Why Boston U Isn’t For Me, and Shouldn’t Be For You

April 26, 2015

The main classroom buildings for the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, with the BU East 'T' stop in the foreground, July 18, 2010. (Fletcher6 via Wikipedia). Released to the public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

The main classroom buildings for the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, with the BU East ‘T’ stop in the foreground, July 18, 2010. (Fletcher6 via Wikipedia). Released to the public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Since my first job working for my father in Manhattan in ’84, I’ve probably done over 200 interviews. By telephone, through Skype or WebEx or Adobe Connect, at conferences and in person. Probably about a third of those interviews have occurred with colleges and universities, for academic and administrator-level positions. For the most part, whether the interviews went well or when I didn’t have my “A-game,” my experiences have been pleasant ones. But, after two different interview processes five years apart with Boston University — one in October ’10, the other last month — there is a higher education institution that I will not work for, will not send my son, and will not recommend for anyone I know, under nearly any circumstances.

There are only a few institutions that have been so bad that they’ve moved from my [expletive] list to my permanently-banned-from-my-life list. Even Carnegie Mellon isn’t on the latter list, and I’ve talked about their conservatism and weirdness around diversity before here. But Boston University’s treatment of me as a potential employee, well, it took my breath away without putting me in an NYPD chokehold.

Round 1, Boston University, August-October 2010

Let me rephrase. I was never a “potential employee,” because on the two occasions I interviewed for jobs there, Boston University in the end treated me as a checkmark interviewee. In the fall of ’10, I emerged for them as a candidate for the director of their Washington, DC program. They interviewed me three times: at the American Political Science Association conference in DC in August, at their old DC program headquarters (while also showing me their new one, still under construction) in September, and in person on the main Boston University campus in late October.

For that last interview, they pulled out all the stops. They flew me in, put me up in a nearby hotel the night before, and even took me to lunch. Of course, they also had someone give me a two-hour guided tour of the campus that morning, after one morning meeting, on a day with thirty mile-per-hour winds coming off the Charles River as we walked from one end of the campus to the other. It’s funny. Up until then, I never thought of a campus tour as sinister. But then I realized, if I’m spending two hours during the heart of the workday doing a campus tour with a twenty-four year-old BU grad in forty-five degree weather, what did that mean for my real chances at that job?

My final meeting was with a professor who advised political science and history major in the DC program. That meeting ended at 5 pm on October 22, with which I knew that they were supposed to make a final decision in a week or so. Despite a thank-you email and two follow-up emails, I didn’t hear from Boston University again until November 29. Roberta Turri Vise, the point person for my interview process, didn’t explain why the final decision took more than five weeks. Nor did she explain why after six weeks of correspondence, no response from my requests were returned by her or anyone else in her office.

Round 2, Boston University, January-March 2015

I decided that this was a one-off thing, that with our generation of job searches occurring in a buyer’s market, that some folks really don’t care about being professionals in their dealing with interviewees. Boy was I wrong! Even in a market where people ignore applicant materials and send mass rejection emails without a candidate’s name on it (or worse, with someone else’s name), Boston University claimed a unique crown.

Hierarchy tree of Boston University's leadership team via the Provost's Office, April 26, 2015. (http://www.bu.edu/info/about/admin/).

Hierarchy tree of Boston University’s leadership team via the Provost’s Office, April 26, 2015. (http://www.bu.edu/info/about/admin/).

I interviewed with them again in January and at the beginning of March. This was for a position in their provost’s office, a director position managing undergraduate and graduate fellowship opportunities and advising students via those opportunities. The position was a bit beneath my experience, but they seemed interested, and I already knew from some initial research that it was a new position, so I went ahead and applied for it. My first interview was by telephone, with Suzanne Kennedy, the assistant provost for academic affairs at Boston University. It was a pleasant but underwhelming interview, and I actually didn’t expect a call back. So I kept up with my usual work of teaching, consulting, and looking for more consulting opportunities.

