First step toward a fairer tenure system

by Beacon Staff • September 9, 2009

For House, it is a small taste of justice in the midst of a long, bitter ordeal. His battle was shared by another black professor, Pierre Desir.,Heartfelt congratulations are in order for Dr. Roger House, who after being denied tenure in May 2008, was last week reinstated by the college.

For House, it is a small taste of justice in the midst of a long, bitter ordeal. His battle was shared by another black professor, Pierre Desir.

The two-despite the ringing endorsement of their colleagues and department heads-were denied the position of associate professor at the same time; both raised complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, and both, after a lengthy investigation and numerous editorials published by The Beacon, negotiated with the college this summer in an attempt to resolve their complaints amicably.

Rather than continuing with a protracted legal struggle, House settled for reinstatement with the possibility of tenure in 2011. Desir stood fast in his belief that he was qualified at the time of his denial in May 2008, and remains qualified now. He declined the offer to rejoin the Emerson faculty and will continue his legal battle.

While congratulating House on his return, we also acknowledge Desir in his unflagging convictions. It is understandable how the mere possibility of tenure in two years would be disappointing, considering that historically, black professors at Emerson have been virtually locked out of tenured positions without legal action.

In Emerson's existence, no black male professor has been tenured without the unfortunate accompaniment of a lawsuit.

Systems like the tenure process must be thoughtfully designed and constantly evaluated to ensure they are fair and just. The excruciating ordeals of House, Desir, and those before them cast into doubt the integrity of Emerson's tenure process and forces a reexamination of what malfunction occurred, perhaps slowly over decades, to render the process ostensibly biased.

It does not, however, mean that the people involved in the system are racist. The system, in this case, is both more powerful and more complicated than the sum of its participants.

The tenure review board is a welcome first step in examining the faulted process. The board was recommended by the faculty, implemented by the college president and is comprised of professionals who have spent their careers dealing in issues of diversity.

Their report, due in January, may not solve all issues of faculty diversity or heal the deep marks left in the college's reputation after House and Desir's plight went public, but it represents the level of effort and the quality of people required in this ongoing process.

Tenure is a sensitive, complicated personnel issue, making the task set before the review board that much more difficult. The eyes of faculty members, students, staffers and alumni will be upon them. No matter what the board finds, it is the responsibility of everyone-especially the administration's-to listen. And to act.

The measure of an institution is not found solely in the height of its buildings, the breadth of its facilities or its burgeoning enrollment. While Emerson has found wild success in building a new campus and winning the support of the City of Boston during its expansion, it has yet to make the costly and time-consuming efforts to fully invest in the people, who more than any building or campus, could make this college what many hope it will become.