Emerson’s present-day pursuit for diversity contrasts a history tainted with allegations of institutional racism. The first time a black professor was granted tenure without a lawsuit was in 2007.
Michael Brown was the first black faculty member to seek and be denied tenure at Emerson. He sued the college for discrimination in 1977. Over a decade later, Claire Andrade-Watkins was also denied tenure and filed a lawsuit that took three years to resolve. And in 2009, Roger House and Pierre Desir filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination after being denied tenure.
Sylvia Spears, the vice president for diversity and inclusion, said Emerson’s record regarding race relations shouldn’t be ignored.
"We can’t pretend that there aren’t issues. And we can’t shy away from talking about them,” Spears said.
Brown filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Emerson in 1977, according to 2009 Beacon reports.
At the time, the criteria for achieving tenure included having an advanced degree, according to Brown. Brown said then-president Gus Turbeville told him in writing that a law degree would be valid in lieu of the typical Ph.D. requirement, which was also confirmed in a contract signed with the academic dean. When Brown was denied on the grounds that a J.D. was not equivalent to a Ph.D., he said he looked into his application file and saw the contract was missing.
Once he was awarded tenure after a two-year lawsuit, Brown said the school tried to use his law degree as an excuse to fire him.
“They said I wasn’t giving full time and attention to my job at Emerson because I was practicing law on the side,” Brown said.
Brown said he fought the administration’s alleged attempt to fire him.
“I was working with a lawyer. And he said, ‘Is he missing classes?’ Well, no. ‘Is he missing meetings that he has to attend?’ Well, no. And there was nothing specific that they could point to,” Brown said.
Brown was not promoted to associate professor, from assistant professor, an advancement that he said usually came with tenure.
Since his case ended in 1979, Brown said he has not reapplied for the associate professor title.
“I’m still an assistant professor because I have never, ever applied for a promotion [since the lawsuit],” Brown said. “Because I did not want to go through this mess again.”
In 1990, professor Claire Andrade-Watkins was Emerson’s second black professor in its history up for tenure. She sued Emerson after being denied, claiming the criteria kept changing as she came up for tenure, which made it impossible for her to fulfill the requirements. According to Beacon records from 2009, Andrade-Watkins won her case after the court had a neutral panel review her work, which decided she was, in fact, eligible for tenure.
In 2009, black professors Roger House and Pierre Desir were up for tenure alongside three white professors. Their applications for tenure were denied by their schools’ deans, despite having won approval from their colleagues and department chairs, the Beacon reported in 2009. Both professors filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against.
Emerson offered positions to both, and House settled for reinstatement; he was eventually awarded tenure in 2011. Desir declined and left Emerson.
House and Andrade-Watkins declined to be interviewed for this article. Desir could not be reached for comment.
The first and only black professor who received tenure without filing a complaint in 2007 was Robbie McCauley.
In 2009, Jacqueline Liebergott, then-president of Emerson, commissioned a three-member panel of outside evaluators to investigate Emerson’s tenure practices.
The panel published its report in January 2010, finding several flaws—including a lack of clear requirements and proper mentoring—which the report said resulted in a disadvantages for black professors on track for tenure.
“There are to be found at Emerson unexamined and powerful assumptions and biases about the superiority, preferability, and normativeness of European-American culture, intellectual pursuits, academic discourse, leadership, and so on,” the panel report said.
Spears said she found the report’s findings accurate.
“We exist in sociological and institutional structures that may intentionally or unintentionally distribute privilege in such a way that some people are advantaged and some people are disadvantaged,” Spears said.
The report made specific recommendations for improvement, including better support for pre-tenure faculty, clarifying each department’s requirements for promotion, and requiring department chairs, deans, and administrators to participate in multicultural-competency workshops.
Phillip Glenn, the interim dean of the school of communication, said administrative steps have been taken to address the report’s issues within the tenure process.
“The standards have become much clearer and better communicated,” Glenn said. “Every department has reviewed its own promotion tenure standards and the academic affairs central office has reviewed all of them.”
Spears said that although recent faculty programs have been successful in spreading awareness and increasing dialogue on race relations at Emerson, the cultural climate for black professors still needs to improve.
“Knowing that the dynamics of race continue to play out in society,” Spears said, “I would be naive to say that black faculty members are now on even playing fields”
Brown also said there is still a long way to go for Emerson’s still-evolving tenure review process.
“I don’t know that the institution has accomplished every single thing that realistically could be accomplished,” he said.
Despite what Brown called the slow pace of institutional progress, he said there is still a cultural shift bringing awareness to race relations at Emerson.
“But I would give Emerson an extremely high grade for their willingness to acknowledge and face the problem,” Brown said. “Maybe not quite as high a grade out of all of the things that could be done, but I think the culture of the institution has changed for the better.”