Students bid farewell to one-quarter of Emerson#039;s full-time black professors

by Beacon Staff • April 22, 2009

Emerson Peace and Social Justice will need a new adviser. Junior Kyle Glowacky will have to find a new professor to review his BFA film. Broadcast journalism major Casey Shane will need a new multimedia mentor.

And, as at least one-quarter of Emerson's black professors will likely leave the college before the fall semester, the college's Center for Diversity director, William Smith, is hoping for a new group of multicultural hires to help recruit minority students.

Two professors, Roger House and Pierre Desir, will be forced from Emerson because they were denied tenure last summer, a decision they have challenged with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, alleging they were denied because of their race. Michelle Johnson is leaving for a higher paid, more prestigious position at Boston University.

All three professors said they'll miss working with Emerson students, and interviewed colleagues and students said the loss of these three professors deals a serious blow to the college's culture, both academic and personal. Their absence could also leave the college with less than 10 full-time black professors out of more than 160 positions, according to data provided by Eric Sykes, director of institutional research for the Office of Academic Affairs.

House, a history professor in the journalism department, and Desir, a cinematography professor in the visual and media arts department were also important to the college, Smith said, because of their roles in recruitment and retention of black students.

"I've seen their positive impact on students of color on campus as role models," Smith said in an interview last week.

Johnson, a multimedia journalism professor and one of the founders of Boston.com, iThe Boston Globe/i's Web site, was contacted by BU about an opening for a multimedia professor and college adviser on online journalism. BU also offered her a long-term contract, whereas her Emerson contract was year-to-year, and she'll be able to apply for associate professor status as soon as she arrives there. Johnson said she told Emerson about the offer after BU contacted her.

"They didn't come back with much," she said of Emerson's counter-offer. "BU is looking to make changes to their multimedia curriculum. Everyone's trying to beef up their programs because it's clear where the industry is heading.

At Emerson, Johnson has also been involved in diversity recruitment, including working for the Web site of iThe Other Tradition/i, the Center for Diversity's monthly publication, and with the Asian-American Journalists Association over the summer. She also recruited Emerson students to the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

"[Promoting diversity]'s one goal I had when I came here, so I'm going to miss working with that," she said. "I'm going to miss all my students. Emerson students are smart, funny and talented and I know they are the next generation that is going to fix this industry."

Students of all three professors said they were excellent educators and advisers of student organizations. However, students said the journalism department, which will lose both House and Johnson, has been dealt a one-two punch.

"I think it's a shame that the school didn't do anything to try and keep her," said Shane, a junior who has taken four of Johnson's classes and uses her as a reference on his resume. "It doesn't realize what it'll be letting go and it's shocking that our department doesn't definitely have this kind of person on staff in terms of what she has created in Boston.com. Those BU kids are really lucky."

House is the adviser of Emerson Peace and Social Justice, an organization that, according to Emerson's Web site, advocates for social welfare, education and positive social change. Last week, the group started a petition for House and Desir's reinstatement, gathering signatures at an April 17 event called "Americans Who Tell the Truth" event, which the organization dedicated to House.

Michael Francis, president of EPSJ, said he was outraged by the decision to deny House tenure and that when he broke the news to the group at a meeting, they were stunned. He said they couldn't understand why House, who has been the organization's adviser for the past two years and whom Francis described as involved and proactive, would be denied.

"He was able to be there when we needed him but he was also always e-mailing asking to come to meetings and wanting to discuss all of our events," the senior said. "He was very interested and involved in our events."

Desir, also described by students as a hands-on professor, was recently honored with the once-a-semester "Faculty Screening" for on-campus screening group, Films from the Margin.

Glowacky, the junior working on his BFA, asked Desir to be the one faculty screening for FFTM, which screens lesser known works because he said after reading about the administration's treatment of Desir in The Beacon, he wanted to show him that the students cared.

"I don't think the school recognized that he's one of the greatest cinematographers. He's an artist," Glowacky said in a telephone interview. "Instead of pumping out twenty films a year, he works very slowly. He's less production and more perfection."

Glowacky also had Desir as his advanced cinematography professor and an adviser for his BFA film project. For next year, he'll have to find another professor to review his work.

Senior Charles Swazey, also a member of FFTM, had Desir for advanced cinematography and said he provided advice for Swazey's ongoing film projects.

"We wanted to screen his work before we had to pay his airfare to come visit," he said in a telephone interview. "I don't think I've learned as much from any other cinematography professor. He runs class like an actual shoot instead of a demo of certain topics."

Swazey said Desir provides two out-of-class shoots for students to get hands-on experience. Desir attends and instructs each shoot on his own time, he said.

"Pierre teaches film," Swazey said, "and that doesn't seem to be what Emerson is looking for in their film professors anymore."