I received an email five weeks later asking me to come up to Boston for a second, in-person interview. I gave it the go-ahead, although the length of time between first interview and correspondence concerned me. So too, did my back and forth with Kennedy’s assistant over travel, as she had initially booked me at times that were very inconvenient for interviewing purposes. Not to mention, the major snow issues that Boston experienced in February.

The interview on March 4 was honestly one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had interviewing for any job. I’m including an interview in which I discovered the place was a sweatshop in Chinatown, during my summer of unemployment in New York in ’88. I had three meetings in all, one over lunch with Kennedy, and two with the two associate provosts at Boston University in academic affairs (one undergraduate, one graduate). Over lunch, the conversation was going well, until I asked the question about the level of diversity with applicant pools for Fulbrights, Trumans, Borens, and Rhodes’ scholarships and fellowships. I kid you not, Kennedy’s eyes literally glazed over as soon as I asked about diversity. Keep in mind, I had asked about socioeconomic diversity — I hadn’t touched racial or gender diversity yet. After lunch, I didn’t see Kennedy again for the rest of the interview process.

My second sign came from my third meeting. I met with Timothy Barbari, associate provost for graduate affairs. It was obvious that Barbari hadn’t even looked at my CV before I walked into his office. The first thing Barbari says to me, with him pushing his body into the back of his chair so far that his attempt to be at ease looked more like a rocket revving to take off — “so, you have a rather interesting CV.” I may not have earned all of my money as an academician, but I’ve been around academic-speak long enough to know that interesting can mean a lot of different things, mostly bad. In this context, interesting meant “not straightforward, not linear in progression, not typical in terms of whom we typically hire.”

I was already feeling a bit like a checkmark or token interviewee by the time I left Barbari’s office for Logan. But after USAirways canceled all their flights to DC that evening due to a snowstorm that wouldn’t drop a snowflake for another twelve hours, it got worse. I notified Kennedy through her assistant that I was stuck in Boston overnight from Logan, and left a message the next morning that the Amtrak to DC was my only option, as more flights had been canceled. No word, not even a “I’m sorry that you have to go through this” response. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that Friday, nearly a day after I returned to DC, and after a third message about them needing to reimburse me, that I heard from Kennedy’s assistant.

At that point, I wouldn’t have taken the job even if they had offered it to me. As it was, I didn’t hear from Kennedy again until April 7, five weeks after a second interview, and despite a check-in to find out what happened with this director position. It’s this kind of calloused approach that leaves folks shaking their head.

Shaking Off The Dirt

I’ve made a few determinations based on these experiences. For one, if this is the way that treat job candidates who look like me, how well do they pay and treat their service staff, the most vulnerable people on their campus? Not well, at least from what I saw and have experienced. For two, the fact that for both interviews, their top concern seemed to be about competing with “schools across the Charles River” — i.e., Harvard, MIT, Tufts — was somewhere between disconcerting and ridiculous.

An elephant shaking off the dirt, circa 2012. JD Rucker via Pinterest.com).

An elephant shaking off the dirt, circa 2012. (JD Rucker via Pinterest.com).

The fact that with tuition, books, and room and board it would run the average BU student $60,000 per year also told me what I needed to know. Boston University is a place that wants elite status and elite students, and in pursuit of this Pollyanna goal, wants to hire people they feel fit the bill. As long as those people look like everyone else running the university — mostly White, with a few people of color lightly sprinkled in leading positions at the institution. Because Boston University has what activist Linda Sarsour (Twitter, @lsarsour) calls cosmetic diversity, a genuine attempt at diversity across socioeconomic, racial and gender lines is unnecessary, at least for the powers whom run the institution.

Aside from Martin Luther King, Jr., who earned his doctorate in divinity at Boston University in the early 1950s, I’ve known or known of only one person of color with a degree from BU. She was a neighbor at 616 East Lincoln, a few years younger. Based on her description of more than two decades ago, I’d have to say that Boston University has changed for the worst. Like most universities, they seem more interested in prestige and raising money than in fulfilling their mission.

