Contingent Faculty and the Cold Case of Rollo Turner

October 2, 2014

Clarence "Rollo" Turner, in Obituaries section, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 24, 1993. (

Clarence “Rollo” Turner, in Obituaries section, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 24, 1993. (

Two months ago, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign rescinded a job offer they had made to Steven Salaita (then an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech) for a tenured position in American Indian Studies over a bunch of his allegedly anti-Israel tweets. Between mainstream media and social media, the response against this attack on academic freedom and traditional hiring protocols has been tremendous. Thousands of academicians have signed petitions, penned articles and canceled speeches and events at UIUC over Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the Illinois board of trustees’ decision to take back their offer of employment. While the American Association of University Professors, the American Studies Association, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and so many others have argued that Professor Salaita should be in the classroom teaching his courses this fall, this issue is about more than academic freedom and UIUC following job offer guidelines.

The fact is, non-tenure-stream faculty lack the protections and supportive outrage that academia has poured out for those in tenure-track and tenured positions like Professor Salaita. So many contingent faculty lose their jobs over far less than an impolite tweet or an excited utterance. Yet it doesn’t become a story in The New York Times or a petition letter with over 2,000 signatures. No, most contingent faculty, when they lose their jobs, often do so in obscurity, often over doing their jobs with the idea that they were free to teach as they saw fit.

The sadder fact, though, is that this isn’t a new phenomenon at all. Take the case of Clarence Rollo Turner, who passed away twenty-one years ago last month at the age of 50. He was once a veteran senior lecturer in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as my one-time professor for his History of Blacks in Sports course during the spring semester of 1990. I took Turner’s course in my junior year for an easy-A in the midst of taking a bunch of upper-level undergraduate (and one graduate) history courses that semester. Turner’s was a fun course, and he was a knowledgeable professor beyond its contents. Who knew that in three and a half years the politics of academia would cut short the life of a pioneer? It points to the reality that with half of all higher education instructors serving as contingent faculty, academic freedom is an oxymoron and job protections have become secondary to academic politics and fundraising efforts.

Rollo Turner’s Contingent Teaching Story:

If you’ve never heard of Rollo Turner, it’s mostly because he didn’t have the opportunity to turn himself into a household name in or out of academia, even in Pittsburgh. And, of course, because most non-tenured and non-tenure-stream faculty are seldom central figures at their universities or in their fields just because they’re very good instructors. Turner, though, was a founding member of the Black Studies Program-turned-department (now of Africana Studies) at the University of Pittsburgh. The university had hired Turner in the wake of a game-changing sit-in of Black undergraduate and graduate students in their takeover of an entire floor of the university’s central computer systems on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in 1969. It was a protest over the lack of student and faculty diversity at the University of Pittsburgh in general. But it was also a protest to demand a Black Studies program that would represent the research and experiences of Blacks on Blacks on an otherwise lily-White Campus, one engaged exclusively in research that almost always excluded Blacks.

In the process of starting this program, the university hired faculty who had yet to earn their doctorates, in some cases with barely a bachelor’s degree. This was 1969, though, when not having a PhD didn’t automatically disqualify candidates from a full-time academic position. Turner was one of several beneficiaries from this change of climate at the University of Pittsburgh, as he was finishing up a master’s degrees in Sociology at Indiana University when the University of Pittsburgh hired him (Turner, incidentally, had helped lead protests for more Black inclusion and a Black Studies program at Indiana in 1968).

Turner took on a joint appointment with the Department of Sociology and with the new Black Studies Program, teaching courses like the Sociology of the Black Family, Introduction to Black Studies and his History of Blacks in Sports along the way. Although the standard courseload for a full-time faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh was five over two semesters per year, Turner had been on a 2-2 schedule from September 1969 through December 1991. For more than twenty-two years, Turner had only taught four courses per year.

When the then-new department chair Brenda Berrian demanded that Turner take on a third course in January 1992, he refused, citing his twenty-two year history with the Black Studies Department and the last-minute nature of the request as reasons. Berrian then moved to terminate Turner. She and two Pitt police officers arrived in Turner’s classroom on the first Friday of the spring semester and had him removed from his classroom and escorted out of the building. Berrian fired him in the middle of his lecture, in front of a room full of students. This was how The Pitt News first reported the incident, and it was corroborated by everything that Rollo Turner told me a few weeks later.

