Academic Acrimony : Minority Professors Claim Racism Plays Role in Obtaining Tenure

Times Staff Writer

He heard voices through the walls. The raucous, disembodied sound startled him, then fixed him to his chair.

"We are all agreed that he has the potential for greatness, perhaps. All of his outside review letters are good." But "how do we know that if we give him tenure he won't go out and do something crazy?"

This was no psychotic episode.

Prof. Reginald Clark had a firm grip on reality, he says, and he realized that the voices belonged to people he knew at the Claremont Graduate School. They were talking about him. They were discussing his professional future.

"That's why, as I've been going around to these conferences.... I don't know if I want to work on a permanent basis with a black man."

"We don't have to worry about that. We are a private college . We are not under any obligation to have any (minorities), it's the public universities that are under pressure right now."

Their deliberations were supposed to be secret, part of the Byzantine process academia employs when considering a candidate for tenure. But the closed-door discussion slipped through an air ventilation duct and led to an $8-million lawsuit against the prestigious, private Claremont school.

Many claim that the issues raised by Clark's lawsuit symbolize the maze of discriminatory hurdles most minorities face when they seek tenure.

Clark, who had been reviewing a film on the teaching methods of educator Marva Collins when he first heard loud voices wafting through the air vent, filed a civil suit in Los Angeles Superior Court. The 40-year-old African American education professor charges that racial discrimination was the reason for his denial of tenure and subsequent dismissal from the Claremont Graduate School's education faculty in 1985.

During the trial, the defendants denied making any of the statements Clark claims to have overheard.

His case has been championed by U.S. Civil Rights Commission chairman William Allen, who testified on his behalf, and local branches of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and National Assn. for the Advancement for Colored People.

At a U.S. Civil Rights Commission hearing in Los Angeles last September, Mark Ridley-Thomas, executive director of the Los Angeles SCLC, called the decline and exclusion of black professors from the ranks of higher education "one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time."

There is a well-established relationship between social mobility and higher education. But, says Ridley-Thomas, "it is impossible to convey the importance of education to youth when institutional racism blocks the aspirations of those who dedicate their lives to academic endeavors."

Indeed, this has been the cry of minority professors nationwide. A report on "Minorities in Higher Education" from the American Council on Education said: "The higher education community must continue to address the issues of losses in participation at all levels for blacks; the segregation of Hispanics; the retention and graduation of minority students, both undergraduate and graduate; and the lack of growth for minorities in faculty and staff ranks."

Without more minorities on staff, Clark says, the social and intellectual climate of a university suffers. "The breaking of stereotypes will be hampered; the promotion of intercultural and interracial understanding and cooperation will be inhibited; and teaching and research concerns that might benefit from a minority perspective will be less adequately pursued."

The tenure that Clark was denied is the goal of every professor--a lifetime appointment that protects the academic freedom of university faculty engaged in teaching and research. It is awarded to scholars of exceptional distinction only after an intensive, thorough evaluation. The secret evaluation process is designed to ensure that intellectual attainment and not political and other irrelevant factors are considered.

"The double-edged sword of secrecy allows them to do things in private, ostensibly to protect a candidate's interest," Clark says. "But it serves the purpose of allowing them to exclude people they don't want for reasons other than their competency."

While Clark charged the Claremont Graduate School with racism, the school's attorney, Catherine Hagen, argued that it was his "meager" publication record and student criticisms of his teaching that led to his being denied tenure.

Clark, an expert on multicultural education, had written one book, "Family Life and School Achievement: Why Poor Black Children Succeed or Fail," published by the University of Chicago Press in 1983, when he was considered for tenure. The book was based on his original research, which showed that family habits and interactions--as opposed to poverty, broken homes, race or ethnicity--affected success in school.

In 1985, the National Education Assn. selected the book as one of the seven best on education.

"His publishing record is spectacular," asserts Clark's attorney, Godfrey Isaac. "The book has been called a trailblazer in his field."

But one good book is not enough, the school's attorney maintains. If Clark could have gotten at least two more refereed journal articles published--articles that published only after rigorous review by a panel of scholars--he might have been granted tenure, says Hagen.

Minority scholars, particularly blacks, charge that they cannot get published in mainstream, refereed journals because their work is often viewed as political, rather than scholarly, or focused on ethnic concerns, rather than mainstream ones.

Though "publish or perish" has long been the refrain of professors seeking tenure, Clark's attorney argues that that was never the real issue. "They may claim that," says Isaac. "But nobody who has sat in a prejudicial mode ever says they're prejudiced. Therefore, one has to look at other factors to determine whether there was prejudice. In this instance, Clark was the first full-time black male faculty member in the school's history. There were never any minority faculty members before him.

"Some people believe that discrimination is a numbers game. If so, it's a game that clearly indicates Dr. Clark was discriminated against," Isaac says.

"Secondly, he'd been honored by the school, they had a conference in which they featured him, they reveled in the publicity they got from his good work," Isaac says. "It was only when it came time to make him, in essence, a permanent member of the family"--a tenured professor--"that they ever balked."

