Panel Faults Emerson on Diversity

Tracy Jan, Boston Globe, February 2, 2010

For too long, Emerson College has ignored the role racial bias plays in tenure and promotion, leading to an overwhelmingly white faculty and leaving blacks at a disadvantage, according to a pointed external review released yesterday.

The college commissioned the review last fall following the uproar over college officials’ denial of tenure to two black professors, a controversy that prompted soul-searching at the communications arts school in downtown Boston.

The three-member panel found no overt racism barring the recruitment and retention of black professors. But it said enduring stigma and negative bias leaves black academics in a “caste-like position,” in which their intellectual worth and contributions are often undervalued and their advancement slowed.

“It is not intended, but it’s the result of patterns that perpetuate forms of discrimination,” said Ted Landsmark, a civil rights activist and president of Boston Architectural College who headed the review panel.

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The review panel–which included Evelynn Hammonds, dean of Harvard College, and JoAnn Moody, a national consultant on faculty diversity and development–recommends that Emerson provide better mentoring and professional development for tenure-track faculty, clarify departmental tenure requirements, and increase the multicultural competency of faculty and administrators to better recognize biases.

The report follows a recent MIT study highlighting the difficulties black and Hispanic faculty have getting promoted. MIT’s unusually frank and comprehensive look at faculty diversity on its own campus and the experiences of underrepresented minority professors drew attention to a problem at colleges across the country.

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The Emerson report concluded that the college has done a poor job of nurturing and promoting black faculty, and said it should focus in the next five years on hiring black academics who are tenured elsewhere.

“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 report said.

Left unexamined, the biases result in the “disproportionate undervaluing of African-Americans and the disproportionate overvaluing of European-Americans,” it said.

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Emerson is among many colleges with hiring and tenure procedures that appear, on the surface, to be neutral, but in practice lack the steps to assure that the widest possible candidate pool is recruited and that internal procedures do not create unintended biases, Landsmark said.

The panel suggested that Emerson suspend faculty searches that do not draw diverse candidates, a practice other colleges have also instituted.

“People tend to hire and work with the people they know,” Landsmark said. “As a consequence, it sometimes takes a modicum of additional effort to reach beyond circles of immediate comfort to include talented individuals who may not have emerged from the same social groups.”

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