The Politics of Academia:

But though it was that heavy-handed, it was hardly that simple. Turner had gotten himself caught up in a battle that involved his contingent employment status, degree completion, departmental reputation and petty ideological politics. More than twenty-two years as a non-tenured senior lecturer with only a master’s degree and a few publications that included two book-length bibliographies had caught up with Turner. As a contingent faculty member, even with over two decades put in, Turner lacked the protections afforded tenure-stream and tenured faculty members. Granted, at $37,000 a year and living in Pittsburgh at the time in 1992, Turner was a very well-paid senior lecturer. At least, that’s what many would argue today. This was also Berrian’s position as Turner’s termination turned into a $60,000 lawsuit.

Beyond the issue of compensation, contracts and contingent status was what Berrian and the other tenured faculty of the Department of Black Studies wanted for the department’s future. They wanted to bolster the department’s reputation within and outside the University of Pittsburgh. They wanted to be a full-fledged department in which students could major in Black Studies (students could only earn a minor in the subject until 1993), and perhaps, even offer a master’s degree in the field. Two things stood in the way of this progression. One was the fact that half of the department’s faculty didn’t have doctorates, now a much bigger deal in 1992 than it had ever been in 1969.

Two was that not everyone wanted to go in the ideological direction that Berrian had chosen for the Department of Black Studies. She wanted to move toward an Afrocentric approach in teaching and conducting research, something Turner openly rejected as “nonsense.” The idea of a litmus test for what was and wasn’t authentically “Black” or “African” was too extreme for Turner. As a tenured faculty member, Turner’s objections may well have cost him political clout within the department, but it wouldn’t have cost him his job.

Turner’s Final Months:

Turner sued Berrian and the University of Pittsburgh for wrongful termination – stemming in no small part from a hostile work environment – and breach of contract (his was a three-year contract with a year and a half left on it). The suit dragged on in the Civil Court division of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court well into 1993 as Turner – with two daughters in college and a son in the middle of high school – went over a year and a half without a paycheck. As late as August 1993, the month before he died, Turner told me that things on the lawsuit front had taken a turn for the better. Despite the stress of the situation, he hadn’t let Berrian or the University of Pittsburgh “steal his inner peace,” Turner said.

Yet even with years of Buddhism and meditation under his belt and a lifestyle that included biking through all parts of Pittsburgh, Turner died in late-September 1993. No doubt that between the stress of his lawsuit, the sense of betrayal, and the financial upheaval, it all caught up with him. Rollo Turner may well have become a mentor of mine because of the stand that he took, minus the strength of a union or support from a substantial number of tenured faculty. None of this was possible in the end. Precisely because contingent faculty seldom have rights that tenured faculty and university administrators are bound to respect.

Lessons, If Any:

There are so many lessons to be learned here, lessons that resonate with me more now as an adjunct professor than they did when I was a graduate student or when I worked in the nonprofit world. Contingent faculty shouldn’t rock the boat, take a controversial stance, or involve themselves in hot-button issues within their field or department. Or that anyone serving as non-tenured faculty without a doctorate should endeavor to write their dissertation at break-neck speed. Or really, if given the choice, why would anyone who could possibly do anything else with their lives in academia, especially anything that could provide more security and protection, choose a job as a contingent faculty member, whether in 1992 or 2014?

Mostly, it points to the reality that university leaders tend to see much of the talent in academia – non-tenured faculty among others – as expendable. That, and the fact that this expendability has grown with the rapid increase in contingent faculty (and graduate students, for that matter) teaching courses once reserved for tenure and tenure-stream instructors. Until contingent faculty, graduate student teaching assistants and tenured/tenure-stream professors unionize and take a collective stand on working conditions and job protections, cases like Turner’s will continue to go cold and remain tragic ones, with no end in sight.

On Tolerance and Not Wearing My Kufi Anymore

September 6, 2014

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) quote on superiority and tolerance, September 6, 2014. (

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) quote on superiority and tolerance, September 6, 2014. (

Today’s date marks three decades since I decided to stop wearing my kufi in public, my first day of tenth grade at Mount Vernon High School (NY). It also marked my coming-out party (so to speak) as a Christian and a day of defiance toward both my Mom and my idiot stepfather Maurice Washington (now deceased), all of which is well-documented here and in Boy @ The Window.

