Race and an Embattled Leader

With a black president facing criticism, some Indiana professors say race is fair game when defending him.
November 23, 2005

Following up on the resolve of many faculty members to pressure Indiana University’s board to conduct an immediate review of President Adam Herbert’s leadership, members of the Bloomington Faculty Council voted in mid-November in support of a resolution to do just that. To be ratified, 800 of the 1,570 faculty members, librarians, and research scientists at Bloomington must vote online by Monday to support the resolution.

With approximately half the votes already cast, several black professors are waging a campaign against the resolution for review of Herbert, who is black. They say that if the resolution is passed, the negative attention could hurt the recruitment of minority students and harm what they call improving race relations on campus. Professors who have been pushing for the review of Herbert are angry over a variety of issues, but especially his failure to pick a chancellor for the Bloomington campus, the system's flagship. The candidate faculty leaders want for the job is himself a minority: Kumble (Swamy) Subbaswamy, dean of Indiana’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Audrey McCluskey, associate professor of African-American and African Diaspora Studies, said Tuesday that she doesn’t believe that race was the primary factor in the decision to draft this resolution. “But looking at the evidence, there does not appear to be clear and compelling evidence for this unprecedented mid-term review,” she said. “At the same time, I think it’s interesting that before we got to this point, nobody was talking about the fact that a majority of the people speaking out against President Herbert were white men.”

McCluskey has voted against the resolution, but no matter what the outcome, she says she hopes that this situation “will open up a discussion about institutionalized racism on campus.”

According to the university’s 2004-2005 Fact Book, there are 176 African Americans out of a total of 4,828 full-time administrators, faculty members and lecturers at in the university system, which amounts to less than 4 percent. In Indiana, black people make up approximately 8 percent of the population.

Kelly Kish, a staff member with the university’s Faculty Council, said Tuesday that to the best of her knowledge, no black faculty members serve on the 61-member council, which voted overwhelmingly in favor for a review of Herbert.

“I see this as an opportunity to highlight such issues,” said McCluskey. “I hope that President Herbert will lead the effort to bring more people of color -- faculty and students -- to Indiana. I don’t think this has been one of his priorities.”

At a Bloomington Black Faculty and Staff Council press conference on Monday, Kevin Brown, a law professor, labeled the vote an “anti-Herbert movement.” He and several black faculty members have circulated letters among staff, indicating that the resolution could set a negative impact.

“One of the messages we are going to convey to them is when you are attacking the first African-American president in the 185-year history of this institution, there should have been at least a consultation and recognition and understanding of the implication that this will have on the entire African-American community of the state of Indiana," the Indiana Daily Student quoted Brown as saying at the meeting. The paper also reported that during an opening statement, the professor said Herbert has increased fund raising and the quality of the student body and added more initiatives to better organize the university.

Brown could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

As a result of the press conference, many faculty members have been debating the relevance of race to an evaluation of a black president. “We are concerned that allegations of racism in the recent actions of the Bloomington faculty may have the unintended effect of perpetuating institutional racism at Indiana University,” wrote Purnima Bose, DeWitt Douglas Kilgore, Joan Pong Linton, Ranu Samantrai -- all associate professors at the university -- in a recent message posted to a faculty e-mail list. “By focusing attention on the racial identity of President Herbert, we miss the opportunity to confront serious structural challenges faced by peoples of color at Indiana University.”

But Jeffrey Isaac, a professor of political science, who drafted and signed a letter supporting Subbaswamy, has a different view. "I believe that race has been a
factor for none of those involved in this effort,” he said via e-mail. “The effort began as the relatively ad hoc initiative of a small group of people with experience in campus administration. I believe these people were motivated by serious concerns.”

Trustee Pat Shoulders said Tuesday that he does not believe that race should have been brought into this matter. “When a female chancellor was removed at Bloomington a few years ago, no one said it was because of her gender,” he said.

Susan Williams, a university spokeswoman, said that Herbert “has decided not to offer comment” on this situation.

Even though the Indiana controversy involves faculty anger over a black president's refusal to appoint another minority man as chancellor, some professors say race and ethnicity are irrelevant. Catherine Pilachowski, a professor of astronomy who signed a letter expressing displeasure that Herbert chose not to select Subbaswamy said Tuesday, “I honestly don’t think most people see Swamy or Herbert as people of color -- people are seeing them as colleagues.”

She added, “I’m not surprised that race has become an issue. I wish that the faculty’s leadership had thought about all this earlier, but I also wish faculty of color had expressed their concerns earlier, too.”

Pilachowski also expressed concern that the online vote was being held in large part over the Thanksgiving holiday when faculty members would have less time to discuss race and other issues.

But Isaac argued Tuesday that there has been enough time for discussion. “The process as a whole has been rapidly unfolding and fairly ad hoc,” he said. “There was an open faculty meeting early in the process, and many people spoke, including myself, and also including at least one of the prominent African-American critics of the process. I believe that there are many constituencies on campus and many opinions within these constituencies.

“There is always room for more discussion. And there clearly needs to be serious conversations among faculty about race,” he added. “But I do not believe anything was done inappropriately. I believe that anyone who has wished to speak or draft letters has been free to do so. And I believe that no group, whatever is claim, ought to have or seek to exert any kind of moral veto power over what is going on.”

This is not the first time that race issues have swirled around Herbert. In 1998, John Lombardi, then president of the University of Florida, came under fire for a comment he made regarding Herbert, then chancellor of Florida's university system. Lombardi referred to Herbert as an “Oreo," defining an Oreo as a person who is “black on the outside and white on the inside.” Lombardi, who apologized to Herbert, is now a chancellor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.                                                                 


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