Tenuring House and Desir: The right thing for Emerson

by Beacon Staff • April 8, 2009

bAt issue:/b House and Desir's denied applications for tenure.

bOur view:/b The Board of Trustees should take a sure, strong step and do what's right: tenure House and Desir.

Time is running out for Emerson Professors Roger House and Pierre Desir, and, for the sake of the college's academic integrity and prestige, the time has come for the Board of Trustees to grant them tenure. Special Assistant for College Affairs David Rosen's absurd declaration that tenure decisions do not impact faculty diversity is only the latest-and hopefully last-straw.

While we appreciate the need to hold tenure candidates to the highest academic standards, we're convinced both scholars received a less-than-fair shake. House and Desir were the only two professors denied tenure last year; the other three candidates-all white-won the promotion. During their candidacies for tenure, the professors, both black, won the support of their department chairs, their students and their tenured colleagues, the latter of whom unanimously approved both men.

Since iBeacon/i reporter Gabrielle Dunn broke the story two months ago, dozens of interviewed professors, students and experts have endorsed the two professors and decried Emerson's history of denying minority professors tenure. Emerson's professors union also voiced its support for House and Desir and its concern with the fairness of the tenure process.

Further, House and Desir are but the latest in a long history of minority professors denied the honor (and pay raise and job security) of tenure. There still has been only one black tenured professor in Emerson's history, Robbie McCauley in Performing Arts, who did not have to sue the school for her tenure. There has never been a black male associate, that is, tenured and promoted, professor at the college. After Political Science Assistant Professor Mike Brown sued for and won tenure, Emerson, in a supremely petty move, did not promote him.

While anyone who has taken a course with Brown knows he deserves the associate professor status, House, too, would seem to be an ideal candidate for tenure. Less than 10 percent of all PhDs in America are black men; House is one of them.

We are not the only ones losing faith in the fairness of the tenure process. Beyond the union's statement of solidarity with the two professors, almost six in 10 respondents to an online iBeacon/i poll said they believed institutional racism existed at Emerson.

The story has spread beyond iThe Beacon/i's pages to well-read Web sites like Boston Magazine's daily blog, Randy Prince's Journalisms.com and the Bay State Banner, a black-published Boston periodical. It's a public relations nightmare for the college, and, in many ways, a college is nothing without its name. Further, as reported on page one of this issue, Emerson risks becoming a place that qualified black professors will not consider if they believe they'll not be given a fair shot at tenure.

So, do tenure decisions affect diversity? There's the cynical answer: Yes, when black professors never get tenure. There's also a more practical answer: Whether or not the state's equal employment agency forces Emerson to reinstate House and Desir, the college risks becoming known as a racist institution among minority scholars. If that happens, there will hardly be any non-white professors to whom to deny tenure. What promising black professor would come to Emerson knowing they'll be playing against a stacked deck when they apply for a promotion?

This means more than just fairness for Roger House and Pierre Desir. The outcome of their tenure candidacies will have serious consequences for Emerson students beyond the disappointment of losing a favorite professor.

Consider the Boston Red Sox. While the team was floundering in mediocrity during the 1950s and 1960s, they were hamstrung by a racist owner who refused to sign black players. They passed up chances to sign Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson to play alongside Ted Williams, and the terrible Curse of the Bambino lived on until well after the Sox became the last team in baseball to integrate. By confining themselves to the pool of white players, they ended up with an inferior team. Despite Emerson's stated desire to attract high quality faculty, its habit of driving away all black candidates is necessarily driving away good teachers.

In both cases, the decision-makers claimed they'd retain a black person when they found one who met their high standards. The dangerous implication there is that minorities just don't measure up. The outstanding black professors at Emerson, including House and Desir, give the lie to this logic, just as Willie Mays' greatness proved the Red Sox embarassingly wrong.

When the Sox lost, it wasn't just their players who suffered. Their fans were famously agonized. Similarly, if House and Desir are forced out of Emerson, students lose out too. The college has to act now before the next academic Hank Aaron decides he won't waste his time on us.,iBeacon/i Editorial Board