What I haven’t spent much time or space writing about was how my one-time classmates received me in terms of my kufi or the Hebrew-Israelite religion during the three years between the start of seventh grade in ’81 and the end of ninth grade in June ’84. Sure, I’ve talked about Alex and the “Italian Club,” kufi battles and other incidents involving my classmates in which bullying or attempts at bullying occurred. How much were these incidents about me, about me being poor and Black, about me being weird and Black, about me and my kufi? It wasn’t always clear.

What was clear was that the vast majority of my classmates, though they may have given me weird looks or quietly snickered, said nothing to me one way or the other about my kufi or my religion. But on that first day of tenth grade, the day I stopped wearing my kufi, my classmates were hardly silent at all.

Screen shot 2014-09-06 at 1.14.44 PM

I wondered most of all about my Jewish classmates, at least the ones who actually practiced Judaism. With Josh as the one exception, they to a person never said a word or asked a single question about my religion or my kufi. This despite the fact that fundamentally, I was an Orthodox Jew between ’81 and ’84. I didn’t get an answer while I was in Humanities or at MVHS. Years later, I interviewed one of my former classmates, whose father was a rabbi at one of the largest synagogues in Westchester County. I asked him about the silence. “I thought nothing of it,” he said, as he’d been “taught to respect other people’s beliefs.”

On some level, I could accept this answer at face value. But even at the moment of the interview, I didn’t find this former classmate’s answer enlightened or satisfying at all. His answer on the surface demonstrates the very definition of tolerance. Yet tolerance through silence is the absolute minimal definition of respect for differences. Tolerance is hardly the same as accepting or embracing differences, defined by taking active steps to understand and empathize with different peoples and cultures. Not to mention taking the extra step of working to protect those people and their differences from the intolerant.

Standing ovation, opera house unknown, May 21, 2012.(

Standing ovation, opera house unknown, May 21, 2012.(

I knew on some level even in ’84 that many if not most of my Jewish classmates had remained silent because the idea of Blacks as Jews in terms of religion or genetics was barely in their consciousness. It’s still hard for many Jews I’ve known over the years to accept now, even with a population of Ethiopian and other East African Jews living and working in Israel. It’s difficult to embrace the mosaic that is the Jewish diaspora, even with evidence pointing to communities made up of the descendants of some of the so-called Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel living in southern Africa and northern India (as documented by the Discovery Channel in documentaries over the past fifteen years). Me as a kufi and yarmulke-wearing Black teenager practicing Judaism had to be weird and beyond the pale for those classmates.

The way the rest of my classmates reacted to the end of my Shalom-Aleichem-days was also an example of minimal tolerance, or really, intolerance. In six years of Humanities, I’d never gotten that many of my classmates to pay attention to me for longer than an answer to a history question unless it was for ridicule or for a presentation or an award. The fact that at least two dozen had something positive to say about my lack of a kufi, or upon further inquiry, my turn to the Christian side, told me all I needed to know about my status with my classmates for the previous three years.

I’m hardly excluding myself from this notion of intolerance. My view of myself as a Christian in those first months after I converted was one that set me apart from Catholics, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Nation of Islam and Jews alike. I didn’t necessarily think or say things about these different religions or the classmates who practiced them. I just ignored those differences while giving every appearance that my nondenominational view of Christianity, my Bible-quoting and toting self, was the only lens through which anyone should view themselves and the world around them. It would be another year before I recognized my own childishness regarding my views of spirituality, religion and tolerance.

What Can Brown Do For You (Now)?: 60 Years Come & Gone

May 16, 2014

What can brown do for you?, Brown Squadron,  Relay for Life, 2007. (

What can brown do for you?, Brown Squadron, Relay for Life, 2007. (

Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of the great Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision (1954), a Monday that lived in infamy among White supremacists in the South for decades, as the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional basis for Jim Crow segregation by a 9-0 vote. But six decades later, the Brown decision is in a coma and on life support, with a DNR order hanging over it, waiting for a close relative to sign. This after the Supreme Court ruled in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (2014) last month that states like Michigan can amend their constitutions via majority vote to ban affirmative action. With this 6-2 decision, the Roberts court effectively ended any serious efforts at racial inclusion and diversity in public institutions, especially public K-16 education.

