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Black Professor Denied Tenure at Emerson Vindicated by Report

After six years of living and working in the greater Boston area, Pierre Desir’s transient life began to settle down just a few years ago. He moved into a sun-lit loft spacious enough for the artist to practice his hand at sculpting and woodwork, while developing the film curriculum at Emerson College.

Filled with optimism, Desir relished laying permanent roots at the communication arts school when he applied for tenure in the 2008 spring semester. Sure of his work, the 62-year-old Black man’s sanguine disposition soured after his application for tenure was rejected on the basis of what he determined to be racial discrimination.

The news began to spread of the tenure dismissal of Desir and a colleague, Roger House — both Black males — reaching the local NAACP chapter and resulting in an Emerson faculty committee calling for an independent review of Emerson’s tenure practices and policies. Earlier this month, the college released a report produced by an independent panel that found fault with Emerson’s tenure process.

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

The review panel, which, besides Landsmark, included Dr. Evelynn Hammonds, dean of Harvard College, and JoAnn Moody, a national consultant on faculty diversity and development, found that Emerson’s pre-tenure faculty receive little mentoring and professional development and unclear tenure requirements, and suffer from a lack of multicultural competency from administrators and other faculty.

In its 129-year history, Emerson has awarded tenure to only three Black professors, but two of them — professors Mike Brown and Claire Andrade-Watkins — had to sue the college, alleging racial discrimination.

African-Americans are the most vulnerable tenure track faculty because “their energy and sense of belonging are being taxed,” the report said. Tenure rejections are the result of “unintended bias” that undervalues the intellectual worth of African-American scholarship, Moody said.  

Brooke Knight, an interactive media professor and chair of the Faculty Assembly, told The Boston Globe: “That brought to our attention the history that had not previously been brought to light. Emerson is not alone in that, but that’s no excuse.”

Panelists conducted campus interviews, finding that underrepresented minority professors are not nurtured into advancement and that negative biases held by Emerson administrators have created a culture of distrust. Emerson’s leaders demonstrated a “lack of understanding” of the political and historical discrimination that African-Americans have endured, and they have perpetuated discriminatory patterns of behavior, the report said.

“It’s not a matter of George Wallace standing at the door saying no entry,” Desir said. “But it’s the same result.”

Both House, an associate professor in journalism, and Desir, a film professor, filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). But House dropped his case in a deal to keep his job at Emerson and to reapply for tenure in 2011. Desir fought back, refused a deal, and left the college when his contract terminated in August 2009. His case is still pending before the MCAD.

In response to the report, House wrote in a statement: “The tenure review committee provided an insightful, comprehensive, and forward looking assessment of the race and tenure problem at Emerson. Hopefully the report will result in a meaningful teachable moment on campus.”

House added that he is pleased at the results and will continue his pursuit of tenure at Emerson.

“The report vindicates what I was saying about Emerson’s policies being unfair,” said Desir, who recently took a job teaching at Dillard University in New Orleans. “The way they make their judgments are unfair, and the effect is obvious for everyone to see.”

Without a job, Desir moved to a smaller apartment and put most of his property in storage. Seven years earlier, the filmmaker arrived at the downtown Boston school to develop a film program. The program became popular enough that adjuncts were hired to meet a surge in demand for classes. Having filmed three features and several shorts revolving around the Black experience, Desir felt secure in his teaching experience and rapport with students.

Despite receiving endorsements from outside reviewers, fellow faculty members, and his department chair, Desir was told he had not produced enough creative work. He said he was judged on narrow parameters that excluded Desir’s pure cinematography work.  

“That’s changing the rules in the middle of the game and finding an excuse to deny tenure,” Desir said. “The [report] pointed out that the standards for tenure are not clear, so people going up for tenure are not sure of how they will be judged. I was doing work in two disciplines but was evaluated in one. I’m both a filmmaker and cinematographer.”

The review panel criticized Emerson for its confusing tenure process and recommended disclosing all requirements and clarifying the guidelines so “there [are] no surprises for faculty being evaluated.”

Desir said he has spoken with a national law firm that is interested in taking his case pro bono against Emerson to seek legal damages for emotional distress.

“It took me months to recover, and my life was turned upside down. There is emotional wear and tear; it’s not easy being rejected,” Desir said, adding that, as a visiting professor at Dillard, he is not eligible for health benefits.

Emerson’s president, Jacqueline Liebergott, said the school is planning to meet with faculty, students and staff to implement the report’s recommendations but noted there is no word on whether the school would consider restoring Desir.

For now, Desir is rambling about city streets on a motorcycle, this time in New Orleans.

“I should’ve had tenure two years ago, and I’ve got to get paid for what I’ve done there otherwise they don’t suffer anything,” he said. “I’m happy to be here, but I still feel cheated because it was a very important seven years of my life where I thought I had developed something of great value.” 

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