Disciplined for racism

Alfred Duckett, the only African American professor in the Cameron University Department of Music, is being disciplined, perhaps fired, for creating a hostile “racist” climate.  The article is disturbing, suggesting that part of the account of Duckett’s “problematic” behavior included placing anti-racism signs on his office door, advocating for diversity in hiring, raising race as a topic for departmental discussion, and describing a colleague (or her comment) as racist.  The AAUP is assisting Duckett, as it does seem this conflates “talking about race” with “racism.”  Very disturbing.   Link here: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/03/12/cameron-u-professor-sues-first-amendment-violations

20 thoughts on “Disciplined for racism

  1. i can’t believe whang claims to be “shocked and devastated” about being called a racist when she freely admits the following?!
    >
    She began the complaint with a discussion of various postings about racism on Duckett’s office door. Among other things, those notes say that racism is wrong; that racism continues in this day and age; that racism causes anxiety, depression and other ill effects; and that racism should be eliminated, according to the lawsuit.
    “I have always thought these postings were inappropriate, unprofessional and extremely offensive,” Whang wrote. “Those postings have nothing to do with ‘academic freedom’ [quotes hers]. I am especially embarrassed for students (current AND prospective) [emphasis hers], their parents and the visitors from the community and elsewhere […] I have always tried to keep it light by giving them some politically correct answer as not to make a big deal out of it”.

  2. This is a misleading account of the charges. The alleged wrongdoing wasn’t raising or talking about race, but rather doing so in a way that made it impossible to work with him and created a hostile environment.

    “The larger EEO investigation ultimately found that Duckett had “created a hostile work environment in the Department of Music through his continued insistence that race must be in the forefront of all discussions. While Dr. Duckett states that he wants an open discussion on race he refused to listen and try to understand the views of others.””

    The staff member’s testimony illuminates the nature of this claim: “Asked if Duckett is a racist, the staff member said yes, and that “everything he says is racially motivated. In department meetings, when he attends, Dr. Duckett is constantly arguing with [the chair] about every issue. He talks louder to make his point. Working around him is like working in mine field.””

    I think an environment of constant badgering can be a hostile environment, particularly when the badgerer tries to talk over everyone else.

    Also, the report cites a number of other allegations, such as calling a female student “Legs” and walking out of faculty meetings mid-agenda. (Also, giving preferential treatment to African American students and being unprepared for class. But I assume these aren’t fireable offenses in and of themselves.)

    I don’t purport to know what really went on. It’s possible that it was just because he brought up race and the faculty (and staff and students) are just that uncomfortable with it. But we certainly don’t know that. Another possibility is that the guy is very unpleasant to work with and they fired him for that reason, where this unpleasantness may or may not have reached the level of creating a hostile environment.

  3. To be clearer: what I find misleading is the claim that part of the reason he was fired was his “raising race as a topic for departmental discussion”. I think my earlier post makes clear why that isn’t an adequate characterization.

  4. I was trying to put it neutrally. Given the way the department here sounds, I wasn’t going to suggest “badgering” was an obvious characterization. I distrust the testimony about his making race the “forefront” of all discussions when the context for such claims include objecting to postings on an office door.

  5. I’m not saying you needed to use the word ‘badgering’, but you could have accurately explained the charges while noting that they’re *charges*, i.e., without yourself endorsing them as valid. That seems to me to be more neutral than to omit the charges.

    Also, the staff member who reported who corroborated the claim about him bringing race to the forefront (the testimony you distrust), and who I quoted, didn’t, as far as we know, object to the postings on his door. So I don’t see how you can distrust her testimony. The objections to the postings came from Whang, and nothing in the article you link to indicates that they figured in the decision to dismiss Duckett at all.

  6. Anon, I think we should agree to disagree about what most prominently summons attention about this article. Perhaps our dispute will incline others simply to read it and decide for themselves.

  7. Well, what most prominently summons attention is another story; I was talking about the allegations that were the basis for his firing. If the OP was meant to be about the former, and not the latter, I would just say that that doesn’t come across. That being said, I agree to your agree to disagree sentiment.

  8. There are two possibilties. One is that the department is a hostile place already in regards to race. In that case, one might add to that hostility by raising the issue. That ought to be ok. Constructive hostility for the purposes of correcting might be necessary – I’m not even sure that it should be counted as adding to the hostility. Or at least it is understandable. If he storms out of department meetings because people really are being discriminatory that shines a different light on the matter than if he storms out because of imagined discrimination or other reasons.

    Another is the the department isn’t a hostile place already with regards to race. Then it does sound like some of the behavior adds to the hostility in a way that isn’t constructive. That said, I don’t think that the posters on the door and similar things adds to the hostility of the department, even if they make some people uncomfortable.