While deliberate exclusion of people of color, women and other minorities from America’s public institutions remains unconstitutional (and illegal, by the way — see the Civil Rights Act of 1964), this last court decision has now made it possible for public institutions to refrain from making any effort to include anyone other than White males in admissions and hiring policies. Yet there has been a long road to travel for us to reach this point, as it has taken lobbyists, law makers and lawyers roughly forty years to wound, disable and incapacitate Brown.

Bill Schuette, (Michigan’s attorney general), with Jennifer Gratz (of Gratz v. Bollinger decision [2003] and the XIV Foundation, outside Supreme Court, Washington, DC October 2013. (Susan Walsh/AP via New York Times).

Bill Schuette, (Michigan’s attorney general), with Jennifer Gratz (of Gratz v. Bollinger decision [2003] and the XIV Foundation), outside Supreme Court, Washington, DC October 2013. (Susan Walsh/AP via New York Times).

If one were old enough to remember the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg decision (1971) — the one where the Supreme Court upheld widespread busing as a methodology for public school integration — it would have seemed that the matter was settled, at least legally. After all, in the seventeen years between Brown and Swann, the court had consistently ruled in favor of policies that made racial integration the centerpiece of a strategy to bring equal opportunity to America’s public institutions. And especially during President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s administration and with Congress, between the Civil Rights Act (now weeks away from turning fifty), the Voting Rights Act (1965), the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) and the Higher Education Act (1965), it seemed that segregation was itself about to be dead and buried.

Well, segregation — and the structural and institutional racism that supports it — is alive, as much as the evil undead can be alive and unwell. And the forces and people who never wanted desegregation — or worse, integration — in the first place have worked my entire lifetime for this moment. They simply took the NAACP’s legal strategy to end Plessy with Brown, just so they could strangle it while sleeping, right through the Supreme Court. Including the:

Milliken v. Bradley decision (1974). Limited desegregation efforts in Detroit to its city limits, making it possible for suburban areas to refuse to partake in school desegregation efforts across the country.

Bakke v. University of California at Davis decision (1978). Racial quotas for seats at colleges via admission policies found unconstitutional – race can be accounted for as part of admissions decisions, but no actual numbers should be involved.

– Missouri v. Jenkins decision (1995). Forcing the Kansas City school district to spend $200 million per year since 1990 (after 13 years of court battles) for magnet schools and busing was too much (beyond court’s remedial authority) — and forced the lower court to accept a less expensive (and less effective) desegregation plan.

– Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger decisions (2003). The split decisions upheld race as one of a plethora of criteria public higher education institutions like the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Michigan (undergraduate division) could use in their admission process, as racial diversity and equity remained a laudable goal. But the court ruled that ranking race and other factors with a numbers system was the equivalent of a quota system, making this formula — but not the policy — unconstitutional.

Flatlining EKG, March 2010. (

Flatlining EKG, March 2010. (

Now Brown is truly hanging by a thread, and with it, the ideal of racial equality and equality of opportunity for visible minorities. I don’t want to hear about  the Texas state system’s socioeconomic admissions policies or Richard Kahlenberg’s tired argument about getting at racial diversity through the economic. Most poor students can’t afford even public institutions like the University of Texas at Austin, and Kahlenberg’s center-right argument disguises the issue of racial and economic inequality in K-12 public education.

Let’s face it while we’re still fighting — and yes, we need to keep fighting on this front. On this issue, the folks on the side of colorblind racism and segregation have all but won. Brown may well remain the most important Supreme Court decision in the history of the US. With the Schuette decision, though, we might as well find a priest to administer last rites.

