Embattled prof. House reinstated, Desir to fight

by Beacon Staff • September 9, 2009

On the heels of an investigation last spring, Emerson's administration has reinstated Roger House, a professor who alleged the college denied him tenure because of his race, and convened an independent panel to review the college's tenure and promotion practices in regards to race, according to school officials.

House and another professor, Pierre Desir, were the only black candidates up for tenure in May 2008 and were the only two denied, despite positive recommendations from their department chairs and fellow faculty, according multiple sources at the college.

In February, both professors brought complaints against Emerson with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

House, an assistant history professor in the journalism department, will return to teaching this fall without tenure and will be up for the promotion again in 2011 after he and the college agreed to compromise, President Jacqueline Liebergott said in an e-mail to faculty and staff this week.

House has agreed to drop his case against the college in exchange for reinstatement, according to Barbara Green, a spokesperson with the MCAD. Desir, a former film professor, said in a telephone interview he was not reinstated because he turned down a similar deal, refusing to drop his complaint with MCAD. Desir's suit remains under the Commission's investigation. House could not be reached for comment.

"I deserve tenure now. I deserved it when I applied for it," Desir said. "I'm not disappointed at all. Roger did what he felt was right and I agree it was for him. This was a strategy [by the college] as well but I don't think it takes the wind out of my case. I was not willing to drop my case for anything less than giving me tenure."

Emerson currently has three tenured black professors out of more than 68 tenured faculty members, according to the Office of Academic Affairs. Two of those three professors filed lawsuits to receive their tenure, the first in the 1970s and the second in the 1990s. In its 129-year history the college has never promoted a tenured black male faculty member, though tenure is usually accompanied by a promotion from assistant to associate professor.

Liebergott declined to comment further in an e-mail response and said by telephone she had no comment on Desir's case.

"As far as Roger is concerned I have said all there is to say," Liebergott wrote. "The College is satisfied with the outcome and we are looking forward to the future."

Over the summer, the college's Faculty Assembly also finalized the members of an outside evaluator's panel to investigate the college's tenure and promotion practices in regards to diversity, a move it voted on at the end of last school year.

The panel will be comprised of Ted Landsmark, president of the Boston Architectural College and a local civil rights legend, after he was photographed being charged at by a man using an American flag as a spear during a fray at City Hall in the 1970s; Evelynn Hammonds, Dean of Harvard College and a professor of African and African American Studies; and Joann Moody, a campus diversity specialist. None of the panel members were available to speak to a reporter at press time.

The panel will conduct interviews on campus, gather statistical data, and look over the union contract, the faculty handbook and the college's departmental standards. They are expected to submit a report in January 2010 to both Liebergott and incoming Faculty Assembly Chair Brooke Knight, who will in turn share it with the faculty.

Knight said he is unsure what the report will ask of the college and encouraged those invested to think long-term about any changes.

"They might make significant suggestions but we're not sure what we'll implement and not sure how long it'll take," Knight said in a telephone interview. "We want to increase transparency in the process and bring light to any issues in the process we hadn't even considered previously to make a better process for all involved. I'm optimistic that this will be a meaningful step and have a longer-term impact."

The panel was selected in July by Knight, Associate Professor of Visual and Media Arts and outgoing Faculty Assembly Chair Craig Freeman, Associate Professor of Journalism Jerry Lanson, Associate Professor of Writing, Literature and Publishing Jeff Seglin, Vice President for Academic Affairs Linda Moore, President Jackie Liebergott, and her special assistant, David Rosen.

Lanson said the committee tried to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest by first crossing off the names of any personal friends. Once they'd narrowed down their initial list of about 30 names, Knight said they were able to secure their top three choices.

"We decided not to handcuff them in any way and let them make their own processes. They have much more expertise and experience than we do," Knight said. "We wanted to make clear that they can have access to anything needed from the college beyond what would be considered personal confidential information."

He stressed that although the two professor's complaints sparked the need for the outside panel, it would not be investigating

Desir's and House's cases specifically but would make general suggestions for the college's future.

In a telephone interview, Liebergott admitted the college has yet to hear from the panel after one meeting together over the summer but said the panel will probably convene again by telephone this week.

Lanson said he was hopeful about the panel's work, which he said he thought was required for the college if it was to reach the goal of broad diversity.

"Something has to be done because it hasn't happened yet," he said. "The panel will help set some perimeters by which we should achieve what we talk about."