Did Bill O'Reilly Doom a Tenure Bid?

In many academic circles, being attacked by Bill O'Reilly might be a badge of honor. A Syracuse University professor, however, charges that he was denied tenure last week in part because of the fallout over his on-air disputes with the Fox television star, who has branded him "a new Ward Churchill."

May 18, 2009

In many academic circles, being attacked by Bill O'Reilly might be a badge of honor. A Syracuse University professor, however, charges that he was denied tenure last week in part because of the fallout over his on-air disputes with the Fox television star, who has branded him "a new Ward Churchill."

Boyce Watkins said that the university has responded to attacks on him in ways that are different from how it handles other controversial statements made by professors, creating a stigma around his work because it does not conform to "white liberal" ideas about race.

And Watkins, who is black and who teaches finance, said that an e-mail message that was not intended for him, but which he received and has forwarded to Inside Higher Ed, shows that professors view his public statements in a negative light, and that he couldn't get a fair tenure review.

Watkins has appeared frequently on CNN and various other news shows, offering outspoken commentary that, while earning him the enmity of O'Reilly, has also won him many fans, who say that he voices ideas that tend to be skipped over in national debates. With Watkins vowing to sue the university (and to continue to speak out), this case is likely to set off debates about race, public intellectuals and how universities respond when their faculty members are attacked. And while many parts of the tenure process are off limits, many of the statements at issue are not only public but on YouTube, providing fodder for those seeking to draw their own judgments on Watkins (or O'Reilly).

The dispute with O'Reilly took off in 2007 in the aftermath of controversial remarks he made on a radio show in which he described a trip to Sylvia's, a famous Harlem restaurant. O'Reilly spoke at length about how he "couldn't get over" how the restaurant -- black-owned, and primarily with black customers -- was full of "respectful" people. He talked about how it was just like "going to an Italian restaurant" and how there wasn't "any kind of craziness" or anyone "screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea.' "

O'Reilly maintains that the comments were part of his effort to show that all people are the same, but his repeated expressions of surprise that one could have a civilized dinner in a black-owned restaurant in a black part of town struck many people as offensive and ignorant. Responding to the dispute, O'Reilly then interviewed Juan Williams on one of his television shows, and Williams expressed support for O'Reilly.

Then, appearing on CNN to talk about the controversy, Watkins said that O'Reilly's comments should be seen as part of his pattern of "demeaning, degrading and devaluing" black institutions. For O'Reilly to praise Sylvia's and its customers as he did, Watkins said, was like O'Reilly going to a black home and congratulating those there for having a mother who is not a prostitute. The underlying assumptions show ignorance that would be similar, he said, to judging all white people by those who appear on "The Jerry Springer Show." And he said Williams was playing the role of the "happy Negro" in helping O'Reilly. (This CNN report available on YouTube features the original O'Reilly broadcast and much of the commentary.)

At this point, Watkins and O'Reilly started speaking out against one another, with O'Reilly focusing on the comments Watkins made about Williams. O'Reilly even sent an "O'Reilly Factor" producer to Syracuse to track down Chancellor Nancy Cantor and demand that she apologize for the impact of Watkins and his statements. Calling Watkins "one of the worst race baiters in the country," O'Reilly said that Watkins was using Syracuse University as a platform so Cantor should speak out against him.

She didn't -- and instead repeatedly told the Fox producer that Watkins was "an individual speaking for himself." Based on that, O'Reilly went on to blast Watkins and the university. "Like Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado, Watkins hides behind academic freedom in his villainous pursuits. But Syracuse University should have academic standards, and it apparently does not. Again, Watkins is using the university as cover," O'Reilly said.

That incident led the university to issue a statement that, while affirming the right of Watkins to express himself, specifically noted that his views did not represent those of the university. Some questioned whether the university should be issuing such statements when they aren't routine.

Joel Kaplan, associate dean for professional graduate studies at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, told The Daily Orange (and confirmed to Inside Higher Ed that this reflected his view) that the university statement was "outrageous" because of the lack of such statements every other time a professor said something controversial.

"Every week you could pick up the Syracuse Record, and on page three there's a listing of faculty members who have spoken in various venues. In not one of those places are those people forced to say they speak for themselves and not the university.... The question is why did they release a statement for Professor Watkins and not for the 400 or 500 other professors that speak in a public forum?" Kaplan said.

Watkins said that this singling out of his statements was a sign that he would not be treated fairly in his tenure review. Further, he noted that after the controversy broke, many of his colleagues in the business school received e-mail from O'Reilly fans. Many of the e-mail messages were sent to all faculty members. One faculty member, who Boyce said subsequently played a key role in his tenure case, hit "reply all" and so sent the response to Watkins, among others. In the response, Patrick Cihon, called Watkins a "blowhard" (and called O'Reilly the same thing). Further exchanges with Watkins -- which he forwarded to Inside Higher Ed -- feature Cihon, in a friendly supportive tone, inviting him to discuss the issues in person and suggesting that Watkins reconsider his approach to speaking out. (Cihon declined to comment for this article, saying all tenure reviews must be confidential.)

