Locked Out of the Conversation

Jewish professors at Wheelock College say they were subject to campaign of harassment after suggesting that Jewish students are underrepresented in campus life.

October 5, 2016
Gail Dines

Two professors are suing Wheelock College, charging it with illegal discrimination against them as Jews, and a campaign of retaliation, allegedly to punish them for suggesting campus discussions about diversity be more inclusive of Jewish students. The college says it’s dedicated to inclusion and regrets the two plaintiffs declined to resolve their concerns outside court -- an assertion they challenge. A third plaintiff, a former administrator, is also suing, alleging race-based discrimination and retaliation.

While details of the complaints are specific to Wheelock, and allegations center on its former president, the situation recalls others elsewhere in which who or what deserves consideration in the wave of new student protests has been questioned. The suits come at a time when some Jewish students and their advocates in higher education generally charge that they face an increasingly hostile campus environment.

"We don’t think this is an either-or -- we are very supportive of Black Lives Matter and issues facing African-American students,” said Gail Dines, a professor and chair of American studies who is suing Wheelock, where she’s worked for 30 years. “We were absolutely fighting to talk more about diversity and inclusion, and we thought this would be an opportunity to open those talks up. … We wanted Jewish students to be included, as well.”

Dines filed her lawsuit against Wheelock last month; she was joined -- via separate but related complaints -- by Eric Silverman, a professor of American studies and chair of psychology and human development, and Joan Gallos, professor of leadership and former vice president for academic affairs.

Many of Dines’s and Silverman’s allegations stem from the fallout of a 2014 letter they wrote, along with several other professors, suggesting that Jewish students merited more consideration in campus inclusion efforts. The catalysts for the letter were the college’s renewed emphasis on diversity and a planned external group’s performance of The Black Jew Dialogues. (Information about the show is available here.) Silverman didn’t object to the production, according to his suit, but thought that he should have been consulted, given his published work in Jewish studies.

Former President Jackie Jenkins-Scott allegedly retaliated against Dines and Silverman, who are Jewish, by accusing them of racism in class and threatening to put them on paid leave, according to their complaints. Another administrator allegedly said in a public meeting that their letter was inappropriate and had hurt students on the Institutional Diversity and Inclusion Council who had seen it, yet those students were never named.

The professors say retaliation against them escalated when the college hired an external diversity consultant to conduct a campus climate survey. They allegedly become the de facto targets of the study and other interventions, and Dines was eventually confronted by administrators with a complaint from an unidentified student suggesting she was racist and sexist.

The consultancy, The Kingston Bay Group, is named as a defendant in their suits. 

Silverman alleges that he was blocked from promotions, including to dean of arts and sciences. When asked why he wasn’t being considered, he allegedly was told by a senior administrator that he didn’t have assistant deanship experience. Yet that wasn’t included in the job description, and the person who got the job was less qualified than Silverman, according to the suit.

Both Silverman and Dines allege that they were accused of creating a hostile teaching environment and using the N-word in class. They call the claim baseless, pointing to their records teaching social justice issues. Dines is a well-known feminist critic of the pornography industry. Silverman says he has used the term “N-word,” not the slur itself, to discuss how language can be used to demean groups. He's been an advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement on campus and off, arguing, for example, in a local 2014 op-ed that Jews should harness their position both inside and outside the mainstream -- as those benefiting from "white privilege" but also historically marginalized -- to support protesters. He alleges that the college's marketing department, under Jenkins-Scott's influence, refused to publish a copy of the op-ed, saying it would be too controversial. 

"Not long ago, we cried 'Jewish lives matter,'" Silverman wrote. "Some of us still do. And for this reason, we must commit to making black lives matter."

Both professors say that they have strong student evaluations of teaching, in which concerns about racism have never been raised.

Jenkins-Scott repeatedly pushed for an external investigator to look into the racism claims against the professors, according to the suit, but eventually conceded that Gallos, as vice president of academic affairs, should look into it. Saying she could find and was given no evidence, even redacted evidence, of such claims, Gallos asked to be relieved of the task. Jenkins-Scott allegedly pressed still for an outside investigation, before the Faculty Senate refused to endorse the plan, saying that it was "concerned with issues of due process and transparency on this issue.” 

In 2015, at an all-campus conference announcing the results of the consultant's diversity report, Joe-Joe McManus, a representative of the Kingston Bay Group, allegedly said that "Jewish faculty have a problem with people of color on campus,” and that "many faculty use the N-word here at Wheelock.”

Gallos is suing for breach of contract, in addition to race-based discrimination and retaliation. Gallos, who is white, served as a vice president from 2012-15 and says she was forced to accept a lower-paid tenured teaching job after being driven out of the administration. She says Jenkins-Scott, who is black, turned on her for her legitimate efforts to improve the college though more regular communication with faculty and staff members and a “deep dive” into data on personnel and academic programs.

