Experts, professors say tenure battle will affect faculty diversity at Emerson

by Beacon Staff • April 8, 2009

"The tenure process is not a tool to advance diversity," Rosen said then. "They are two separate things that have nothing to do with each other.",Three weeks ago, former Emerson Vice President David Rosen told iThe Beacon/i, "Tenure has nothing to do with diversity." When asked for clarification the next week, he reiterated and defended the statement in an interview in his office.

"The tenure process is not a tool to advance diversity," Rosen said then. "They are two separate things that have nothing to do with each other."

When a iBeacon/i reporter e-mailed Emerson President Jacqueline Liebergott to confirm that Rosen's comment reflected the college's position, Rosen backtracked from the statement and falsely claimed he had been misquoted. Whether or not he meant what he said, interviewed experts and Emerson professors, black and white, said the notion that faculty diversity is unaffected by Emerson's tradition of denying minority professors tenure is specious and discriminatory.

"If a school is championing diversity then not retaining black professors, then what's the point?" said one expert on race and tenure, Dr. Ansley Abraham.

Abraham, founder and director the Southern Regional Education Board State Doctoral Scholars Program, said Rosen's comment could have a chilling effect on the recruiting and hiring of black professors. The spat was spawned by the ongoing tenure battle of two black professors, Roger House and Pierre Desir, who have both filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination against Emerson that allege they were denied tenure in May based on their race.

Of 163 current faculty members, a dozen are black, according to Eric Sykes, director of institutional research for the office of Academic Affairs. Of those, three are tenured: Film Professor Claire Andrade-Watkins, Political Science Professor Mike Brown and Performing Arts Professor Robbie McCauley. Brown and Andrade-Watkins sued the college in the 1970s and 1990s, respectively, in order to receive their tenures.

"Emerson is shooting itself in the foot because if you're a minority, why would you want to come there and not have a chance of getting tenure? Why would I subject myself to that?" Abraham said in a telephone interview from his office in Atlanta. "If they perceive-and they perceive it as the truth-that they won't get a fair shake? Emerson might say, 'We've made offers but people won't come?' Well, why is that?"

After Rosen's e-mail, Liebergott e-mailed a iBeacon/i reporter, clarifying the college's position.

"While the College may have made some decisions in the past that others may quarrel with, the fact that we are not perfect does not mean that we should make mistakes on purpose," she wrote. "My job, at a minimum, is to maintain academic standards. And so far, we have been able to raise them. It would not increase the value of students' experience, or diplomas, to make tenure exceptions, even for popular, likable faculty."

In response to Rosen's comment, both House and Desir said they believe tenure is the ultimate measure of Emerson's promise to diversify.

"To make it plain, the recruitment of black faculty without retention is exploitation," House said.

Another expert, Tracey Laszloffy, co-author of iThe Black Academic's Guide to Winning Tenure Without Losing Your Soul/i, said race is always a factor in academia.

"Despite the rhetoric of a colorblind society, we know this to be untrue, and frankly, it's insulting," she said in a telephone interveiw. "It's difficult for black academics to ascend in a hierarchy. They are consistently denied by white institutions who say, 'We don't see color,' but we know it's not the truth."

Abraham, who founded the board in 1993 as a way to encourage minority Ph.D.s to seek faculty careers at colleges and universities, said he found it odd that House and Desir were denied despite the support of their departments and chairs.

"We don't have enough underrepresented minorities in academe and those who do make it, don't make it to tenure," he said. "It sends a discouraging message to those who are working hard and spending money: 'Why should I waste my time?' It's a real bad message to send to future faculty."

In his e-mail, Rosen said he has repeatedly told iThe Beacon/i the tenure process is not a tool to enhance diversity.

"Each request for tenure is evaluated on an individual basis in accordance with procedures set forth in the Faculty Handbook," Rosen wrote. "Those procedures make no reference to diversity. Decisions are based solely on consideration of the individual circumstances surrounding a candidacy, without reference to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc."

Laszloffy sharply disagreed.

"If you have three black tenured faculty and two had to fight for it, what he's therefore suggesting is that this is strictly based on qualifications and merit. So there aren't more competent black people to get tenure at this august institution?" she said. "Of course it's about color, we know there'd be more black people. It's so typical for white people to deny it's about race."

Adding to this is House's Ph.D. from Boston University, which in the academic world, makes him, a black male with a doctorate degree, a rare breed, Abraham said. Less than half of minority students pursuing Ph.D.s are male.

Black scholars, male and female, earned 1,821 doctorates from U.S. institutions from 2006 to 2007, the academic year House came up for tenure, making up 7 percent of all research doctoral degrees awarded to U.S. citizens that year, according to the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago. Non-Hispanic whites earned 79 percent of those doctorates. Abraham said given the rarity of black male doctoral candidates, he thought Emerson would want to retain a professor like House.

"They're unique just by being there but they're forgotten," Laszloffy added. "You can tell me it's not racial all day long, but it is."

Rosen said both House and Desir were judged on the same level as the other three white professors who did receive tenure.

"It's a question of hiring diverse tenure-track professors and giving them the opportunity to publish and to teach and then to apply and to be granted tenure if they meet the requirements for tenure," he said. "If they don't, they don't. The tenure process does not speak to diversity. Qualified professors get tenure."

He had no comment on why more black professors haven't met Emerson's requirements for tenure.