As a lonely adjunct, a Filipino American teaching at a state school, I am but a wee voice in higher ed. But what if I were Jack Thomas at Western Illinois University, the school’s very first Black president?
If you don’t know Jack, maybe you should. He’s living proof there are still many obstacles for people of color in higher ed. After 8 years as president, Thomas, 58, will no longer be president of Western Illinois University as of June 30. The school’s board of trustees made the announcement Friday, and then added that Thomas will be getting a nice parting gift. He’ll be put on administrative leave through June of 2021 and continue to draw his salary of $270,528.
And when that’s done, he’ll become a tenured distinguished service professor.
“At this pivotal time in our history, I believe the university would best be served by new leadership,” Thomas said in a statement where he expressed that it was a privilege to serve as president, provost and a member of the Illinois Board of Higher Education. “Despite the difficulties our state has faced with regards to the budget and loss of population, our university remains resilient. We are a world class university, and during my final days a president, I will work to ensure everything is in place for the new leadership to being the next chapter in Western’s history.”
Nice words, carefully crafted, but likely what was demanded of him before being handed a parachute, not exactly golden, but one that might actually open.
The prepared statement deftly and politically whitewashes what Thomas has had to endure during the last eight years. Low enrollments, reduced state funding, layoffs of dozens of faculty and staff and enrollment drops of nearly 40 percent last fall, didn’t make Thomas’ job easy. Certainly, more than 130 layoffs didn’t help his popularity.
But on top of all that, Thomas had to endure a heated local campaign by members of the university town of Macomb — 90 percent White with a population of 18,000. There were calls for the school to fire Thomas.
Then the local paper, the McDonough County Voice, exposed the racial overtones in the anti-Thomas campaign by publishing emails where one emeritus professor, who is White, suggested to a White trustee that Thomas was only able to keep his job because of his race.
Larry Balsamo, the emeritus professor, wrote the email to trustee Jackie Thompson on May 7. “Race hangs over the whole situation,” Balsamo said. “But I have the feeling that if Jack were White or even Asian, he would have been gone some time ago.”
Hard to imagine any situation where that statement is acceptable. But let’s break down the racism.
If “Jack were White” implies that Thomas would have been fired without hesitation since no one cares about underemployed or unemployed Whites. And no one would shout racism. That sounds like an underappreciation of White privilege.
I’d say if he were White, Jack keeps his job.
But as a Filipino American, I was struck by the appendage to the phrase “if Jack were White.” That would be the part that goes “Or even Asian.”
The implication is you can fire Asians because either no one cares or no one will stand up to fight an aggressive action against them and claim racism. Or is it that Asians are privileged and practically White? A new emerging stereotype beyond the “Model Minority”?
Of course, it’s also a faulty assumption on Balsamo, the emeritus professor’s part. If Thomas were Asian, he’d probably be kept on as one of the handful of Asian college presidents around.
So, does Thomas really only keep his job because he’s Black? Or because they cause a stink?
It’s all offensive stereotypes as if straight from an old racist HR handbook. But as the email showed, it’s all there in the murky waters of higher ed politics, at least at Western Illinois.
Good thing everyone was on good behavior Friday, with their public statements at the ready.
But that local paper’s publication of that email exchange tells the real story.
Racist forces are still at work when you go for the top jobs. Diversity goals? Further off than you think.
Emil Guillermo is a veteran journalist and commentator. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok