The Warmth of Book Tours

Isabel Wilkerson, prizewinning author, decided she didn't have time for her course at Boston U., so she left. The dean is sympathetic, but students aren't.

February 2, 2012

Attracting big-name faculty members to a college or university can be a double-edged sword. A well-known name brings a rush of students, media coverage and publicity. But sometimes the very work that makes someone famous may draw her away from campus.

Boston University’s College of Communication has learned this the hard way via Isabel Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of the widely acclaimed The Warmth of Other Suns, who joined the university in 2009. Last semester, Wilkerson was assigned to teach a news-writing and reporting class, but she stopped teaching the class in October, citing a “scheduling conflict." Jim Schuh, an adjunct professor, was then assigned to complete her course. The college declined to disclose whether Wilkerson was paid for the entire semester, citing privacy issues.

This year, Wilkerson will not be teaching at BU, having taken an unpaid leave of absence for the entire year.

“I think the success of her book overwhelmed everyone. The requirements and expectations were way beyond what she had anticipated,” said Tom Fiedler, dean of BU’s College of Communication, referring to The Warmth of Other Suns. “The demands for her to speak carried on more into 2011 than expected, and unfortunately we did not prepare for that.”

The students, too, were unprepared for a professor who disappeared midway through the semester. A BU student confirmed that Wilkerson sent an e-mail to the class saying she would not be teaching due to a scheduling issue. She did not show up for the rest of the semester. Some students vented on the website of The Daily Free Press, BU's student newspaper. “If the product don’t match what’s been advertised, people should get their money back,” said one reader. “There are COM faculty who can’t even get a new office chair without going out and buying something themselves, and here we have a ‘professor’ who have contributed NOTHING to the college except an example of how to milk the system. Get rid of her and spend the money someplace else,” said another.

Fiedler took exception to some of the online comments, including one that suggested that Wilkerson earned more than $200,000 annually. “I can tell you that figure is wildly inflated. It is unfair for this number to sit out there. It makes her a target,” he said.

Wilkerson, who did not reply to an e-mail from Inside Higher Ed, told the student newspaper that the “situation stemmed from miscommunication about an internal logistics issue that ideally would not have happened in the first place.” She was originally scheduled to teach a narrative writing class, but when only two students signed up for it, she was assigned the news-writing class. Wilkerson, who has a contract with the university, has previously taught at Emory University. At Boston University, she focused on an annual narrative journalism conference and helped shape a proposed narrative journalism program.

Fiedler pointed out the benefits of having Wilkerson as a faculty member, including the extraordinary scholarship of her book. “In 50 years, the book will be required reading for students of African-American history,’ he said. “Ultimately this will bring recognition to the university and the students will benefit,” he said. While he accepted failure for not being able to anticipate the kind of pressures that Wilkerson would face, he said the department had moved quickly to take care of the students once the situation developed.  “I can understand that some students would be disappointed with what happened,” he said.

The issue has not been discussed at the university's Faculty Council meetings. "Neither the council nor the council's executive committee, of which I am a member, has taken up this issue. The news about this broke late in the semester, after our last meetings," said Fred Bayles, an associate professor of journalism, in an e-mailed message.

Nevertheless, the whole situation has created a toxic atmosphere, some faculty members said. "I certainly admire the body of Professor Wilkerson’s work and I was certainly very enthusiastic when she arrived to join the faculty. But, ultimately when someone is paid a full semester’s salary to teach six class sessions, what message does that send to students, their parents who typically pay the bills and to fellow faculty members?" said Elizabeth Mehren, a professor of journalism at the university.



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