reinstatement, gathering signatures at an April 17 event called "Americans Who Tell the Truth," which the organization dedicated to House, the organization's adviser.

In the NAACP's letter, Branch President Neil Osborne asked the board to provide a written copy of the tenure evaluation process and explain the procedure for advising candidates of the adequacy of their work. He also asked what efforts Emerson has made to hire people of color over the last 25 years, and why House and Desir, and not the three white professors up for tenure last year, were the only professors denied.

"Unanswered is the question of what was different about the content of House's work requiring a denial and that of non-persons of color receiving the promotion to tenure," Osborne said. "This letter is intended to express the Mystic Valley Area Branch of the NAACP's concern that Emerson College is insulating itself with a self-delusion, advocating the precept of diversity, but failing to take actions to actually be a diverse institution."

The college will respond directly to the NAACP, said Emerson's Vice President of Communications and Marketing Andrew Tiedemann, but since the college received the letter recently, a response may take some time. The letter is currently in the hands of the college's general counsel, Christine Hughes, who will help the trustees draft a response.

House said he brought the issue to the chapter's attention at a recent meeting and members immediately wanted to take action. Branches of the NAACP are decentralized, but all have access to the resources, such as lawyers and archives of the national organization. The Mystic Valley Branch's letter was also sent to the Boston and New England NAACP branches.

"Most people were very shocked because at face value, a 129-year exclusion, well, it just sounds like a legacy of segregation," House said in an interview in his office this week.

Both professors have filed discrimination complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination alleging they were denied tenure last May because they are black.

As part of their protest, EPSJ members wore shirts to the "Americans Who Tell the Truth" event with the number 129 written on them in Sharpie. Ashley Tarbet, one of the members of EPSJ who pushed for the petition, said the number represented the number of years the school has been open without tenuring and promoting a black male professor.

"We did this so next year it doesn't have to say 130," the senior political communication and visual and media arts double major said. "We're launching an official petition to say that the students stand behind them 100 percent."

EPSJ sent the petition out with their core members, who are still collecting signatures. Sophomore Rachel Freedman, an EPSJ member who planned the event, said the group was angry that the administration's decision was made without the knowledge of the students. She said the petition's goal is the reversal of the administration's decision and the reinstatement of both professors.

SGA president Scott Fisher commended EPSJ for taking a stance on the issue.

"I think it's important for students to stand up for what they want," the junior political communication said. "It's also hard for us to make an opinion on the issue without knowing more."

House said he was not aware that EPSJ had chosen to take action, but was honored they had chosen to do so.

"The students have a role to play in support of the community," he said. "I think that it [better tenure practices] will happen when they vote with their dollars."

At the EPSJ event, historian and author Howard Zinn, who spoke as part of the "Americans Who Tell the Truth" program commented on the precedent of institutional racism in academia.

"We live in the era of the Civil Rights movement which has made the advancement of black professors easier, but the academic world has never been fair," Zinn said in response to a iBeacon/i reporter's question. "Women and African-Americans have never had a fair shake and nobody will openly admit that it is happening."