Liebergott supports independent tenure review

by Beacon Staff • April 29, 2009

Emerson President Jacqueline Liebergott has indicated she will convene an independent examination of the college's tenure standards for minority professors. The decision came one day after the Emerson Faculty Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of such an investigation. The assembly's motion, which passed 70-8 with one abstention on April 28, calls for extraordinary actions to address the college's history of denying minority professors tenure.

The proposal requests the college organize and fund an outside investigation into Emerson's tenure practices, specifically its failure to tenure a black male professor on the merits of his application in its 129-year history. The panel would have a deadline of Jan. 1, 2010 to issue a report on its findings and the college would have until May 2010 to implement those changes, if it adopts the motion in full. In an e-mail response to a iBeacon/i reporter's question, Liebergott said she would discuss the parameters of such an inquiry with the Faculty Council in the coming weeks.

"I am favorably disposed to commissioning an independent examination of our tenure process as it relates to the issue of diversity," Liebergott wrote.

Liebergott's decision, which is apparently unprecedented, comes after an assembly meeting at which several professors, including Roger House and Pierre Desir, delivered impassioned speeches decrying the racial disparity among tenured professors at the college. House and Desir have filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination alleging their tenure applications were denied last May because they are black.

Before the faculty vote, Liebergott addressed the assembly and spoke about the lingering tension regarding the college's new diversity plan, which was released in October but has been criticized as inadequate. She apologized to any faculty that felt they did not have a say in drafting the strategy.

"There's a faculty perception that they were not included in the plan and it's clear a different or even better process could have occurred," Liebergott said. "I'm sorry. That was a serious mistake. I look forward to a meaningful discussion on the culture of inclusion that I know you all support."

At the meeting, the motion's vote was preceded by a statement from writing, literature and publishing professor Jeffrey Seglin, who said problem was the result of either a "woeful lack of management ability in identifying [tenurable] candidates or to systematic, unacknowledged or unrecognized institutional racism." The motion was then officially introduced by Assembly Chair John Craig Freeman and Vice Chair Jerry Lanson, both Emerson professors.

Told of Liebergott's response, Seglin said she was doing the right thing, but that this was just a first step.

"One thing I was clear on in the statement was that this has to come from Jackie," he said. "She has to show leadership here."

Desir, however, was vehemently critical of the college's reliance on proposals and resolutions over direct, swift action. When he spoke at the meeting, he seemed to face Vice President of Academic Affairs Linda Moore, whom he and House name in their discrimination complaints as having denied their applications.

"So 2010, great, but me and Roger have got to go out there and it wasn't easy here because you didn't make it easy," Desir said. "You're into high cotton, well, sometimes the cotton burns you."

In a telephone interview after Desir was told of Liebergott's decision, he remained skeptical, noting that the outside panel's findings will be too little, too late for himself and House.

"I am surprised," he said. "But it doesn't solve the problem that me and Roger are going through. Any future good is a long way away as far as tenure is concerned. They should give me and Roger tenure. They've got that right in front of them."

The faculty assembly joins the Mystic Valley branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Emerson's professors union and student group Emerson Peace and Social Justice in challenging the college's tenure policies. EPSJ, for whom House served as adviser for two years, is currently circulating a petition to reinstate both professors, while the union has offered support and solidarity. The local NAACP branch last week sent a letter to the college's Board of Trustees requesting information on Emerson's tenure practices.

House, a history professor, and Desir, a cinematography professor, were preceded in their lawsuits by Professors Mike Brown and Claire Andrade-Watkins, both of whom successfully sued the college in the 1970s and 1990s, respectively, alleging they were denied tenure because they are black. Emerson currently has three black tenured professors out of more than 160 full-time faculty positions, according to the Office of Academic Affairs. In its 129-year history, the college has never promoted a tenured black male faculty member, though the honors usually accompany each other. Brown was not promoted when he won his lawsuit and remains an assistant professor.

Performing Arts Professor Robbie McCauley, the only black professor in Emerson's history who did not sue to receive tenure, spoke up in favor of the motion, adding that the college has stifled discussions on race.

"Oddly for me, I feel very silenced at Emerson around this question," she said to her colleagues. "Around the country it's very sophisticated and I feel like here we are behind."

Later, in his speech, House criticized the college's implementation of the diversity initiatives Liebergott spoke about.

"From the time of President Rutherford B. Hayes to the time of President Barack Obama, the college has not found one black male professor to promote and tenure," he said. "This is the acceptance of tokenism. At root, it's not about me or Pierre, we'll be gone, but it will never go away until some meaningful change is made."

About a dozen people gave the speech a standing ovation, while most applauded.

Director of the Center for Diversity William Smith, who attended the meeting, said he was deeply saddened by House's and Desir's situations, but hopeful.

"You feel powerless," he said. "But I think the motion is a sign. It's an idea but the motion has to be tempered with Pierre's remarks. The bottom line is we are what we do."