Why Students Need Teachers Who Look Like Them

October 24, 2013

Wendy Kopp and Diane Ravitch head-to-head, Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, CO, June 28, 2011. (

Wendy Kopp and Diane Ravitch head-to-head, Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, CO, June 28, 2011. (

Not exactly the most precise title I’ve ever written. But it does get to a sensitive point for many involved in education and so-called  reform. Between Wendy Kopp and Diane Ravitch — especially since the publication of Ravitch’s latest and most comprehensive salvo Reign of Error a couple of months ago — it’s been hard for anyone to get a word on K-12 education into the national dialogue. Kopp’s running around ringing the educational Armageddon bell, while Ravitch has all but revealed the likes of Kopp, Michelle Rhee and Dr. Steve Perry as money-hungry reformers who wouldn’t know reform if it bit them in their derrieres.

The debate over high-stakes testing and anti-union teacher effectiveness models has put aside so many other conversations on improving K-12 education. So many that the average person may think that test scores and teacher training are the only issues on the table for reform, whether from the perspective of false prophets like Kopp or actual experts like Ravitch. For me, the one effort that has been neglected over the past decade and a half has been one to diversify the teaching profession, on the basis of race, gender and even levels of expertise.

It’s taken my son’s five-plus years of education in Montgomery County Public Schools to fully appreciate how unique my own time in an integrated school setting in Mount Vernon, New York truly was. From first through sixth grade, at Nathan Hale and William H. Holmes Elementary Schools, four of my six teachers were African American. But it wasn’t just that they were Black. The one thing that Ms. Griffin, Mrs. Shannon, Mrs. O’Daniel and Mrs. Bryant all had in common was their high expectations of me and my classmates. They were kind, but also no-nonsense teachers. They gave me a hug when I needed one, and a slap on the butt (in O’Daniel’s case, nearly literally) when I needed it to.  By the way, they frequently made school fun, too.

No reflection of self in the mirror, October 24, 2013. (

No reflection of self in the mirror, October 24, 2013. (

They also dared to venture beyond the state-mandated curriculum to infuse it with materials about everything from Black history to the Maya, from reading our standard textbooks to encouraging us to discuss the Camp David accords (Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat and President Jimmy Carter) and the Iran hostage crisis. Mostly, I learned more about what I’d face from the world in terms of race, gender and class from these teachers than from all the rest of my teachers combined (other than Harold Meltzer).

I would’ve liked some more male teachers of color, particularly once I became part of Humanities at A.B. Davis Middle School in seventh grade. In fact, between Dr. Larry Spruill and Dr. Hosea Zollicoffer, there were really the only Black male teachers/administrators I had between end of sixth grade and my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh, a span of almost nine years. As it was, administrators and teachers like my seventh grade math teacher Ms. Simmons, along with Brenda  Smith, Spruill and thehandful of other I encountered often looked at me as if I was the cursed Son of Ham, or, rather, some weird version of whom they considered Black. At least, respectable and Black. Still, they served as reminders that not all teachers were White and female, if only that. (But, I digress…)

Now, I know what some of you may say. It shouldn’t matter what the race of the teacher or administrator is, as long as they care about the students. That The New Teacher Project (founded by Rhee) and Teach for America (founded by Kopp) provide alternative opportunities for professionals of color to enter the teaching profession. No they don’t. Not really. They provide an elitist version of Peace Corps for impoverished urban and rural school districts for folks who often do not stay in teaching for the long-term (beyond four or five years), to then move on to graduate school, law school or Wall Street.

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (

My teachers to a person remained teachers until they received promotions, retired or passed away. But they could stay teachers (and later become administrators) because they weren’t trying to reform education. They saw themselves as part of a larger community, helping to nurture children, not just educate them. They had the autonomy and parental support necessary to do so. And they didn’t have an atmosphere where they lived in fear of their jobs in case the students’ SRA scores dropped between 1979 and 1980 or between 1980 and 1981.

Despite my experiences and the experiences of my generation of students, the money grubbers of K-12 education reform will continue to insist that public education is at Def Con 1, and that we should launch our proverbial nukes in a pre-emptive strike to reform it. The sad truth is, in places like Texas and Philly and Chicago, their warheads have already gone off, irradiating school districts, poor students and students of color alike. And all without dealing with issues involving poverty and diversity in the process.

James and the PAGPSA

November 29, 2012

James and the Giant Peach photo art (1996), November 29, 2012. (

About this time twenty years ago, perhaps for the first time in my life, I found myself around like-minded individuals, folks who seemed to understand me on an intellectual level. The fact that these were fellow graduate students, all at Pitt and all willing to form an association that would enable us to develop real connections across the campus, was inspiring to me. After four years of off-and-on involvement in the Black Action Society, not to mention my first year in the History grad program, I’d almost given up on the idea that I could form good friendships and acquaintance-ships through any formal gatherings.

