UMass Boston faces questions about its commitment to DEI

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Earlier this year, a faculty-led committee at the University of Massachusetts at Boston presented first drafts of updated mission and vision statements, both of which declared the university “an anti-racist and health-promoting” institution.

“Diversity, equity, shared governance, and expansive notions of excellence are core institutional values,” the draft vision statement said, in part. “We hold ourselves and each other accountable to ensure these values drive all decision-making in research, pedagogical innovations, resource allocation, and the development of policies and practices.”

Some faculty members strongly supported embedding these ideals in the racially diverse, urban research university’s mission and vision. Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco also has committed to helping make UMass Boston the “leading anti-racist and health-promoting public research university.” But other professors, concentrated in the university’s College of Science and Mathematics, objected: in a statement, science and math professors (along with supporters from elsewhere in the university and at other institutions) said that DEI and related values “have very distinct ideological interpretations” and asked what would happen if, say, “your research on quantum computing is not perceived as promoting climate, environmental, or racial justice—will you be held accountable and your resources re-allocated?”

These critics also argued that the mission and vision statement drafts’ focus on DEI amounted to “diminutive support for knowledge creation” at a research university.

UMass Boston said last week these were only first drafts of the statements and that others have since been circulated for feedback. In any case, the conversation about whether the university should commit itself to becoming an antiracist institution has attracted significant attention.

Yet some on campus believe the debate over what UMass Boston says it values distracts from what the university actually does value, as demonstrated by its actions.

Africana Studies

Case in point? The university’s Africana studies department. Since 2017, the nearly 50-year-old department has gone from seven full-time, tenured and tenure-track faculty members to 1.5. Despite that attrition, the department has seen two faculty searches canceled by the administration. Professors also say the department has been threatened with receivership and pushed by UMass Boston to merge with the campus’s William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture, which is currently directorless.

UMass Boston has now hired three outside lawyers to audit Africana studies, telling professors that it seeks to understand how to “best make a significant investment” in the department and Trotter. That’s despite the fact that most of the department has resisted absorbing Trotter’s mission, fearing it will foist more un- or underfunded service work on the dwindling faculty, at the expense of teaching and research—for which professors and academic programs are often more harshly judged, and rewarded, than for service.

“It’s absolutely disgraceful that we could come upon the 50th anniversary of our department in this condition,” said Jemadari Kamara, department chair. “It is clear the department is in desperate need of full-time, tenure-track faculty.”

Arguing that losing 5.5 full-time, tenure-track or tenured faculty lines by attrition since 2017 represents a $1.5 million “disinvestment” in Africana studies by UMass Boston, Kamara said this “suggests a strategy of destabilizing the department to replace it with far fewer full-time, tenure-track faculty and part-timers.”

Kibibi Mack-Shelton, the department’s most recent former chair, who described being undermined by the provost’s office throughout her chairship and who has since transferred to the history department, said, “It’s like they’re treating Africana studies like it’s a stepchild. They treat the department like it’s a department of children, where they need an overseer, like they need a guardian. And I think it all goes back to the master plan of integrating Trotter and the department.”

Mack-Shelton said that Provost Joseph Berger threatened the department with receivership after it did not reach a unanimous vote (what Berger allegedly called a “consensus”) as to who would succeed her as department chair, for instance. Mack-Shelton said two professors—including one whom the university appointed as Trotter’s director without consulting her—did not vote for Kamara, but that the issue hardly demonstrated the department’s inability to govern itself. (Both of the dissenting professors have since left the university.)

Berger did not respond to a request for comment. He said in a May memo to the faculty that both the institute and Africana studies “remain essential and are a high priority to UMass Boston.” He committed the university to making “current and future investments totaling approximately $1.2 million” in both entities, with more to follow pending the findings the university’s inquiry into the department. This includes hiring a senior scholar and for two tenure-line faculty positions in Africana Studies, one open in rank and one assistant professor, Berger said.

Regarding Trotter, a committee on the institute’s future co-led by the campus Black Faculty, Staff and Student Association recommended a minimum operating budget of $70,000, Berger said, plus the appointment of three academic faculty members, three permanent professional staff members, and two graduate assistantships, at a cost of approximately $800,000 per year. A new director will be named following a broad national search.

DeWayne Lehman, a university spokesperson, said via email that there has been a “significant increase in funding of $1.2 million to the Africana studies department and the Trotter Institute for investment in hiring senior scholar leadership and staff and funding to solidify the long-term sustainability of these important elements of our university.” He did not respond to a series of follow-up questions about the stalled faculty searches, the nature of the audit or just when or how the $1.2 million will be realized.

Canceled Searches

As the department’s faculty has shrunk, two full-time, non-tenure-track professors, Anthony Van Der Meer and Keith Jones, have shouldered a large share of the teaching load. They’ve also led multiple campus diversity initiatives, for which they were honored with the Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Service in 2021 (presented this spring). In an announcement about the awards, UMass Boston said Van Der Meer and Jones “have played a landmark role in contributing to building a university that lives up to its mission.” But the university canceled one of the aforementioned faculty searches this spring after Van Der Meer’s and Jones’s names were included on lists of finalists for two open tenure-track positions.

