An applicant for a counseling professor position at Bridgewater State University is suing the institution, saying she was denied a job last year because she’s white.
The university has said that two of the three professors it did hire last year were white, and it’s otherwise challenged aspects of Donna Johnston’s claims. But Johnston, a licensed clinical social worker, says the fact that she was asked to reflect on her own “whiteness” in her interview is evidence of a biased, “racist” process.
According to Johnston’s complaint, filed in Massachusetts Superior Court, Bridgewater State interviewed her in June over Zoom for open instructor/assistant professor positions in the School of Social Work. Judith Willison, then an associate professor of social work at Bridgewater State, allegedly asked Johnston during the approximately 40-minute interview about Johnston’s ability to relate to students of lower socioeconomic status. Johnston says she replied, “I was a welfare mother. I understand poverty up close and personal.”
The topic then turned to race, with Johnston mentioning that she had discovered one of her ancestors was Indigenous, according to the complaint. Willison then allegedly asked, “Regarding your whiteness, I mean, I identify as being white like you do, so how aware are you of your whiteness and your white privilege and how Black students may not be able to relate to you because of your white privilege?”
Johnston doesn’t say in the lawsuit how she answered that question, and she wasn’t immediately available for an interview. Her lawyer, Scott Lathrop, said the bottom line is that Bridgewater State, via Willison, “subjected my client to a level of racial questioning that, had it been directed towards a minority, would have been just openly condemned as being racist.”
Lathrop cited information from Bridgewater State’s website included in the complaint, which describes Willison as committed to targeting “the implications of institutionalized white supremacy.” Willison also has lectured on “recruiting and retaining Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) faculty in schools of social work,” according to the lawsuit.
Regarding Willison’s interests, Lathrop said, “I don’t have an objection to fighting institutionalized racism in our society or in organizations. But individuals should be treated as individuals, regardless of their age, sex, race, religion, whatever—they should be treated the same.” (Lathrop said this is the first time he’s represented a person of nonminority status in an employment-discrimination lawsuit.)
The faculty search committee told Johnston in August that it had “found the qualifications of all finalists for this position to be commendable. However, after careful consideration, we regret to inform you that you were not in the group of applicants selected for further consideration.”
Johnston’s lawsuit says she’s more qualified than the candidates who were ultimately hired and that she was “wrongfully denied this position that she applied for (for which she was fully qualified) because of her race (white/Caucasian).”
Johnston filed a race-discrimination charge against Bridgewater State with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination before withdrawing the charge to pursue a lawsuit against the university. Lathrop said he and Johnston made this decision because the timeline for commission findings was 18 to 24 months even before COVID-19 backlogs, and because the commission—unlike the courts—makes findings decisions behind “closed doors.”
Questioning a ‘Discriminatory Motive’
Bridgewater State declined comment on the lawsuit due to a policy against commenting on legal matters. The commission shared some of Johnston’s case file via an open records request but did not share Bridgewater State’s responses to her charge. The Boston Globe reported that Bridgewater State told the commission that Johnston lacked live classroom experience and failed to present herself as “student focused.”
“Any possibility of discriminatory motive is contradicted by the fact that the university ultimately hired two Caucasians” in addition to one Black woman, the college reportedly told the commission.
Johnston has previously worked as a field instructor for social work students and began working as an adjunct instructor of social work online in 2020, according to her résumé. She has a master of social work degree and owns her own practice.
Bridgewater State said that 73 percent of its students are white.
Willison, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, retired from the university in December.
While Johnston rejects the idea that she should be asked about her whiteness to get a job, discussions about whiteness and privilege are becoming more commonplace on college and university campuses as institutions commit more resources to diversity, equity and inclusion in the name of student success, climate and academic excellence. Some institutions have adopted explicitly antiracist policies and stances.
It’s common, for instance, for search committees to ask candidates for statements about how they’ve contributed to or supported diversity, equity and inclusion in their careers thus far, and how they plan to do so in the future. (Many professors have also studied and lectured on recruiting and retaining diverse faculty members, like Willison did.) So does a line exist between such common practices and what Bridgewater State allegedly asked Johnston? If so, where is that line?
Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said that there’s no comprehensive study of what colleges and universities ask faculty candidates about diversity, equity and inclusion, in part because hiring conversations often happen during closed-door panels. (In addition to being understudied, this landscape is also “fairly unregulated,” Strohl said.)
In any case, Strohl said that the whiteness question allegedly asked of Johnston was leading, poorly worded and unhelpful—but that it is possible to ask job candidates about these competencies in productive ways.
“You’d want to turn it around,” he said of the question. “If I was hiring somebody for a faculty teaching position, I might ask, ‘Do you think that your cultural background enables you to teach to a wide variety of students, including African American students?’ or something like that.”
Christina Berchini, co-editor of Whiteness at the Table: Antiracism, Racism, and Identity in Education, said now that universities are “finally taking stock of student experiences and working meaningfully toward more inclusive educational environments, white candidates should expect questions about their work with nonwhite students.”
This is especially necessary at institutions like Bridgewater State, where both students and faculty members are predominantly white, she added.
Berchini also said that candidates who bristle when asked questions about their capacity to connect with nonwhite students may be “revealing themselves as professionally unprepared for the important work of diversity, equity and inclusion in their classrooms and other educational spaces.”
Johnston is seeking a jury trial and $50,000 in damages.