Cihon isn't the only one offended by some of the Watkins statements. An editorial in The Daily Orange said: "Watkins was certainly entitled to say what he thought about Williams on the show. But calling another black man a 'happy Negro' hardly displayed the kind of intellectualism that Watkins proudly boasts. His talk radio remark actually undermined any of the notable comments he made during the program."

Watkins said that these incidents show what he knew all along, that places like Syracuse "don't tenure black people like me." The university made it clear he was different from most faculty members (by issuing the statement about him) and ignored the way faculty colleagues who disagree with him would judge him, Watkins said. He said that Syracuse is dominated not by racists, but by people who accept certain views of how professors should act and what they should say, and that these views run counter to his sense of his duty as a black public intellectual. (Among the other issues on which Watkins is outspoken and that may cause discomfort in some academic circles: His call for the National Collegiate Athletic Association to start paying athletes, ending what Watkins calls the "exploitation" of black and other athletes. Plus he has taken on Bill Cosby, among others.)

Much of the debate about Watkins has focused on topics that may not appear directly related to his academic discipline (finance). But he notes that he has published finance articles in traditional journals and that his public intellectual role also includes a blog and a book in which he addresses finance issues for a multicultural and not necessarily wealthy audience.

"My colleagues are good people, but they hate me for being different," Watkins said. He noted that universities like Syracuse usually cheer when their professors turn up on CNN and other national media forums. In particular he noted that Cantor, the chancellor at Syracuse, has called for professors to engage in "scholarship in action," in which they focus on community problems and resist ivory tower elitism. "The chancellor has been calling for this. She writes op-eds about this. I do it, and I don't get tenure," he said. "The rules of academia change when you are part of a powerless group."

Kevin Morrow, a spokesman for the university, said that it is Syracuse policy not to discuss individual tenure cases. In general, he said that the university supported "a thorough, multi-level process involving the faculty member’s department and school/college and concluding with a decision made at the institutional (university) level. The candidate is considered for his or her record of accomplishment and potential to continue to make high-quality and valuable contributions in teaching, scholarship and service."

Morrow said that Syracuse's faculty includes many successful non-white academics. The university has 90 black tenured faculty members and 78 tenured faculty members who are members of other minority groups. The university also has another 20 tenure-track faculty members who are black and 38 who are members of other ethnic groups. He also noted that three Syracuse colleges -- which together enroll more than half of all students at the university -- have black deans.

As for the statement that the university issued about Watkins and the O'Reilly controversy, Morrow said that it was not an attempt by the university to deny Watkins his rights, but just the opposite. "This was done to protect Professor Watkins’ right to express his personal opinion," Morrow said. "We would do the same -- and in fact have done the same -- for other professors with whom members of the public take issue due to the opinions they have expressed."

Morrow said that in such cases, "our response involves upholding the specific faculty member's right to present his or her personal opinion, with the understanding that the opinion expressed is that of the individual, not necessarily the university."

Eric Spina, vice chancellor and provost, followed Morrow's statement with one of his own: "Syracuse University has a very robust set of evaluation standards for granting tenure, including providing candidates multiple paths depending upon their particular scholarly modality and approach. As provost, I always make it my personal responsibility — irrespective of the work of any committee — to assess a tenure candidate through the lens that best supports their scholarly approach. I fully and thoroughly evaluated Professor Watkins' work in this way, but at the end of the day it did not meet our standards."

While Watkins may be outside the mainstream of public debate on some issues (and is proud of being so), his supporters say that's precisely why he deserves the platform of a university position and the security of tenure. His blog, The People's Scholar, is filling up with postings from supporters demanding that Syracuse grant him tenure.

Juan Gilbert, an associate professor of computer science, is president of the Brothers of the Academy, a group of black male academics, and he counts himself as a Watkins supporter even if they don't agree on all issues.

"I have reviewed Boyce's credentials and I find it hard to believe that he was denied tenure on the basis of his scholarship," Gilbert said. "I believe tenure and promotion is about a scholar's impact," he said, noting that his following among black people and regular media appearances show that there are few people with the ability to get attention to views that "represent a truth that is shared by millions of Americans." When Bill Cosby suggested black parents were spending too much money on sneakers, Watkins explained why that might be the case to many people who have no idea what it means to be a black parent in poverty, Gilbert said.

While Gilbert said he wasn't endorsing the views of Watkins, he said the debate needs that perspective. "I don't think you should judge Boyce's scholarship by whether you agree with him or not. You need to judge him by the impact of his scholarship and from my view, the impact is loud and clear."


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