In a March email to the department calling off that search, Tyson King-Meadows, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, accused the search committee of having “ranked” the list of finalists and said that he’d asked for but not received “a more robust pool of finalists by converting all semifinalists to finalists.” And although the search had already proceeded to the finalist stage, King-Meadows cited “delays due to concerns about the original job text ad and due to questions about the robustness of the overall applicant pool.”

“Resuming a search in the future will also afford time to attend to other issues: e.g., design and implementation of an effective mentorship plan for junior faculty, managing the operations of the department, and advancing new and longstanding endeavors that enhance curricular and co-curricular offerings,” King-Meadows wrote.

Members of the department say calling off the search was part of a long pattern of administrators treating Africana studies in ways that challenged its ability to be effective. But this time, many faculty members outside Africana studies took note, arguing that King-Meadows and UMass Boston more broadly had flouted the norms of shared governance.

In an email to King-Meadows, two search committee members from outside Africana studies with 80 years’ combined experience at UMass Boston wrote that any of the faculty candidate “rankings” were preliminary. More than that, they said, “Committee members feel that the recommendation to cancel the search is calling into question their integrity, and is consciously or unconsciously disrespecting the time, energy, rigor, and thoughtfulness that went into putting forward the final slate of candidates.”

A ‘Failure of Leadership’?

The two search committee members, psychologist Cuf Ferguson and anthropologist Tim Sieber, shared their concerns about the stalled search with UMass Boston’s broader faculty and staff union in a memo, saying “How Africana studies and their needs are being treated today is unjust and a threat to faculty rights everywhere and to whatever is left of our supposed campus ideal of ‘shared governance.’”

If the administration “is truly serious about doing anti-racism work,” they continued, “it is imperative, beyond rhetoric, for them to support and work with the many vibrant grassroots faculty and wider campus anti-racism initiatives and struggles that we actually have here, and to honor those who have been in the trenches on this issue for decades—like the faculty in our Africana studies department.”

The Faculty Senate for the College of Liberal Arts passed a related resolution faulting the administration for twice canceling Africana studies searches, in 2020 and 2022, respectively. The last search committee had submitted a list of semifinalists from a pool of more than 50 national applicants to be screened, to create a list of finalist candidates for campus interviews, following “normal procedures of all UMB searches,” the Senate said.

Also last semester, in a campus memo that still mystifies many, Suárez-Orozco, the chancellor, and Berger, the provost, said that members of the Faculty Council had acted in a “racially charged” manner and had trafficked in “racial stereotypes and tropes” when they suggested at a meeting that the administration had been less than transparent in recent dean searches, including the one that resulted in the appointment of the liberal arts dean, King-Meadows, who is Black.

According to a transcript of that meeting, one faculty member discussed “majority” and “minority” opinions with respect to gathering data and increasing administrative transparency in the search process. Another faculty member suggested that naming King-Meadows chair of the new search committee for a dean of education was problematic because King-Meadows “is fairly new on campus and hasn’t really had a chance to build goodwill with the faculty,” and because he “came in under some fairly intense, and I’ll just say it, stressful circumstances.”

Mack-Shelton, who was at the meeting in question and spoke herself about search process transparency, said that the criticism of the university and its search processes had nothing to do with race. The faculty and staff union agreed, saying in a written response to Suárez-Orozco and Berger that “No member of the Faculty Council said anything that was racially charged or trafficked in racial stereotypes at the [meeting]. Not only is it clear from the transcript of the meeting, but the false nature of this allegation helps explain why no one objected during the meeting itself and why people who were at the meeting were dumbfounded when the Chancellor and Provost released the Joint Statement containing such serious allegations.”

The chancellor’s and provost’s comments were designed to “silence faculty while obscuring the administrators’ own failure to practice the shared governance they so often preach,” the union alleged.

Following this incident, Suárez-Orozco, Berger and the Faculty Council’s executive committee announced that the university had hired an external mediator to facilitate dialogue and help establish trust between the administration and the council—something that was widely viewed on campus as a mea culpa by Suárez-Orozco and Berger.

“No question, we have a great deal of work to do,” the parties said in a statement. “But we are eager to forge a better future for all members of the UMass Boston community.”

Jones, one of the two non-tenure-track professors who was lauded by the university for his contributions to DEI and named as a finalist in the second canceled faculty search, has pushed the university to adopt curricular and other DEI interventions in this era of racial reckoning. He is on a visiting professorship. His contract has not yet been renewed for next year.

Quoting James Baldwin’s comment that “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” Jones said he and his colleagues are “profoundly troubled that at this historical moment, the institution does not understand the urgency to act, the urgency to make different structural interventions, the urgency to move beyond performative rhetoric to actually changing campus culture in a way that would benefit our students, our staff, our faculty and the communities we serve.”

Van Der Meer, the other award-winning professor who was a finalist in the faculty search, has a continuing contract but not tenure. He said that UMass Boston’s actions toward Africana studies over the years, among other choices, amount to a “failure of leadership to meet these times in concrete ways.”

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