And with that being the case, why send your kid to Boston University? Especially when, for the same amount of money or less, every other school in the Boston area is either better, or at least, cares more about diversity and learning beyond the cosmetic.


Merit-hypocrisy in the Air

April 18, 2015

Meritocracy cartoon, October 29, 2010 (Josh C. Lyman via http://www.clibsy.com/).

Meritocracy cartoon, October 29, 2010 (Josh C. Lyman via http://www.clibsy.com/).

One of the hardest ideals for me to give up on in all of my life has been the idea of meritocracy. Even when I couldn’t spell the word, much less define it or use it in a sentence, I believed in this ideal. It was the driving force behind my educational progression from the middle of fourth grade in January ’79 until I finished my doctorate in May ’97. The meritocratic ideal even guided me in my career, in both academic and in the nonprofit world. Only to realize by the end of ’09 what I suspected, but ignored, for many years. My ideal of a meritocracy is shared by only a precious few, and the rest give lip service to it before wiping it off their mouths, concealing their split lips and forked tongue with nepotism instead.

Being the historian I am — whom people like Jelani Cobb joked about on Twitter as a curse — I am programmed to look back at situations in my own life to look for root causes, to understand what I can do to not repeat my own mistakes, my not-so-well-planned decisions. I’ve thought about my advisor Joe Trotter and my dissertation committee of Trotter, Dan Resnick (husband of education researcher Lauren Resnick) and Bruce Anthony Jones. The biggest mistake I made was in putting this hodgepodge committee of a HNIC advisor, racial determinist and closeted wanderer together to help guide me through my dissertation and then into my first postdoctoral job.

Aaron Eckhart as main character in movie I, Frankenstein (2014), August 12, 2013. (http://sciencefiction.com/).

Aaron Eckhart as main character in movie I, Frankenstein (2014), August 12, 2013. (http://sciencefiction.com/).

Of course, I didn’t know enough about these men to describe them this way, certainly not until I’d graduated and couldn’t find full-time work for more than two years. The signs, though, were there. Trotter’s unwillingness to recommend me for any job before my completed first draft of my dissertation was really complete (it took me two weeks to revise my dissertation from first to final draft). Resnick calling my dissertation writing “journalistic” and saying that my nearly 2,000 endnotes and thirty pages of sources was “insufficient.” Bruce pulling back on his schedule with me even before taking the job at University of Missouri at Columbia in July ’96.

None of this had anything to with my work. It was about me, whether I as a twenty-six year-old had suffered enough, had gone through enough humiliation, to earn a simple letter of recommendation for a job. When Trotter finally decided it was time to write me a letter of recommendation, it was December ’96, and the job was University of Nebraska-Omaha, “subject to budget considerations,” meaning that it could (and it did) easily fall through. Resnick flat-out refused to share anything he wanted to write about me, with all his “confidentiality” concerns, while I wrote all my letters for myself for Bruce. It was a disaster, and none of it had anything to do with the quality of my work as a historian, educator, or academic writer.

The work I ended up getting after Carnegie Mellon was the result of my dissertation, my teaching experiences, and my networking. The idea that I’d earned my spot, though, was still lacking in the places in which I worked. Particularly at Presidential Classroom, where I was the token highly-educated Negro on staff, and working at Academy for Educational Development with the New Voices Fellowship Program. In both cases, I had bosses whose racial biases only became clear once I began working with them. The then executive director Jay Wickliff never cared about the quality of my work or my degrees. Wickliff’s only concern was that I should keep my mouth shut when he acted or spoke in a racist manner.