But this was especially true regarding my thinking about my fellow Black students and other students of color. For the most part, I’d been around two kinds of students of color during my first five years at the University of Pittsburgh. One group was the semi-nerdy set, folks who cared deeply about their academic performance, but were also late-bloomers socially — people like me in more than a few ways. They tended to care little, though, about campus activism around diversity, retention or campus climate issues.

The other group was the Afrocentric set, people who often reminded me of my one-time Hebrew-Israelite brethren, whose views of Blackness were so limiting that I would’ve been a traitor just for listening to Chicago or Phil Collins. Those folks had virtually taken over the Black Action Society by my senior year. Forget mentioning popular folks, like sorors, frat guys, football, basketball and track guys and gals, or those fully invested in Pitt’s Honors College. I mingled with them all, and found little in common with them, intellectually or economically.

Me with Mark James, PAGPSA meeting, GSPH building, University of Pittsburgh, February 26, 1993 (Lois Nembhard).

That changed a bit my first year of grad school. Often in my walking and running across campus, I’d bump into a Black grad student here or there. At Hillman Library, the Cathedral of Learning, William Pitt Union, the SLIS building or other places. We’d recognize each other, we said hello, we even exchanged our names. Two of them in particular — Ed and Hayley — reached out to me at the end of the Spring ’92 semester, because they wanted to put together an organization that would represent our interests as grad students of color.

In mid-August, the emails began to go back and forth in earnest to establish what we’d end up calling the Pan African Graduate and Professional Student Association (PAGPSA) that fall. Through Jack Daniel’s office (see my post “The Miracle of Dr. Jack Daniel” from May ’11), we obtained the start-up funds necessary to make the new association go.

At our founding meeting that September, there were eight of us, all highly motivated to be as inclusive as possible, all feeling suddenly less isolated than we had felt a week, month or semester earlier. We decided on the “Pan African” part of the association’s name because we wanted to welcome as many graduate students of color as possible, particularly African and Afro-Caribbean students. The terms “Black” and “African American,” we agreed, wouldn’t be inclusive enough.

We also decided that despite the political implications of our new name, that this association would primarily be about bringing students together for social gatherings, for additional information and education beyond their course work and dissertations, but not to be campus activists. So many of the Black, African and Afro-Caribbean grad students at Pitt were in fact working on master’s or other professional degrees, and wouldn’t be on campus long enough to make lasting changes through activism, strictly speaking. Plus, there was the risk that activism would be so all-consuming — especially on issues like campus climate, long-term support for research and retention rates — that folks would fail to complete the work they came to Pitt to do in the first place.

CMU-Pitt mug, from joint PAGPSA/BGSO meeting on diversity and grad school, October 1992, November 29, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

By the time that first meeting broke up, I was content to have met folks like Mark, Hayley, Lois, Errol, Ed, and a couple of others, to find us all on the same page about something as serious as starting a new association of a significant cross-section of Pitt’s graduate students of color. But in the process, I’d made a new friend that fall through our meetings and our joint gatherings with Carnegie Mellon’s Black Graduate Student Organization (BGSO).

James came along and challenged PAGPSA in October and November regarding our campus activism stance, arguing that being a part of any organization of students of color meant being active. Of course the leadership disagreed, but that’s how I met the man. He was a charismatic Black Iowan preacher’s son, and more politically active than anyone I’d known under the age of thirty. James had ideas about everything, from the future of hip-hop to the implications of my research on multiculturalism and Black Washington, DC.

Though he was a GSPIA (Graduate School of Public and International Affairs) master’s student and ultimately finished his degree in ’94, we would remain friends through the rest of the ’90s. Between him and Matt (see my post “My Friend Matt” from September) and PAGPSA, I remained grounded even as I became buried in the minutia of US, African American and educational policy historiography over the next half-decade. Thankfully, I no longer felt like a lone wolf. Thankfully, I knew that I wasn’t alone in a sea of graduate school and faculty White maleness after that fall.


