Students Could Not Reverse Tenure Denial of Popular Black Professor at Washington University

In the effort to win tenure for Washington University professor Dr. Leslie Brown, some unlikely alliances were forged. A diverse coalition of several hundred students petitioned the administration urging them to reconsider Brown’s tenure, arguing that the popular professor of African-American studies was a valued asset to the university — particularly a university with a miniscule number of tenured Black professors. 

The Association of Black Students worked alongside the largely White student government association in calling for a review. Even the fraternities and sororities got involved. For days they held rallies, organized emergency meetings and letter-writing campaigns.

“This was really marvelous,” says Brown, who has taught at the institution since 2000 and held a joint-appointment in the history and African-American Studies program. “It was wonderful to see the students put into action the kind of activism that they had been reading about.”

But despite all of these efforts, including the unanimous endorsement from her colleagues in the history department, the university refused to reconsider Brown’s request for tenure. And Brown has decided not to appeal or reapply for tenure next year.

“My case will not look all that different next year,” says Brown, who served as a bridge between Washington University and the city’s largely African-American community, which often expressed suspicion and distrust at the university. 

Brown and her supporters argue that the decision to deny her tenure reflects broadly on the university’s lack of commitment to diversity. 

“In my mind, I think that the decision to deny Dr. Brown tenure is inconsistent with the college’s stance on diversity,” says Sheleema Taylor, who graduated from Washington University in May with a degree in history. Brown was her advisor.

Taylor says that she is conflicted on whether she will continue to support the university as an alumnus.

“I really loved Washington University, but I loved it because of professors like Dr. Brown,” says Taylor, who will begin a new job later this month as a fourth-grade teacher through Teach for America. “We are all very disheartened by this decision.”

College officials say that they remain firmly committed to hiring faculty of color. Of the currently 3,098 full- and part-time faculty employed at Washington University, only 12 African- Americans are tenured and another 12 are on the tenure-track. Of the 13,527 students, about 728 are Black, according to college officials.

In a letter to Brown, Dr. Edward S. Macias, executive vice chancellor and dean of arts and sciences, noted that the decision to deny her tenure was due to her lack of publications. Macias could not be reached for comment. 

But Brown disputes those claims, adding that she has published several articles and the University of North Carolina Press is set to publish her book next year, a historical account of African-American life in the Jim Crow South.

That timeline, however, did not placate college officials who say that the book was long overdue.

“It takes a long time from idea to publication,” says Brown, who has been permitted to spend her final year away from Washington University on paid leave and is advising graduate students from afar. “It is not unusual to take 10 years to write a book.” 

Brown, has since left St. Louis for Providence, R.I., where her partner — who also taught at Washington University — has secured a teaching job at Brown University. She will be sending out her applications next year, always believing though that she should have been granted tenure at Washington University.

“I knew going in and coming out that getting tenure at Washington University would be very hard,” says Brown. “But I can’t tell you why I didn’t get it.”

– Jamal Watson

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