Why They Left

Multiple Black academics have resigned, citing concerns about institutional racism, this academic year -- most recently at the University of Memphis.

 
May 3, 2021
 
From left: Twitter, City University of New York, Twitter, University of Edinburgh
From left: Alena Allen, Lesley Lokko, Dena Simmons and Tommy J. Curry

Alena Allen earned promotion to full professor this academic year at the University of Memphis's Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law -- the first woman of color to do so within the program. But she’s leaving the institution before the promotion takes effect in July over ongoing concerns about racism on campus.

Allen shared those concerns in a resignation letter that has since been circulated and endorsed by multiple student groups on campus, including the Black Law Students Association.

Allen declined an interview request, saying she hadn’t meant for the letter to become public and that she felt uncomfortable talking about her case.

In her letter, she describes soul-searching in the months since George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, including about her own experiences at the law school.

Referencing alleged comments by Provost Thomas Nenon at a recent law faculty meeting on raising tenure and promotion standards, Allen said Nenon claimed he'd done applicants this year -- meaning her and another professor -- a "favor." Allen also said that Nenon declined to hire highly qualified Black candidates as law deans during the past two searches, describing his comments and actions as part of a “disturbing pattern.”

Nenon apologized for his comments about this academic year’s promotion cycle in emails to Allen and other faculty members. The university said in a statement that “it takes seriously the concerns of our community and will continue our commitment to creating a diverse, inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone.”

The law school dean and other campus leaders “have been and will continue to work to advance these goals,” the university said in its statement. “After the completion of final examinations, the president and provost will be meeting with the law students to hear their concerns. Critical attention will be given to these issues.”

Allen said in her letter that Nenon’s apology fell short.

“I earned my promotion,” she wrote. “As was stated in my external review letters, I met the standard not just for here but at many higher ranked law schools as well. If the provost had read my letters, he would be well aware of this.”

Regarding the deans’ searches, Allen wrote that in each case the law faculty had ranked Black candidates higher than the eventual appointee. In the most recent search, for instance, according to documents obtained by Inside Higher Ed, Memphis ended up appointing the interim dean, Katharine Schaffzin, who is white, as permanent dean -- even after she’d been rated worst of four candidates in a faculty review.

All three other dean candidates in that search earned at least 18 “acceptable” votes from 20 voting law professors. Schaffzin earned nine votes out of 20. According to American Bar Association standards, law deans shall not be appointed “over the stated objection of a substantial majority of the faculty.” Prior to her appointment as dean, Schaffzin was the sole faculty member on the university’s inaugural Board of Trustees. Some law professors have also raised nepotism concerns with campus and state officials over the fact that Schaffzin’s husband is a tenured faculty member at the law school and therefore under her supervision. Those complaints haven’t gained much traction.

Allen wrote that she viewed Schaffzin’s hire “as the exact opposite of diversity and inclusion.”

“When a Black candidate (especially in a majority minority city) isn’t hired over a white candidate with a negative vote, I am truly left to wonder under what conditions will a Black candidate ever be hired for dean,” Allen said. “I can’t imagine a scenario in which a Black candidate for dean gets a negative faculty vote and gets hired. Maybe I am wrong to be outraged by this, but I am.”

Schaffzin did not personally respond to a request for comment about Allen’s letter.

Allen also raised concerns about a white security officer posted at the law school, whom both she and Black students had accused of racially profiling them. Even after a filing a complaint with the campus office for institutional equity, Allen wrote, the university “has taken no action. I don’t feel seen or heard.”

No institution is perfect, Allen continued, “and I have worked very hard for the past decade, but I have reached a point where I believe that diversity and inclusion matter only when institutionally convenient.”

Someone reported the security officer to the equity office in March 2020, according to university documents. As of last month, the investigation was still open.

The campus chapter of the Black Law Students Association has urged the University of Memphis to fire the officer in question, initiate a new law dean search and hire a qualified Black candidate, and mandate an antiracism law class as a graduation requirement. Other student groups, including the campus chapters of the Hispanic Law Students Association, the Association of Women Attorneys, the LGBTQ and allied law student group Outlaw, the National Asian Pacific American Law Student Association and the University of Memphis Law Review, have signed on to these demands. Students also want a full-time mental health counselor of color at the law school and BLSA representation on all faculty search committees, including any dean search, among other goals.

The University of Memphis said in its statement that the president and provost will meet with law students after final exams to hear their concerns.

“Critical attention will be given to these issues, a review of the office of institutional equity investigation completed and action steps developed, as necessary, for a collaborative and productive path forward,” the university said.

Not Just Memphis

Other Black faculty members have left their positions this academic year over concerns about racism.

Lesley Lokko, former dean of the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at City College of New York, a part of the City University of New York, resigned in October after just 10 months.

“My decision to leave Spitzer after less than a year is fairly straightforward: I was not able to build enough support to be able to deliver on either my promise of change, or my vision of it,” Lokko said in a public resignation letter. “In an incredibly bureaucratic and highly-regulated context, change is as much administrative as it is conceptual.” And so “lack of meaningful support -- not lip service, of which there’s always a surfeit -- meant my workload was absolutely crippling.”

Lokko, who is Ghanaian and Scottish, said race was a factor, as it’s “never far from the surface of any situation in the U.S.” Having previously established the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, Lokko said that she “lacked the tools to both process and deflect” racism as it manifests here.

“The lack of respect and empathy for Black people, especially Black women, caught me off guard, although it’s by no means unique to Spitzer,” she said.