June 10, 2012

“Murder of Cain by Abel,” Ghent Altarpiece painting (1432), Jan van Eyck, January 6, 2007. (Paunaro via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I’ve written about the infamous Estelle Abel in my blog on this date (or at least, this time of year) for each of the previous five years (see “My Last Day,” “The Last Class,” “AP Exam Blues,” “Honors Coronation,” and “Twenty Years in a Week” for the full scoop). She was the chair of Mount Vernon High School’s Science Department while I was a student there, and remain so for years afterward.

As anyone should be able to tell from my previous posts on Abel, I have a bit of an ax to grind. More like a samurai sword, actually. The woman and her ten or fifteen minutes of berating me as both a student and as an un-Black young adult Black male ruined my last day of high school. Forgive me, then, for not being completely objective when it comes to the subject of Estelle Abel and her methods of teaching, motivation, and guidance on issues of academic achievement and race.

Though I’ve also forgiven her, I’m not God, and with my memory, I can hardly forget. But if there had been any chance at forgetting, I lost that opportunity in a conversation I had with my late AP US History teacher Harold Meltzer back in the ’89-’90 school year. Estelle Abel came up as a topic because of something that had occurred with one of his AP students. Apparently, this particular student, a female basketball player, had made the decision to apply to some predominantly White institutions, and had left HBCUs off her application plate. And apparently, Abel had gone after this student for doing so, all but calling her a traitor to her race by taking the route that a majority of traditional African American students have been taking since the ’70s.

Two Oreo Cookies, February 7, 2011. (Evan-Amos via Wikipedia). In public domain.

In all, it took Meltzer about twenty minutes to tell what would’ve been a five or seven-minute-story for the long-winded. That’s how much he could meander in the forests of his stories sometimes. Then I told Meltzer my Estelle Abel story from my last day of school. It sparked a conversation that I wasn’t quite prepared to have. One not only about Estelle Abel, but about the African American faculty at Mount Vernon High School in general.

For most of the rest of the conversation, Meltzer was in full gossip mode, telling me things about individual teachers that I shouldn’t have known, and mostly have forgotten, thankfully. But I did say to him early on in this part of the conversation that I really didn’t know much about the Black teachers at MVHS. The reason was simple. I didn’t have a single Black teacher as my teacher in four years of high school. Humanities classes — particularly the Level 0 and Level 1 classes — had few, if any, Black teachers, much less any teachers of color.

I didn’t say that exactly, but it was the essence of what I said and thought about while Meltzer yammered on about the disunity among MVHS teachers. To think that from Ms. Simmons’ math class in seventh grade at A.B. Davis Middle School until my history and Black Studies classes my junior year at Pitt, I’d gone without a single African American teacher or professor. I knew that some of the blame fell squarely on the shoulders of my guidance counselor Sylvia Fasulo, Humanities coordinators, MVHS’ leadership and the Italian Civic Association.

But how much of this was my fault, being so myopically focused on grades, college and getting away from 616 and Mount Vernon, I didn’t know. After all, I learned in the middle of my senior year that Dr. Spruill taught a Black history class, that there had been efforts to bring in more Black teachers and other teachers of color at Mount Vernon High School dating back at least four years.

Uncle Ruckus screenshot, from Aaron McGruder’s animated TV series The Boondocks, July 4, 2011. (Grapesoda22 via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of picture’s low resolution.

Still, none of that really mattered to me that year. I had already and unsuccessfully attempted to thread the needle between a cushy senior year and a year that prepared me for the rigors of college. Anything else, whether it was Black history, a trip to West Africa or a visit to some HBCU campuses, was hardly on my radar.

Whatever my lack of focus could be construed as in ’86-’87, it wasn’t because I wasn’t Black enough, or ashamed of being Black, as folks like Estelle Abel implied or accused me of in their thoughts and words, and with their eyeballs that year. Sure, I was weird, and readily admit to being weird, aloof, and emotionless in my MVHS days. But given the hell that I lived with at home and in that community in my last years in Mount Vernon, weirdness and a focus on getting out through college should’ve been applauded, or at least tolerated, without teachers like Abel staring at me as if I was demon-possessed.

