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Tenure fight just the latest racial skirmish for Emerson

Talia Whyte | 4/13/2009, 8:07 a.m.

Complaints filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) by two black Emerson College professors have shined a spotlight on what some say is a problem that has long plagued the school — poor handling of on-campus diversity.

“There is a legacy of racism here I thought would have been reformed already, but clearly it hasn’t changed,” said Roger House, an assistant professor in the school’s journalism department, who filed a complaint in June 2008.

House came to Emerson in 2000 after stints at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University, Boston University and Mt. Holyoke College. He applied for tenure at the school, which specializes in communications and media arts, in 2007.

It is typical for the academic tenure application process to include reviews and evaluations by everyone from the student body up to the school’s senior administration, all of which are closely considered before the decision is made to promote a professor. House said he had the full backing of his students and fellow faculty members, but his momentum halted when his tenure application reached the desk of Janis Andersen, dean of Emerson’s Department of Communication.

According to House, Andersen supported his teaching and service to the school, but did not approve his application, citing a lack of scholarship produced during his time at the school. Following Anderson’s action, Emerson Vice President of Academic Affairs Linda Moore made the decision to deny him tenure.

By Emerson’s policy, professors who are denied tenure are given one more year of employment, and are then forced to leave their position at the college.

Many colleges and universities include the amount of scholarly work produced by professors as an element in evaluating tenure applications. However, House contends that while Emerson is a teaching institution, his contributions to scholarship were judged on standards typically used by research institutions. He maintains that his selection as a 2003-2004 Fulbright scholar — combined with his experience as a reporter at the Providence Journal, a freelance writer whose work has been published in GQ and The Nation, and a producer of radio and television documentaries — should have sufficed.

“I was troubled by the process,” House said. “It seemed like I was held up to a different standard. There have been white professors with fewer credentials that have been given tenure.”

Pierre Desir, the other black professor who filed a complaint with the MCAD, said he also believes that different standards were used when he applied for tenure than were used for some of his white counterparts.

Desir joined the Emerson faculty in 2002 to teach cinematography in the college’s Department of Visual and Media Arts. The independent filmmaker, whose work has been screened at Sundance, as well as film festivals in New York, Toronto, London and Chicago, is now the only cinematographer on staff. Like House, Desir had the support of his students and fellow faculty members, but was denied tenure by the school’s administration on the grounds that he had not produced sufficient scholarship.