    We don’t know all the facts. And we can’t get them from surveys of people involved, as it is hard to see racism in oneself. But given what we know about people, we should probably allow higher credence to possibility one.

    Although I have to say that the “legs” comment made me think that maybe he isn’t really motivated by reasons of equality. But that is a separate issue, and I’m certainly not claiming that this is the case.

  9. It’s interesting that “anon” is running with discussing whether or not Duckett was a jovial team player, when the larger context is that firing someone with tenure is very, very, very unusual. If we got rid of tenured faculty members at the drop of a “prickly, not always fun to talk to because launches into monologues about pet issues, sometimes acts out at department meetings, gets huffy and over-involved in new hiring processes, has political stuff on their office door” well. Pretty much everyone I know including me would be sacked, and departments would be run only by llamas hired at great expense and at the last minute.

    That this went south so completely can really only be explained by racism.

  10. Kathleen Lowrey,
    Your point about the difficulty of firing people with tenure is a good one. We’ll see how the upcoming trial unfolds. And the image of philosophy departments being run entirely be llamas is a good one.

    Your characterization of the situation is off, though. Again, the political stuff on his office door was not (as far as we know) mentioned in the report that was the basis of his firing. Whang (stupidly) cited that in her complaint. Unlike other readers of this blog, I don’t think that what she said reflects on the rest of the faculty, the report author, and the students who were surveyed. We cannot infer that such a large group are racist (or uncomfortable enough with discussion of race as to have someone fired, or what have you) on the basis of one person’s stupid comment any more than we can infer that the entire Colorado Philosophy Department are sexual harassers on the basis of its including a few sexual harassers.

    And again, the claim isn’t that he was prickly, not fun to talk to, or sometimes acts out. I think you’re deliberately using a bit of hyperbolic understatement here, but then drawing literal conclusions from it. The claim is that he was impossible to work with and created a hostile environment. Surely it’s possible to “act out” and so on in such a way and to such an extent that one has created a hostile environment. If we were colleagues and I yelled at you and talked over you every time you tried to contribute at a department meeting, I think I would have created a hostile environment for you. If you add on to that unprofessionalism (which, among other things, is suggested by his allegedly calling a student “Legs”), then we have a non-racial explanation for his firing.

    I’m not saying that’s the correct explanation. All I’ve done is clarify the actual reasons given for his firing. If you want to argue that tenure should allow someone to do *those* things, I’d be interested. But massively understating the reasons given and then saying they’re not strong enough to fire someone with tenure isn’t convincing.

    As Lauren Ashwell points out, we don’t know all the facts. I don’t think we have enough to evaluate the competing hypotheses in any serious way. So I would let the process unfold and wait to form a firm opinion about the case. If someone wants to assign significantly different credences to the two explanations Lauren outlines, that’s fine, assign them however you want. Though I must say, if the details of the case are grossly misstated, and their correction doesn’t influence one’s distribution of credences, I do wonder.

  11. Anon, my main point was that someone can do all the things that sound like they create or contribute to a hostile environment, but that this might be justified in some cases. If my department were horribly sexist, racist, or in any other way discriminatory in a serious way, I hope I would speak out about it. That might, depending on the degree of hostility I faced, involve yelling in department meetings and storming out (I hope I wouldn’t actually do this, but I can imagine sometimes it might be the only way to get people to hear uncomfortable things). Given that we know that people often are discriminatory without really realising the degree to which they are biased, no matter how well-meaning they are – given all the data about discrimination in hiring etc – we ought to think it is quite possible that there is some undercurrent of racism. We ought also be suspicious about a tendency to put him into the category of “angry black man” who is hostile and threatening. Given that we know that we have this tendency to stereotype, we ought to be very careful about how we lean in our beliefs in these situations.

    Obviously, we don’t know for sure that there is this hostility. But it is likely that there is some – at least a resistance to even considering the question. That’s why I think we ought to give higher credence to my possibility 1. And the actual claims on the basis of which he was accused, even if they are all correct, doesn’t tell us if the firing was justified.

  12. Lauren Ashwell,
    I agree with almost everything you say. I agree that

    – Duckett might have been justified for the reasons you give.

    – There are plenty of discriminatory people.

    – It is quite possible there was an undercurrent of racism in his department.

    – The reasons given for firing him might not have been sufficient, even if true.

    – We should be very careful about how we lean in our beliefs.

    All I’ve pointed out is that the reasons for his firing were misrepresented in the OP and the ensuing discussion.

