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

THE CHALLENGE OF DIVERSITY: One of a series

September 20, 1989|ITABARI NJERI | 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.

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