My immediate supervisor Ken, on the other hand, wanted all the credit for work I did under him, except in cases when he deemed my methods “not diplomatic enough.” Even before his bipolar disorder led him to a psychological breakdown, Ken regularly accused me of gunning for his position, sometimes turning red whenever he heard about my latest publication, teaching assignment or conference presentation. I had to fight to keep my job and to move on within AED in those final months of ’03 and early ’04, a fight that had zero to do with merit.

Dixie Biggs, Lip Service teapot, April 19, 2015. (http://pinterest.com).

Dixie Biggs, Lip Service teapot, April 19, 2015. (http://pinterest.com).

I say all this because the one thing that every one of these folks had in common is their lip service to the belief that hard work and results are the keys to success and career advancement. Yet for every one of them, the merit that I had earned didn’t matter. My relative youth, my age, my race, my heterosexual orientation, even my achievements, either scared them or gave them reason to have contempt for me.

I say all of this because in the past eleven years, I have been very careful about the company I keep, about the mentors I seek, about the friends I make, personally and professionally. I went from not trusting anyone as a preteen and teenager to trusting a few too many folks in my twenties and early thirties. All because I believed that my hard working nature and talent mattered more than anything else. What has always mattered more is who you know, especially in high places like academia and with large nonprofits and foundations. So, please, please, please be careful about the supposedly great people you meet. Many of them aren’t so great at all.

That’s why the idea that academia is a place full of progressive leftists is ridiculous. Yes, people like Dick Oestreicher, Wendy Goldman, Joe Trotter and so many others wrote and talked about progressive movements and ideals while I was their student. But fundamentally, they could’ve cared less about the actual human beings they worked with and advised, particularly my Black ass. Their ideals stopped the moment they ended their talk at a conference or wrote the last sentence of a particular book. They only cared about people that they could shape and mold into their own image. And that’s not meritocracy. That’s the ultimate form of nepotism.


Lies and the Lying Liars in Job Searches

November 16, 2010

 

Al Franken's Lies Book Cover, November 16, 2010. Donald Earl Collins. Qualifies as fair use under US copyright law because the photo is being used for illustrative purposes only and is a low-quality crop of original book cover.

Below is a set of emails I received regarding a job I applied for about a month ago. I filled out a thirteen-question addendum to my original application for an initial phone interview, and authorized them to contact all six of my references (which they did) before being offered an interview:

 

11/09/10 5:24 PM
Dr. Collins – would you be available this Thursday or Friday to come to AERA in Washington for an interview? Please let me know.

Best regards,
Bob


Robert W. Jackson, Partner
Jackson & Associates Consulting Services, Inc.
“Excellence in Human Resources & Marketing”
Manage your most important resources – your employees
Tel.  703 450 8567
Cell  703 203 0293
rwj11601@gmail.com
jjacksonhr@aol.com

11/09/10 6:01 PM
I believe we will take about two hours of your time. Perhaps two and a half. It is possible there will be a final interview either next week or at a later date. Hope this helps.

Best,
Bob

11/10/10 8:03 AM
Dr. Collins – Due to travel schedules I need to postpone your interview so I won’t need you to come in to AERA this week. I will be back to you next week with next steps.
Thanks very much.

Best,
Bob

11/16/10 4:13 PM
Dr. Collins – I regret to inform you that AERA has selected another candidate for the Program Manager position. The position was offered to the lead the candidate yesterday and he accepted this morning. Thank you for applying for the position and for the time you spent discussing it with me. I wish you the best of luck with your career.

Sincerely,
Bob

Robert W. Jackson, Partner
Jackson & Associates Consulting Services, Inc.

Now, no one likes being rejected for a job, especially knowing that it was most likely an insider — someone who knew the people at the other end doing the hiring. Still, it’s acceptable that it’s who you know, and not what you know, that matters in a high-level job search. But a blatant lie, a delay tactic so that the American Educational Research Association (or AERA) could hire someone with an inside track to the position? Shame on both AERA and Robert Jackson for not having enough transparency and ethics to let me and other applicants know that we were never in line for the job!


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