Race and the Professoriate

Academic Freedom, Privilege, and Responsibility
Is the university ready to chart a new course beyond the status quo?

Eugene K. Emory, Professor of Psychology


Race and the Professoriate
Perception and vision in Emory's intellectual community

I was concerned that as in many other areas of politics on this campus, things were going to get unnecessarily polarized.
Rick Doner, Associate Professor of Political Science


I don't want to say no, it's not a hostile environment or yes, it absolutely is, but we don't come to Emory thinking we're coming to Candy Land.
Dianne Stewart, Assistant Professor of Religion

Tenure Progress
Non-medical tenure-track assistant professors hired between 1987 and 1996

Executive and Managerial Positions
Full-time, held by African Americans in 2001-02

Executive and Managerial Positions
Full-time, held by Whites in 2001-02

Academic Freedom, Privilege, and Responsibility
Is the university ready to chart a new course beyond the status quo?
Eugene K. Emory, Professor of Psychology

Reconciliation Begins at Home
Remembering
African-American contributions
at Emory and Oxford

Mark Auslander, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Oxford College
December 2001/January 2002 issue

Difference Politicized
Reflections on Contemporary Race Theory
Mark Sanders, Professor of English and African American Studies
December 2000/January 2001 issue

Return to Contents

 

A talk about primate social behavior in my department a few weeks ago ended with one colleague feeling blind-sided and extremely upset. The image of female monkeys (Japanese macaques) engaging in same-sex behaviors without explanatory interpretation was viewed as an attack on the colleague’s sexuality.

Why should an entirely innocent talk about primate behavior, given in the context of a scholarly presentation, evoke such strong feelings? Can we generalize something instructive from this incident? When someone seems socially insensitive or is unaware of how another may interpret a statement, are they by default racist, sexist, or homophobic? I do not think so.

I have been asked to write for the Academic Exchange in part because one of the editors heard a talk I gave in November 2002 that shed light on Emory University’s socio-cultural history. That history includes me in some rather circuitous ways, and it has led to a number of opportunities for me, as an African American professor here, to reflect publicly.

At some level I feel as many of my colleagues in the African American community do. Emory University seems to be struggling with efforts to make a quantum leap above the social status quo. Some argue that the university has a climate of racial and cultural insensitivity and lacks diversity where power resides, with privilege for some and inequality and disparity for others. Our social history has brought us to this place, and we should try to understand contemporary events in a historical context.

An examination of the racial and gender homogeneity across senior administrative and academic positions of privilege, power, and influence within this institution reveals a striking imbalance along ethnic and gender lines. This imbalance is heightened by ethnic and gender homogeneity at the most menial and subordinate levels within this university. These circumstances result from social injustice that has persisted for decades; thus any impulse that blames the victim should be scrupulously resisted.

A culture that has existed for more than a century and a half perpetuates disparities within the university. This culture of inequality is the fuel that was ignited by a racial remark made in the anthropology department and later reported in the local media. Hopefully these thoughts and insights will help heal the wounds exposed by the remark made by anthropology professor Carol Worthman last fall. I have spoken with her on several occasions, most recently inviting her to speak to my undergraduate seminar on spds (Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination). Her courage compares favorably with that of Tracy Rone, the anthropology professor who spoke out against racial insensitivity, and who also accepted the invitation to speak to my class. Both professors are admired and trusted colleagues, and both distinguished themselves in my class, dispelling stereotypes that had been created by media reports devoid of relevant context. Those visits were learning experiences for Emory undergraduates at many levels, the kind we as faculty often aspire to but seldom achieve. Moved by these experiences, the class has considered writing an open letter to the Wheel and Emory Report, addressed to President Wagner, sharing their thoughts and perceptions. Colleagues, please take note: the power of this learning experience prompted undergraduate students to propose and volunteer for a writing assignment!

I understand Dr. Worthman’s remorse and the pain both faculty members experience. One cannot be a compassionate human being and remain insensitive to these feelings. Following the hostile media reaction to the remark Dr. Worthman made, and the sympathy some faculty voiced for her, I was compelled to call attention to the plight of Dr. Rone, who was appalled by the lack of civility when no one in the room reacted. Unknowingly, Drs. Rone and Worthman acted as a catalyst for a reaction that had been percolating for years. Indexed by the fallout from this unfortunate event, there are broader issues within the university structure that need addressing. The recent appointment of Earl Lewis as Provost is encouraging. It is difficult, however, to separate the timing of this appointment from events that have taken place on this campus over the past six months. Thus the university has not yet passed the diversity test of proactive administrative action. We should welcome Dr. Lewis and encourage the administration to continue in its attempts at diversity but recognize that one highly publicized and visible appointment does not make for a diverse university.

