By Rita Kiki Edozie and Barbara Lewis of UMass Boston
It is now well known to the nation that UMass-Boston’s 2018 chancellor search ended unceremoniously with UMass System President, Martin Meehan attributing the failed search to a select group of UMB faculty members’ public and disqualifying criticism of the three candidates, two of whom were African American.
According to The Boston Globe, “The faculty assert a collective and resolute judgment that none of the final candidates have demonstrated that they are sufficiently qualified to serve as the chancellor of the only public research university in the Greater Boston area and the most diverse four-year public institution in New England…. They do not have the skills, experience, or values to lead the institution.”
All three candidates chose to abort their candidacy, and Meehan moved quickly, naming Dr. Katherine Newman, former Provost of UMass Amherst, and his current Vice President of Academic Affairs at the UMass President’s System as the second interim chancellor in two years. Dr. Newman, a much-published and eminent sociologist whose subject is class status, succeeds the sitting interim chancellor, Barry Mills, retired head of Bowdoin College, In 2017, Martin Meehan, introduced Mills, a lawyer, as deputy chancellor while Dr. Keith Motley, an African American leader, who had engaged in an ambitious building and expansion program, was still in office.
The current climate of contention on campus is far from new. And there are camps of difference. On the matter of whose voice and opinion has serious weight relative to decision-making, Katie Mitrano, the UMass Boston student body president, said she was “disappointed, disgusted, and infuriated by the actions of the faculty” whom she claims did not take into account any student perspective.
But it was the search committee chair, community member and UMass Board of Trustee member, Henry M Thomas, also CEO of the Urban League of Western Massachusetts whose criticism has caused the UMass Boston faculty the greatest pause.
In his statement concerning the failed search, Thomas said some faculty members were misrepresenting candidates' qualifications in a "mean spirited" manner. "We find it particularly appalling that a faculty council representing a majority-minority campus but lacking a single African-American member would visit such disrespect and calumny on one of the country's few African-American sitting college presidents, a top African-American female university leader and an academic administrator from an institution that graduates more African-Americans than any college or university in the country”
In their response to the public criticism that has fallen upon them, in a Chronicle letter four UMass Boston faculty council members criticized Thomas for what they described as his guised accusation of “anti-Black racism” and lack of African American diversity at UMass Boston in their rationale for disqualifying the chancellor candidates.
Nonetheless, to the dismay of some tenured faculty on campus, the faculty letter in the Chronicle did not address the Black/African American diversity question that makes Thomas' statement on the issue - now viral across the country – unchallenged!
Since the 2015 wave of campus protests on large private and public, so called TWI’s (Traditionally White Universities) – University of Missouri at Columbia was exemplar – the dilemma of Black faculty representation is being debated as a core trend in higher education.
Students at the University of Missouri called on administrators to increase the share of black faculty members to 10 percent by 2017-18, roughly mirroring the share of black undergraduates (8 percent). The literature supporting this call suggests that it is valuable to students to be taught by professors who reflect an increasingly diverse student body, and in doing so, the academy itself benefits from a greater range of perspectives.
Demanding 10 Percent: Student protesters on a number of campuses want to see many more black faculty members. But how realistic are some of their goals? Inside Higher Education by Colleen Flaherty, November 30, 2015
One of five University of Massachusetts campuses and bedeviled by its own set of disruptions and severe budgetary crises since the controversial stepping down of the university’s first and only Black chancellor, Dr. Keith Motely, and first and only African Diaspora provost, Jamaica-born Dr. Winston Langley, last summer; UMass Boston’s faculty has attempted to shield itself from these nationwide struggles.
Still, a lack of open, robust dialogue around blackness and diversity and the role each has played and will continue to play in the urban university of the 21st century, cannot be overlooked. Let’s assume good will on both sides. Meehan crafted a search committee with almost forty percent representation (five of its fourteen members). In addition, he enlisted the help of Dr. Freeman Hrabowski. The country’s most accomplished African American university president, Dr. Hrabowski knows the skills that are requisite for insuring excellence at an urban campus. Dr. Hrabowski’s candidate was one of the three that a group of UMB faculty refused to countenance. Perhaps tired of having decisions foisted on it that it had little say in accepting or rejecting, a cadre of faculty moved to make its interests clear.
The UMass Faculty Council, claiming to speak for the entire 700 faculty members at UMass Boston, draws its members from the campus’s eight colleges. However, in AY 20017-18, there are no black faculty sitting and voting in Faculty Council despite a headcount of 33 tenured Black Faculty out of 700 total UMass Boston tenured faculty as per statistics published by UMass Boston’s Office of Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning (OIRAP). The 4.6% percentage of Black Faulty is below many other large public universities, which is about 6%. With about 46-62% (2017-2018) majority-minority student enrollment status; the Black faculty percentage is starkly low.
While the four faculty authors of the public statement that Meehan has referenced as critical in the recently collapsed and failed Chancellor search may not deserve to be characterized as racists, they would, no doubt, see themselves as progressives who care about the problems and crises at UMB. Still, in this context, in deciding and stating publicly that the two Black chancellor candidates were not acceptable but the White candidate could pass muster reflects an insensitivity to the important values of diversity of opportunity and affirmative action, which are progressive values, as well.
A university chancellor serves an array of constituencies including faculty, but it is usually the Provost that is of core importance to the faculty. A chancellor oversees a range of public, private, community, and campus constituencies, inclusive of students, administrators, staff etc. On that basis, it would have been appropriate to hear other voices and opinions. Further, for a faculty that prizes and celebrates its urban community mission; the faculty cohort who has reflexively judged African American candidates with negative, hypercritical, selective and anecdotal information- which was not procedurally representative of most of the faculty at UMB either – could have been more sensitive to the diverse opinions of an often discounted array of constituents.
According to Professor John Johnson, an African-American in the physical sciences at Harvard University, who in 2013, became the first African-American to receive tenure in the physical sciences at the university.
The best plan for increasing the number of black faculty is not convening a new diversity committee or appointing another vice president for diversity, it’s hiring more black presidents, deans and department chairs at TWIs (Traditionally White Institutions).
The extent to which the UMass Boston failed chancellor search missed such an opportunity will need to be a key question for faculty, administrators, and students at the university to reflect upon moving forward.
As an urban institution rooted in the expansive sixties and promoting the democratic principles of shared educational opportunity, recognizing historically overlooked constituencies and opinions is fundamental. Perhaps Dr. Newman, the incoming interim UMB chancellor, who completed her doctorate at California’s public university system and Martin Meehan, who acknowledges that his rise up the legal, economic, and political rungs in Massachusetts began at UMass Lowell, a sister campus to UMass Boston, will chart a new path forward. Previously the Chancellor at UML, Meehan is no stranger to the positive stamp that a public university education can exert on an individual and also on a community level. With the 21st century’s demographic algebra, especially in Boston, which is now a majority-minority city where the nation’s largest percentage of diverse millennials gravitates to shape their futures, seriously investing in the public education quotient in Boston is a win-win.
Rita Kiki Edozie is professor of international relations and associate dean at The McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, and Barbara Lewis is associate professor of English and director of The William Trotter Institute of Black History and Culture. Both are among the 4.6% cohort of Black faculty at UMass Boston.