After four days of jury deliberation, Clark's case ended in a mistrial last April when three jurors fell ill.

The case is to be retried Dec. 4.

Is Clark's attorney still going to ask for $8 million in damages? "At least," says Isaac.

Don Nakanishi knows full-well that most whites are tired of hearing minorities yell foul when they don't get a job, or, in the case of tenure, are denied a promotion.

Rather than minorities admitting that they may not be able to meet the rigorous standards required to get tenure, many whites believe that minorities see a racist under every bed. And the average person, says Nakanishi, who waged a three-year battle for tenure at UCLA, is particularly loath to believe that discrimination occurs in the rarefied atmosphere of academe.

But when you demystify the whole situation, you realize that ". . . universities are the same--and some would argue that they are even worse--than other types of places," says Nakanishi, whose tenure case became a cause celebre in the Asian American community.

After an unusual campaign of petitions, letter writing and lobbying, UCLA chancellor Charles E. Young announced last May that he was granting tenure at the Graduate School of Education to Nakanishi.

He deserved the appointment all along, said one of his supporters, State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), who chairs a committee on UC admissions. Torres called chancellor Young an "independent academic" who would have resisted the political pressure if Nakanishi had been a mediocre candidate.

In part, Nakanishi's case came to symbolize issues of ethnic and intellectual diversity at American universities. As with Clark, who was the first full-time black male faculty member at the Claremont Graduate School, Nakanishi was the first Asian American in UCLA's graduate education school.

Claims Dismissed

Some professors who reviewed him for tenure said his work was outside the education school mainstream, such as his studies showing low levels of voter registration among Asians in Los Angeles County. Detractors dismissed claims of racial prejudice and said his research was below UCLA's standards.

His critics, says Nakanishi, don't understand his research. "They have no basis for understanding its significance . . . originality . . . creativity or rigor."

With those words, he echoes the sentiments of numerous minority scholars engaged in what they consider to be path-breaking ethnic research, which they claim is inappropriately judged by Eurocentric values of traditional scholars.

"My appointment was to develop an area on Asian Americans and education--broadly defined," at the graduate school, Nakanishi explains. "I defined my approach in terms of issues of access, representation and influence of Asian Americans in the major social institutions--none of which is divorced from education or politics."

Nakanishi never had to file a lawsuit to win his three-year tenure battle at UCLA.

But Halford Fairchild had to. It could take five, six or seven years, however, before the case even reaches the courts.

Fairchild, a former UCLA assistant professor in the department of psychology and the Center for Afro-American Studies from 1978-86, was denied tenure in 1985 because, in the university's words, he lacked "superior intellectual achievement."

Fairchild, a widely published scholar and former national president of the Assn. of Black Psychologists, says one of the committees reviewing him for tenure claimed that his work was "a-theoretical," the worst thing that can be said of a scholar, he points out.

Wrote on Achievement

He explains that he wrote a study on educational achievement. "I wanted to find out whether or not the size of the school and the amount of money spent in the school made a difference in how well the students did, on the average, on their test scores."

The paper was part of his portfolio examined in the tenure review process. It was criticized, he says, because " 'Fairchild completely ignores the literature on social class and race.' I wrote back in the rebuttal statement that this was an obvious misreading of the paper. I had two lengthy discussions on social class and race with appropriate literature cited."

What he refused to do--and so challenged traditional approaches to research in his field--was to look at race and social class as independent predictors of educational success. He argues that "one should not use social class and race as an independent variable in the statistical analysis unless one has a theory about social class and race. I take the position that, if you have a theory about race as a causal variable in educational achievement, then you are a racist, which I am not. . . . The arguments are parallel when it comes to social class."

It's known, says the 40-year-old scholar, that "people who are poor score lower on achievement tests. But I don't think being poor makes a person have lower achievement. Instead, it is the quality of the neighborhood school, quality of the environment, the history of structured discrimination in the educational arena that accounts for the fact that poor people have low IQ tests scores."

His approach, he says, raises fundamental questions about social science research. To suggest that neither race nor class are impediments to learning forces traditional scholars "to reject a whole history of research of which they have been a part. This shakes up the halls of academe."

He is not the only minority professor to hear charges that his work is a-theoretical.

But it's a charge that particularly plagues black scholars, says Ron Walters, a political scientist at Howard University, adviser to the Rev. Jesse Jackson during both his Democratic Presidential nomination bids and president of the National Congress of Black Faculty. The congress was formed in 1987 in response to discrimination against black academics in hiring and promotion.

"There is a bias, of course, that black people can't think theoretically," Walters said. "To think theoretically is a question of looking at facts and being able to derive a higher order of systematic relationships among them so as to explain phenomena. Theories are spun in order to help people explain phenomena, particularly social phenomena. It's a higher level of abstraction."

But there are all sorts of things used to keep blacks and other minorities in ethnic studies from getting tenure. "One of the other things I've heard is the question of work being 'political.' "

Says Walters: "The orthodox, i.e. the white interpretation of the world, is the objective one, and the black person's interpretation is political. And we haven't reached the stage in this society yet where there's anything like an objective perspective on racial phenomena."