What can Emory University do to get back on course? Our date with destiny as a premier university has been postponed while we address the social and political issues that surfaced again last fall. These issues appear to divert attention and resources away from our central mission. Have we met our destiny by following a course of racial, ethnic, and gender disparity, along with insensitivity to disability and sexual orientation? Are we uncomfortable with where destiny has led us?

Perhaps we should chart a new course. Emory University would profit from a vision that extends beyond reactionary efforts that typically follow social upheaval. Our vision must include a social agenda, and its mission must include some diversion of attention and resources to issues that threaten our purpose. That purpose embraces teaching, discovery, and helping to shape an uncertain future that includes social unrest.

Can all social unrest on campus be anticipated and avoided? Any attempt to do so would seem short-sighted and antithetical to the purpose of social and intellectual discourse within the academy. But it is possible to instill trust through sensitivity to human suffering at all levels within the university. Aggrieved parties should feel comfortable seeking redress for injustice from within and only as a last resort seek outside intervention. The administration and faculty must become more proactive. Fortunately some efforts are already underway in the form of faculty- and staff-led discussion groups that focus upon racial concerns and other forms of discrimination.

A committee has been formed to review and offer recommendations for changes in the university’s Discriminatory Harassment Policy. A challenge to protect Dr. Worthman’s freedom of speech, in which she uttered a word many interpreted as a racial epithet, prompted this action. For the record, Dr. Worthman does not think her comments should be protected by academic freedom. This complex issue requires a synthesis of reasoned and civil discourse that encourages diverse views. The major challenge is to find a common understanding among the faculty and staff that urges the university’s good will and intentions. I think “responsibility” for one’s behavior, including speech, is the common ground upon which a consensus can be reached. What is the rationale for this thesis?

Most Americans are taught that they have “rights,” many of which are encompassed and protected in the ideal conveyed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Some believe that no matter how offensive someone’s expression may seem, if it does not violate the civil rights of anyone else, then the offender is protected by our Constitution. As difficult as this
concept can be to accept in practice, especially when exercised by those whose actions amount to little more than creating ill will, it speaks volumes about what constitutes civil liberty. Do we enjoy civil liberty at no cost?

Are civil liberties reserved for those who have the power to enforce their will, or is it to be enjoyed by all Americans? What individual and communal debt does each person owe in a society where we accrue privileges based in part on our right to freedom of expression? I think that debt requires us to be responsible in the exercise of that right.

In the academy, the most diverse views and opinions are accorded respect and tolerance. Universities are part of the larger society, not places where one retreats from the realities of everyday life. Thus our actions within the academy must be viewed in the context of the larger society. If anyone attempts to avoid confronting real social disparities by seeking shelter in the academy, then they are misguided. It is perhaps in the academy that we have the greatest social responsibility, because it is here that we enjoy the greatest privilege afforded by our freedom of expression.

Privilege within the academic community entails rights and freedoms that are limited only by our collective intelligence and creativity. These rights and freedoms range far beyond the narrow frameworks of other institutions, such as corporations and governmental bodies, and rightly so. In the academy our charge is to extend the boundaries of current knowledge and thought to include civil discourse on topics that often engender uncivil behavior. Within a democratic society, we should not accord privilege, freedom, and civil rights the luxury of expression without accountability. Within the academy, and in the context of open discourse and the pursuit of knowledge, should we not consider the issue of academic and scholarly responsibility? Responsibility is no less elusive a concept than freedom, and yet we all have an intuitive sense of what freedom and responsibility mean. Fundamentally, freedom cannot be disconnected from responsibility. The very foundations of democratic freedom entail a responsibility to ensure those freedoms are exercised without bias. Herein lies the
dilemma.

Since we cannot anticipate the infinite ways in which professors might attempt to construct and articulate reality, it may be impossible to write a discriminatory harassment policy invulnerable to challenge. It is possible, however, to write a discriminatory harassment code incorporating the idea that privileged opportunities for freedom of expression carry a requirement for social responsibility.

Was my colleague who gave the talk about Japanese macaques being responsible in freely expressing his views of animal behavior that could offend some in the audience? Could he and should he have done more to be sensitive to subtle forms of bias? Does the offended colleague have any responsibility to be objective in assessing the speaker’s motives and intent? It seems to me that both speaker and listener have some responsibility that comes with freedom of expression.

I think it is possible to fashion language in a discriminatory harassment policy that adequately defines social responsibility within the context of academic life, and at the same time protects our freedom of expression. For me, freedom of expression does not mean, nor does it imply, freedom from social responsibility.