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


 

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

Fall 2000: A student opinion essay in the Emory Wheel suggests that “genes (and not racism, past inequalities, or anything else) are primarily responsible for blacks’ lower status on the socioeconomic ladder in the U.S.”

Summer 2002: An African American female staff member presses charges of assault and battery against a white male professor, alleging that the professor shoved her. Later, the staff member files a civil suit against the professor, claiming that he had harassed and intimidated other African American female employees, and that his behavior was motivated by his “personal dislike” of and “animosity” towards blacks and women.

Spring 2003: An assistant professor and a departmental staff member, both African American women, are talking in a corridor. A white graduate student walks past and jokingly asks whether the two are “planning a revolt.”

Fall 2003: In a public panel discussion, a white female full professor uses a derogatory racial term to describe the perception of her sub-field by her larger discipline. The remark goes unaddressed until three days later, when an African American female assistant professor in the same department files a complaint with the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs. The office investigates the incident and finds that it is “isolated” but recommends several actions in response. The professor publicly acknowledges and apologizes for her comment.

Does this partial list of recent incidents betray a hostile racial environment? Individually and collectively, these anecdotes raise complex questions about what constitutes racial bias, what types of expression are protected by academic freedom, and how the Emory faculty might have productive conversations about the experiences of African Americans and other historically oppressed groups in Emory’s
intellectual community. In fact, many argue, Emory will not proceed into eminence among research universities without addressing these questions in a way that goes to the very heart of its identity.


Looking at evidence


Even at an institution that graduated its first African American, Verdelle Bellamy (M.S.N. ’63), only four decades ago, it is difficult for some to believe that white privilege exists, says Eugene Emory, a professor of psychology. “I’m not convinced everyone will agree it’s a viable concept,” he says. “But it explains in part the make-up of many boards of trustees, administrations, and faculties, as well as the populations in prisons, in foster care—all of these things are related to implicit privilege. If we can see that, we’ve gone a long way toward seeing Emory University as a microcosm of the larger society.”

How does the microcosm look? The appointment of Earl Lewis this spring as Emory’s first African American provost and the highest ranking African American administrator in university history has had a notable impact. More broadly, according to the university’s Affirmative Action Plan, as of September 2002, 6.5 percent of Emory’s full-time faculty were black. Minority faculty held roughly one-third of the non-tenure-track positions, while 5.7 percent of the tenure and tenure-track ranks were black. The percentages of faculty in these ranks remained roughly unchanged between 1992 and 2002. In the 2002 survey of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, these statistics placed Emory second to Columbia in the percentage of black faculty at the nation’s highest-ranked universities.

According to Emory’s Office of Institutional Research, African Americans held 16 percent of the university’s full-time executive, administrative, and managerial positions in 2001-02. This percentage is higher than at many comparable institutions (see sidebar page 3).
“The bottom line is that we need more minority students, faculty, and administrators,” says professor and chair of biology George Jones. “The argument you frequently hear is that we would love to have more black faculty and administrators, but those people just don’t exist. But we have historically not made the effort required to locate them, and Emory is not alone in this regard.”

Other faculty draw evidence from personal experience. Dianne Stewart, an assistant professor of religion, offers an example: “I frequently hear from black graduate students that they feel they cannot make use of the black intellectual tradition without being heavily
critiqued by white professors here. Not in every case, but it’s been
student after student in my three years here. This has to do with what’s considered intellectually rigorous and normative discourse, as opposed to special interest discourse. But oftentimes it works in such a way that the normative, canonical voices are white and male.”

Michael Brown, an assistant professor in theology, says he has had white teaching assistants undermine his authority in his classes in
biblical studies. He attributes that behavior in part to the fact that the field is predominantly white. “I’d bet my next month’s paycheck that most of my other colleagues do not experience this,” he says. “I think students feel more comfortable if you’re teaching a course on something that fits their expectations about your identity—if I were teaching African American readings, for instance.”

Rick Doner, an associate professor of political science who has been involved recently in small faculty group discussions about race, notes that not everyone is predisposed to see such incidents as racially informed. “There really are different lenses,” he says. “‘What’s the data?’ is a trick question. Let’s say someone makes a remark at a dinner party. It was intended as an innocent comment. But maybe a listener later thought about it and thought it revealed a racist attitude. Was it a racist comment? It’s in the eyes of the perceiver, to some degree.”

Academic freedom imperiled?

One unfortunate result of the conflict is its chilling effect on discourse, observes George Armelagos, professor and chair of the anthropology department, which has recently struggled with these issues publicly. “There’s much more guardedness,” he says. “A faculty member asked a student, ‘Are you passing?’, talking about a grade in a class, then the faculty member realized his question could be misunderstood."

That guardedness may also stem from growing concerns about Emory’s Discriminatory Harassment Policy, which states,

Discriminatory harassment includes the conduct (oral, written, graphic, or physical) directed against any person or group of persons because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, or veteran’s status and that has the purpose or reasonably foreseeable effect of creating an offensive, demeaning, intimidating, or hostile environment for that person or group of persons. Such conduct includes, but is not limited to, objectionable epithets, demeaning depictions or treatment, and threatened or actual abuse or harm.


This paragraph was recently challenged by a faculty group that feels it imperils academic freedom. “I think just about anything that gets said on this or any campus is protected by academic freedom,” says Professor of Philosophy Ann Hartle, who has advocated that the paragraph be excised from the policy. “Students and faculty ought to be able to state their views on campus without fear of retaliation. I don’t think you can build community through coercive measures regarding speech. It just builds resentment.”

William T. Mayton, Thomas J. Simmons Professor of Law, who teaches constitutional law, adds another perspective: “If our discriminatory harassment policy were challenged in a First Amendment case, it would be struck down and found in violation of academic freedom. The speech codes of public institutions that have been held unconstitutional have been found overly broad. They censor too much in that the operative term is ‘offensive.’ Well, the range of ‘offensive’ is huge. The way out is to write a more specific policy.”

A committee of four faculty and six staff, chaired by the university’s general counsel Kent Alexander and Emory College Dean Bobby Paul, has been charged with reviewing the policy and making recommendations to university President Jim Wagner. The committee aims to complete its task by the end of this semester.

The battle over campus speech and conduct codes rages on nationally. In February, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education settled a lawsuit against Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, which agreed to replace its “Racism and Cultural Diversity Policy” with a statement affirming its commitment to “educational diversity.” Even so, some scholars draw a distinction between criticism of powerful ideas and institutions and hate speech directed at society’s least powerful. “Regulations that require minimal civility of discourse in certain designated forums are not incursions on intellectual and political debate,” writes Georgetown legal scholar Charles Lawrence.

Talking it through

Since last fall, new efforts on campus have begun to address these problems. Several departments are meeting to read and discuss essays on racial issues. Other conversations cut across departmental lines, such as the effort by Rick Doner and several other faculty to organize small, multi-racial faculty discussion groups. The Violence Studies Program is organizing similar discussions this spring for faculty and staff.

“I was concerned that things were going to get unnecessarily polarized,” Doner says. “And I thought the faculty really needed to take the initiative. As hokey as it sounds, just talking about it and hearing why somebody else felt the way they did was helpful.”

The group is working to develop recommendations for organizing other similar discussions. Eugene Emory, who facilitated one of the conversations, believes it is an effective model. “Everyone was open to different viewpoints,” he says. “The most constructive outcome was an awareness that there is more than one valid reality.”—A.O.A.