The fundamental issues in the Nakanishi and Fairchild cases are the same, says Dean Florez, a consultant to Torres' committee on UC faculty and admissions: "We are having a Pacific Rim, Third World movement in California, whether people want to see it as that or not, and they are knocking at the very basis of higher education--that is a post-European education. And those stresses are being seen at the departmental level, with faculty and others arguing whether or not certain types of studies are in the norm of Western Civilization . . . or, if they are not, whether they are valid studies . . . That's the crux of the problem. Is a Post-European university ready for a majority of California that is basically Third World, Pacific Rim, Latin American and African American?"

UCLA claims it is.

Chancellor Young and the UCLA administration have been praised in the past for their support of diversity throughout the university and commitment to ethnic studies. A recently developed plan to increase recruitment of minority faculty in the College of Letters and Science, which employs the largest number of faculty, is further evidence of the campus' commitment to diversity, administrators say.

Raymond L. Orbach, provost of the College of Letters and Science, designed the plan and views it as an all-out effort to bring the best minority scholars to UCLA, hire many as tenured professors and place others in tenure track faculty positions.

"The plan is the best in California," Florez says. "People should try to mimic it around the state."

The plan was needed because there was the perception--a correct one--that UCLA was not doing enough to get "underrepresented minority candidates," Orbach says. "What we had done was make available to departments faculty positions for minority candidates when the department identified a candidate."

That's standard operating procedure at universities nationwide, he says. "But it just wasn't enough. . . . We had one black faculty member in one department and one Chicano faculty member in another and you don't change the nature of the academic program by that kind of hiring structure--though in fact, we had met the federal guidelines."

University officials say federal guidelines do not require them to hire any specific number of minorities. Affirmative action guidelines only require the university not to discriminate.

Orbach says the target of his new recruitment effort is to attain a level of minority faculty representation that achieves "critical mass."

What is that? "I don't know what that number is. . . . It is whatever is appropriate in a particular discipline or sub-discipline so that the insights, the concepts, the new scholarship," embodied in ethnic studies "have a chance to multiply and influence the education program and the research program."

Critical mass is too nebulous a concept, says Florez, the legislative consultant. "Orbach has this very good plan but with no goals, no timetable."

But the results of the recruitment effort in its first academic year, 1988-89 has already produced an English department "approaching critical mass . . . in African-American literature," the provost says. "It will be the stellar group in (that field in) this country."

Indeed, the minority faculty members in UCLA's English department are among the nation's most respected scholars in a variety of fields, not just ethnic studies. The department already has on its faculty Richard Yarborough, an expert in Afro-American literature and one of the editors of a compilation that will make publishing history when it appears in 1990: W. W. Norton & C.'s anthology of Afro-American literature. The anthology, carrying the imprimatur of the nation's most prestigious publisher of literary anthologies, will effectively become the first canon of Afro-American literature.

Helping UCLA reach its stated target of "critical mass" are six new minority faculty members: Valerie Smith, a tenured associate professor in Afro-American literature who was a tenured professor at Princeton University; Gregory Sarria, a Native American and professor of Native American literature; Robert Aguirre, a Latino professor whose field is Victorian literature; King-Kok Cheung, a professor of Asian-American literature; Arthur Little, an African-American professor whose field is Shakespeare and Renaissance drama; and Sonia Saldivar-Hull, an expert in Chicano literature.

While some of the new minority faculty recruited by the College of Letters and Science have been brought in as tenured professors, others have not.

Will a new "critical mass" of minority scholars, many in ethnic studies, encounter the same obstacles that Nakanishi and Fairchild allegedly faced when considered for tenure?

Orbach points out that the percentage of faculty who are eligible for and receive tenure is about the same for minority and nonminority faculty: 70%.

But Fairchild claims that many minority faculty are discouraged from ever applying for tenure during periodic reviews by their departments.

"If that's true," says Orbach, "that's horrible." Assistant professors become eligible for tenure after seven years. "They have reviews by the department every two years. They have a formal assesment after four years, which is meant to be an early warning, but it's not meant to be punitive. It's meant to be informative."

The real problem in tenure cases "happens at the level of dean in the individual departments," says Florez. "It's going to take a lot more pressure from the chancellor and from the provost to the department chairs," to change things.

One of the things the Legislature can do, he says, "is to really get in touch with what's going on in the departments. We need to start looking at (denying) funding," that will directly affect these departments.

UCLA's chancellor has a different view: "That isn't the way to change things at a university. The members of the staff of Sen. Torres' office may not be the best people to judge. I think people in the university are in a better position to know what is going on. We have a very good process in place and one that is improving."

TENURED U.S. PROFESSORS

Non-Hispanic white males: 57,348

Non-Hispanic black males: 1,821

Hispanic males: 1,067

Asian-Pacific males: 3,060

Native American males: 243

Non-Hispanic white females: 11,948

Non-Hispanic black females: 678

Hispanic females: 226

Asian females: 316

Native American females: 27

Source: 1985 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission statistics

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°