After igniting diversity controversy, black prof. tenured

by Heidi Moeller / Beacon Staff • September 8, 2011

After filing a complaint to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in 2009 for being denied tenure at Emerson College, Roger House was promoted to Associate Professor and awarded tenure in August.

The American Studies professor in the journalism department was one of five professors under review for tenure in 2008. He, along with Pierre Desir, who has since left the college, were the only two black faculty members up for the promotion and the only two denied, sparking an extensive investigation into the college’s discrimination of tenure of black faculty members.

Tenure is traditionally granted when candidates have the majority support from the faculty, the department, and its chair, and the Board of Trustees makes a final decision, college offcials said. According to a Beacon article from Feb. 12, 2009, House and Desir were rejected by the deans of their departments, but had the approval for tenure from faculty and department chairs. House said there was a difference of opinion between the different committees that evaluated him for tenure.

“It was a sad period of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and lack of trust,” House said. “It was a period that really called into question the college’s commitment to its African American faculty.”

According to the faculty handbook, if a faculty member is denied advancement or tenure, they may apply for promotion again after three academic years.

House said he has since moved on from what was once an uncertain time in his career, and credits his fellow colleagues with supporting him throughout the process.

“I’m here because of the support of good people: my department, the faculty, and even within the administration,” House said. “People like David Rosen and President Liebergott, who was courageous enough to recognize the problem that my case caused for the college community, and went to the extent to try to address it.”

House said the situation that he went through has resulted in consequences that are far more important to the college than one man’s tenure case: it opened the door to institutional reform.

“The board of trustees played a hand, a strong hand, to deal with the problem of institutional racism,” House said. “What they did, board members like Peter Meade and Larry Rasky, should be congratulated because they took strong steps in hiring a new president with the commitment to rooting out the legacies of institutional racism.”

Since taking office in July, President M. Lee Pelton, has said the need for more diversity at Emerson is one of his top goals. Pelton is the college’s first black president.

“Diversity is held highly as one of eight initiatives in the strategic plan,” Pelton said. “Going forward we will be doing our best to assure that the ideals established for ourselves are adhered to.”

Gwendelyn Bates, associate vice president for diversity and inclusion, whose position was created in 2009 after House and Desir filed complaints against the college, recently announced her retirement. Bates said in a speech last January that despite the increase in minority applicants for the class of 2015, diversity is still a major concern at Emerson.

Pelton said the search for someone to fill her position is another step forward in increasing diversity on campus.

“We are looking at a variety of new ideas to continue efforts in ensuring our campus is diverse,” Pelton said.

According to the Emerson website, blacks and non-Hispanics make up 4.5 percent of the student population at the college.

House said he is hopeful that the Emerson community will embrace the concept of diversity in the workplace, not only for the faculty, but also within the administration, staff, and students.

“As a school of communication and the arts, we shape the culture that shapes public opinion,” said House. “Which means that it’s mandatory for the Emerson culture to reflect the broader ray of the community, and that includes the African American members of the American family.”

Jerry Lanson, Associate Professor of Journalism, said he is relieved the controversy is over, and believes its end is to Emerson’s benefit.

“I found Roger to be an innovative and exciting teacher,” Lanson said. “As a historian that worked seven years as a journalist, he brings our faculty and journalism students a unique perspective, not only in the classroom, but also on where we should go with the curriculum.”

As House begins his new chapter at Emerson, he said he offers simple advice: keep looking forward.

“I’m walking on the sunny side of the street,” House said.