She says Jenkins-Scott shut her out of international education program plans, and eventually accused her of favoring white faculty and staff members -- such as by saying she’d purposely not served snacks at a black professor’s presentation. At the same time, Gallos says Jenkins-Scott told her not to hire white faculty members or administrators, and expressed unusual interest in the careers of employees of color, protecting even those who were underperforming. She says Jenkins-Scott belittled her in public and said in front of a group of colleagues that she was “evil.”

Jenkins-Scott, a former health care executive who had led the college since 2004, resigned, effective in June. David Chard, the new president, said in a statement that he was confident the college could address allegations against it. Wheelock had been “fully prepared” to participate in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission inquiries into complaints previously filed by Dines and Silverman, he said, but they “unfortunately” decided to pursue their personal claims in court. He noted that Silverman and Dines were offered and accepted paid leaves of absence this year, during which they’re expected to continue scholarly work but not teaching or service. Gallos is currently teaching.

Wheelock is “committed to creating, cultivating and preserving a culture of inclusion, equity and diversity for all staff, faculty and students,” Chard said. “These lawsuits will not impact those values, the quality of our teaching and learning, or the experiences we share as a community. Our college provides a supportive learning environment, student support and rigorous academic challenges. It is our utmost commitment to guide and shape the futures of our nation’s next generation of leaders who, themselves, will improve the lives of children and families.”

Chard added that his first-year goal as president is to continue fulfilling Wheelock’s mission, which specifically includes advancing diversity. The private liberal arts college has a strong social justice orientation and specializes in education, social work and early childhood development.

Regarding the professors’ concerns about Jewish students’ marginalization and lack of resources, a college spokesperson said there is a Hillel chapter, along with several conveniently located houses of worship. (Wheelock's Hillel was founded in 2015, after the letter, with help from Dines and Silverman, according to Silverman's complaint.) Wheelock also has a spiritual life coordinator who works with students of all or no affiliation, she said, and students are able to share any dietary needs with food service managers.

Kecia Brown McManus, president and managing director of The Kingston Bay Group, said via email on Wednesday that Dines's and Silverman's lawsuits "allege that in the course of our work we defamed these individuals due to our reporting of concerns and complaints presented to our team by faculty, staff and students. We unequivocally deny that we defamed the plaintiffs in these lawsuits. Rather, we accurately reported what we were told by members of the Wheelock community. We have no doubt that the evidence will prove that at all times we acted in good faith, and that neither case against our firm will be successful. ...Our commitment to working to develop inclusive and equitable educational environments is unshaken."

Ann Olivarius, a lawyer representing the professors, said in a statement that her clients “have had their reputations and careers nearly ruined by this discrimination and anti-Semitism.” In their own “fight against racism and pursuit of diversity,” she added, “they became victims of discrimination themselves, which is a disturbing outcome.”

Questions about the scope of higher education’s diversity movement aren’t unique to Wheelock. In a forum at the University of Kansas last year, for example, students of various backgrounds pressed for more inclusion in such discussions. At Oberlin College, where a number of Jewish students have complained of escalating anti-Jewish rhetoric, some professors refused to sign a letter in April condemning a black colleague who’d shared anti-Jewish sentiments on social media. They argued that she was possibly being scapegoated for bigger concerns about anti-Semitism, as students continued to express concern about antiblack racism.

At Brown University, in a video obtained by The Daily Beast, Provost Richard Locke last year asked to engage student protesters in a conversation. Several said “no,” and one said, “Heterosexual white males have always dominated the space.” Locke corrected him, telling him he was not heterosexual, and the student responded, “Well, homosexual, it [doesn’t] matter. White males are at the top of the hierarchy. Cisgender white males are at the top of the hierarchy.”

Asked if the Wheelock administration’s alleged actions against her were a genuine attempt to protect the integrity of any student movement, Dines said no -- that it was overt anti-Semitism. But if Wheelock wanted to protect student concerns, she said, there were other, more constructive ways to do it.

Dines said she's fought for marginalized students throughout her career, but was generally concerned at the time she signed the letter that some Jewish students felt there wasn't appropriate food in the dining halls on Jewish holidays, for example, and that she always seemed to be inviting students to her home for such events because they lacked other places to go.

Beyond concerns about on-campus resources, Jewish students elsewhere say they have felt purposely excluded. At Brown, earlier this year, for example, a lecture was canceled after some objected to co-sponsorship by Hillel.

Silverman challenged Chard’s notion that he and Dines hadn’t attempted to resolve their issues outside of court, saying multiple attempts at mediation had been rebuffed.

Most importantly, he said, “When members of a college community -- in our case, two long-term, well-respected, well-published faculty whose careers are unquestionably devoted to diversity and social justice -- ask for a religious or any minority group to be included into the communal conversation about multiculturalism, the administration should welcome that call, not turn against those members with vicious, immoral and illegal slander and falsehoods.”


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