That it wasn’t tolerated was the real shame. It took me years to get over it, that uncomfortability of being judged by other Blacks as too smart, too weird, too un-Black in their eyes for my own good.

Diversity Isn’t As Simple As Reaching Out To HBCUs

April 25, 2012

Founders Library, Howard University, Washington, DC, April 9, 2006. (David Monack via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

There were many things that made me want to holler during my graduate school days two decades ago. One of them was constantly hearing that there were no students or faculty of color to be found because no one Black or Brown was qualified, or “in the pipeline,” or interested in this field or that field. I’d hear this at meetings on Pitt’s campus, at meetings on Carnegie Mellon’s campus, at conferences like the American Education Research Association’s annual meeting, at other academic conferences and settings.

Thank goodness those days are over. Now most of us realize there’s a few folks Black and Latino to find in almost every career option. But a new excuse for lack of diversity in higher education and on the job front has come up in meetings, at conferences, and in conversations, at least in terms of solutions. In job interviews, at local meetings regarding Montgomery County Public Schools, at Center for American Progress conferences on K-12 reform, at my previous jobs with the Academy for Educational Development and in other settings. The way to solve the diversity problem seems to come down to one prescriptive. “We need to reach out to HBCUs.”

So, it all comes down to the 110 or so Historically Black Colleges and Universities to solve the lack of diversity problem facing K-12 education, higher education, STEM careers, social justice nonprofits, public service, civic education, journalism, international development and foreign service, among other sectors? Really? Statistics over the past twenty years have shown that about twenty percent of all African American undergraduate students attend HBCUs. Statistics also show that about eleven percent of all Blacks who complete a four-year degree do so at a HBCU. According to the latest data from the US Department of Education (in conjunction with the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities), nearly 30,000 Blacks graduated with either a two-year or four-year degree from an HBCU in 2011.

The interesting thing about this initiative is that it has existed in some form or another since President Jimmy Carter signed the original executive order creating it in 1980, with every president contributing to it or strengthening it since then. This White House initiative has always been about helping HBCUs build their capacities for admitting, enrolling and graduating more African American students. Yet there’s a huge snag around the capacity of HBCUs to meet the goal to bring the number of undergraduate degrees produced on par with the overall 2020 goal of making the US the number one producer of college graduates again. It would mean that HBCUs would be responsible for graduating 166,713 students a year by 2020.

Besides the reality that this is a near-impossible goal for most HBCUs– most lack the resources necessary

Old New York City Subway token, phased out (like notion of token Black ought to be), May 30, 2005. (Jessamyn West via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

to admit and enroll so many students — there’s a couple of trends being ignored by the worlds of work and academia. HBCUs aren’t some untapped resource that folks at predominantly White institutions and in various fields suddenly discovered in the late-1990s and the ’00s. HBCU graduates have been working in all of these fields that have lacked diversity in terms of demographics and ideas for years.

With only eleven percent of all Black graduates, few, if any, fields will benefit from the one-shot solution they hope HBCUs will provide. Unless the goal of a school district, a social justice organization or a business is only to hire one, a ’70s-era goal in the 2010s that’s hardly worth a sentence of my time.

The other trend is the overall trend of the kinds of higher institutions African Americans attend. About half of all Black undergraduates — traditional students, adult learners and first-generation students — enroll at two-year schools, community colleges and for-profit institutions (the last a black hole if one’s expecting students to actually graduate). Which means that about thirty percent of all African American students — about 600,000 in all — attend predominantly White four-year institutions.

It’s not as if folks in leading positions propose that to increase the number of Latinos in certain fields, the answer would somehow lie in the couple of dozen Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), right? Or that to bring more women into the STEM fields, that a singular strategy would involve outreach to Sarah Lawrence, Spelman, Bryn Mawr, and Vassar? At least one would hope not.

It seems that a multi-pronged approach to addressing diversity issues for a school district, a technical field, the nonprofit sector or academia needs to be in order. One that starts much earlier, like in elementary school. One that doesn’t treat Black students at predominantly White institutions as a foregone conclusion, and HBCUs as a panacea.

But somehow, I’ll find myself at another meeting in the near future, hearing from some leader or official about their efforts to address diversity by contacting HBCUs as their one and only solution. A conversation that I find myself dreading more and more.


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