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Africana studies faculty at UMass Boston file racial bias complaint

Avery Bleichfeld
Africana studies faculty at UMass Boston file racial bias complaint
(Left to right) University of Massachusetts Boston Professor Keith Jones, Professor Jemadari Kamara, Attorney John Pavlos and Professor Tony Van Der Meer sit at a press conference March 20. BANNER PHOTO

A broad cross section of about 30 current and former students, faculty from other departments, members of tenure track search committees and community partners packed into a small conference room at UMass Boston last week, calling out what many say is a pattern of discrimination against the university’s Africana Studies Department.

All full-time faculty of the Africana Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston filed discrimination complaints through the state following years of alleged mistreatment from university administration.

The faculty point to removal of the department’s chair, passing faculty over for tenure track positions and an external investigation into the department that they said was unfounded in their complaint, which comes amid alleged disinvestment into the department and its professors.

The move was long coming, said John Pavlos, the attorney representing the faculty of the department, but finally reached a tipping point.

According to the faculty of the department, the department has long been understaffed, with attempts to fill positions quashed by the university administration. In 2017, the department had seven full-time faculty and six tenure track lines. Currently, the department has one full-time tenured track professor and two other non-tenured professors, as well as a handful of part-time faculty, to teach course offerings.

In 2020 and 2021, searches to fill tenure track positions were launched and later canceled at the university’s request.

A third search was conducted in the summer of 2023, which led to the hiring of three new tenure track faculty. No members of the Africana Studies Department were on that search committee.

Neither Tony Van Der Meer nor Keith Jones, the two nontenure track faculty currently in the department, received tenure through the search, though Van Der Meer has worked in the department for almost 30 years, and both received the Chancellor’s Distinguished Service Award in 2021.

After receiving the award, Jones was demoted and received a pay cut.

The faculty also allege the university administration disregarded the principle of shared governance — under which, throughout the University of Massachusetts system, faculty appointments and evaluations are supposed to be initiated by their own faculty — by not including participation in the search process for tenure track faculty.

“That’s the context within which we’re operating,” said Jemadari Kamara, the department’s one tenured faculty member. “The distinguished faculty, recognized for their service to the university and our community weren’t distinguished enough to be tenured.”

In September 2022, Kamara who had been elected as department chair, was removed from his role and replaced with a university-appointed chairperson. The following May, the university upheld the removal but conceded it was not based on consideration of performance criteria.

Also in 2022, the university administration hired the law firm Prince Lobel to conduct a review of the department. That report, which cost $250,000 to commission, was never fully released. Instead, an executive summary was made available, alleging that the department had experienced high turnover and internal leadership challenges.

In the same period that it commissioned the report, the university cut courses from the department by 30%, saying that there weren’t resources.

The university said, in an email statement, that it cannot comment on confidential personnel matters but “we remain committed to the expansion of and investment in our Africana Studies Department,” calling it and the William Monroe Trotter Institute — a public research institute focused on the study of Black communities — integral to the university community.

Other faculty at UMass Boston said that treatment of the Africana Studies Department stands out. Karen Grayson, a senior lecturer in the English department said that in the over 20 years she has taught at the university, she hasn’t seen treatment like it.

She said that when the university seeks to fill a tenured position in the English department, existing faculty members are reliably on the search committee and the whole department is invited to meet the candidates. For Africana Studies, the most recent search involved no one already employed in the department.

In its statement, the university pointed to that search as one way the university has supported efforts to “revitalize” the department.

Jones said he worries that isolated selection processes, which occurred last summer, will set the department up for further criticism, as new faculty enter into a work environment that he called hostile.

He said he thinks it’s part of a pattern setting up the department for failure.

“I don’t want them to come in here and feel that we are the source of hostility, however, the conditions that are put in place structurally already, in many ways anticipate a kind of hostility that then we are going to have inscribed upon us as if we were the authors of it, but it wasn’t us that did this,” Jones said.

Supporters of the department said the treatment of the department doesn’t line up with the university’s public messaging around being an anti-racism, health-promoting institution — messaging that the university took up following the murder of George Floyd.

Yvette Modestin, a member of the department’s advisory board for over 10 years, said she thinks there is no department at the university more connected to the community or the school’s urban mission than the Africana Studies Department.

“From a personal perspective, I came here from Panama, and they sent me to some of the best schools in Boston, but I was not seen until I met the Africana [Studies] Department of UMass Boston,” she said. “I didn’t have to explain myself because they were serving the same students that I was, and I went to the big schools that did not know what it was to be a Black Latina.”

One former student credited the support she received from the department and the research she had been able to do there as what launched her to the point where she could go to Kenya to do research through a Fulbright grant.

Another former student said she identified less with the university in recent years, following the actions it has taken against the Africana Studies Department.

“If I stand before you wearing a UMass Boston logo, we don’t represent the same institution,” she said.

Grayson pointed to a tool she and other professors made to assess students’ understanding of terms around racism. She said findings from that research suggested that many students on campus equate racism with overt displays and racial slurs, and that anti-racism was synonymous with diversity or inclusion.

“I don’t want families thinking they’re sending their kids to a truly anti-racist, health-promoting university because they’re not,” she said. “You can’t have hostility like this, at this level, and call it that.”

Modestin said she felt the action against the Africana Studies faculty goes deeper than just going against the educational team.

“To have this attack on this department is not an attack on the department, it’s an attack on who we are as a people, in and out of this institution,” Modestin said.

Africana Studies, Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, UMass Boston, University of Massachusetts Boston