In an interview at the time, Lokko said her job at Spitzer saw her working 18-hour days, seven days a week, meeting frequent resistance for what she’d been hired to do. While she’d been accused of “playing the race and gender cards,” she said, “in reality, this is so familiar to so many women, and women of color, who wind up literally working themselves to death, trying to achieve what they said they were going to achieve without infrastructural support."

Vince Boudreau, president of City College, said in a statement upon Lokko’s departure that the college was saddened but summed her experience up to circumstances.

“During Dean Lokko's brief time at City, she introduced her colleagues, students, and alumni of the Spitzer School to a vision of a new and reimagined architecture curriculum,” Boudreau said. “The vision was expansive and ambitious and required a series of sweeping changes to the current curriculum. That these changes were occurring at the onset of a global pandemic certainly complicated her plans.”

In January, Dena Simmons resigned as assistant director of Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence, part of Yale Medical School, saying she’d been “tokenized, undermined and bullied.” In a resignation letter, Simmons said she’d been Zoombombed by racists during a virtual town hall and was subject to more racist taunts when she logged back in to the event at the urging of colleagues. Prior to that, she said, coworkers would try to touch her hair, or attempt to diminish her success by attributing it to her affiliation with Yale, not the strength of her ideas.

“My hope is for you to come together and do what I have obsessively asked for year after year -- get racial and social justice right at home first before doing it disingenuously in the world,” Simmons wrote in her resignation letter. “You did not get it right for me. I hope that you will for others.”

Simmons later told EdSurge, “I left primarily because Yale could not keep me safe.” She added, “This is a persistent and pervasive problem in academe -- and in many other institutions that were founded on whiteness. Many of us leave silently, and in our silence we become complicit.”

Simmons did not respond to a request for comment through her new organization, LiberatED.

Karen Peart, a Yale spokesperson, said that the university “seeks to the greatest degree possible to protect the privacy of employees, including those who have departed the university. For that reason, we will not be providing details of confidential personnel information.”

In general, Peart said via email, “Providing clear avenues for staff and faculty to report concerns about their workplace is a priority of the new dean of the Yale School of Medicine.”

The new office of academic and professional development at the medical school has a “central, online reporting resource that allows for all complaints to be processed quickly, and, as needed, triaged to the appropriate office,” Peart added, noting the single-portal model. The Belonging at Yale website offers universitywide resources for students, faculty and staff.

Linda Mayes, Arnold Gesell Professor of Child Psychiatry, Pediatrics and Psychology and director of the Yale Child Study Center, said that Yale police were notified immediately of the “hateful, racist incident on Zoom.” Mayes said, “We also reached out to our community to acknowledge how traumatic and frightening the incident was and to offer support. We will not tolerate these assaults on our community’s safety and on so many in our community who were speaking up.”

The Child Study Center has further taken steps to deter future incidents, including adopting multiple security steps for all large virtual meetings, Mayes said. It has also offered workshops on creating an inclusive workplace as part of a broader antiracism agenda and appointed its inaugural chief diversity officer, Tara Davila.

Tommy J. Curry, a philosopher of Black manhood, left a tenured position at Texas A&M University in 2019 for the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he holds the Personal Chair in Africana Philosophy and Black Male Studies. Prior to his departure, Curry had received death threats after The American Conservative ran a blog post about years-old statements he made about Black people’s right to bear arms in a podcast interview about Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained.

Curry didn’t think Texas A&M, which initially called his comments “disturbing,” had his back.

“The idea that a Black full professor can be lowered, or their career ruined, because a blogger with a bachelor's degree disagrees with their peer-reviewed work to me is the epitome of anti-Black racism,” Curry said Friday. “That a university chooses to side with a conservative alt-right blogger [over a tenured professor] really does show the kind of vulnerability that Black professors have in the U.S.”

Curry said that “given my record, given the years that I worked for a Ph.D., I deserve better respect. I deserve the kinds of benefits that people in my field with my credentials get. And there's a kind of respect that I think that white professors are afforded in practically every institution, but Black people are still denied.”

Curry also saw that the general climate for Black academics -- and the climate for Black Americans in general -- was becoming even more difficult under the Trump administration. The U.S. has always been a racist country, he said, but the “mask” came off in 2016. Curry considered leaving academe altogether but decided to pursue an opportunity at Edinburgh.

At his institution and in his new country, where there are so few Black people, Curry said, the premise that racism exists is accepted. Academic freedom is highly valued in Europe, as well, he added, and both factors make it easier to pursue his research agenda instead of fighting other kinds of battles.

Curry advised that Black academics consider thinking beyond the U.S. in terms of their career prospects. But he cautioned against overstating Black academics’ options, as the same racism that pushes them out of their institutions also works to limit their prospects elsewhere. He also said that being forced to shift institutions or even careers comes at a cost for Black scholars and their families.

“This has never not been the case,” Curry said of those costs. And “despite the romanticization of civil rights, most of the Black people that actually stood up to white supremacy are either dead or in exile.”

Asked if anything has changed for Black academics since George Floyd's death, Curry said no.

“We’re talking about people getting shot in the street and the U.S. academy has not responded to that … So these other Black female scholars who decided to leave because they were tired of harassment, who could blame them? Right? Because American institutions are filled with the same white people that comprise the majority of American society.”

Allen, in her resignation letter to Memphis, said she struggled with her decision to leave because “this dynamic is part of why systemic racism continues to exist.”

At the same time, she said, “having to fight and speak up against systemic racism is an unfair burden to put on people of color.”

 

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