    I also suggested, as an aside, that I myself don’t really know how to assign credences to your two explanations. That is, I recognize the possibilities and behavioral facts you point out, but acknowledge other possibilities and behavioral facts, and don’t know how to convert all of it into an assignment of credences. In fact, I think I in general try to avoid drawing conclusions about specific cases on the basis of sociological or behavioral generalizations (this is one way in which I agree with you about being careful in forming beliefs). But this is pretty much autobiographical, and if the considerations you raise lead you to different credences, I don’t have an objection to that. My objection is to the misrepresentations of the situation.

  13. This is very reassuring in the light of the post on February 19th concerning the etiquette of interacting, say, at a conference, with someone who has been ‘accused of / found guilty of’ sexual harassment. It is most heartening to see Prof Manners taking so seriously the possibility that someone who has been accused of something may nevertheless not be guilty. The discussion of Prof Duckett’s case is thankfully free of eliding expressions, such as ‘accused of / found guilty of’, liable to erode distinctions we have good reason to think crucially important in every case. Nor have we seen any suggestion that due process or the presumption of innocence are merely legal concepts, or that Prof Duckett’s situation is analogous to that of someone ‘indicted for financial malfeasance’, whom one might feel awkward conversing with at a dinner party. Ms Lowrey in the comments to that earlier post asked rhetorically ‘What would count as definitive proof? Can we only treat with icy politeness colleagues who have been convicted in a court of law? …What exactly do you think accounts of sexual harassment look like, other than “someone said this person did something”?’ In this case she seems to have gone far beyond presuming innocence, and comes very close to positively assuming it.

    Doubtless this sounds like merely so much wise-assery, but I assure you my applause is quite genuine. Obviously there are strong background reasons here for taking very seriously the possibility of a miscarriage of justice. But the case does help to illustrate that due process and the presumption of innocence are not *merely* legal ideas, but have strong ethical analogues, which apply in every case.

  14. Your comments don’t sound “like merely so much wise-assery,” yerblues. There’s no reason to doubt you are genuine in comparing guarded interaction with someone accused of sexual harassment in the philosophy profession with the move to dismiss a tenured African American music professor in Oklahoma for creating a racially hostile environment by charging racism. Sadly.

  15. I think Lauren Ashley and anonphil make a very interesting point that I would like to explore further–if anyone knows of a literature on it, I would be interested to get recommendations. That point is that (if I’m understanding you) we should take the accused’s and the alleged victim’s racial/professional/sociological/geographic details into account in deciding whether to presume them innocent or guilty of a crime or misdeed. Correct me if I’ve misunderstood, but anonphil seems to think that it’s wrong to compare, as yerblues does, cases in which these factors varied dramatically. And Lauren Ashley suggested that these factors (the prevalence of racial bias in academia + Duckett’s being black) are what should influence our credences in the case.

    If that’s the thought, then I’m wondering how exactly we should take these factors into account. In particular, I’m quite worried about the repercussions of such an approach for the marginalized groups that, I take it, you want to protect from unfair presumptions of guilt. Suppose a young black man has been murdered in a predominantly black inner city neighborhood and we have two suspects, suspect W, who’s white, and suspect B, who’s a young black man. Suppose the forensic and DNA evidence and witness testimony don’t allow us to assign higher credence to the one’s guilt than to the other. Should we take race into account to tip the scales? If so, since young black men are statistically more likely than white people to kill young black men, it seems that we should assign greater credence to B’s guilt.

    Here’s another kind of case. I know someone who works in a program for children from orphanages or problematic homes (e.g., parents with drug addiction problems). Many of these children have serious behavioral problems that could get them in trouble in most workplaces. Suppose one of them ends up in a white collar work environment. If a dispute involving such a person occurs, should the employer take their background into account in assigning guilt?

    Indeed, those who argue for racial profiling argue precisely that police should be able to take statistical facts about the races into account. I realize your principle only concerns presumptions of guilt and innocence, and not things like police searches. But this still seems like an uncomfortable point of agreement.

    These all seem like bad consequences of taking personal details like race into account in assigning credences or presuming innocence or guilt. This is probably why, as I said earlier, I try not to draw conclusions about specific cases on the basis of generalizations–in the case of suspects A and B, I would remain agnostic about which of the two is guilty. That’s my way of avoiding the bad repercussions. Is there some way to hold on to the idea that we should take race into account while limiting its applications so that we only get to use it to help marginalized groups? If we were to restrict it that way, will the principle be at all reliable?

  16. Looking over her post again, I see that there are other disanalogies between a sexual harassment case and a tenured black man being fired. But I would worry that if other traits are deemed relevant in Duckett’s case (for example, a general unease with conversations about race), these are still just traits, as opposed to hard evidence, and that if we can take these traits into account, we should be able to take into account the traits I discuss in my examples in the previous post. Or if we can take some traits but not others into account, why is that?

  17. A lot of this seems to engage the account here partway through. Preceding the action against Professor Duckett was his having lodged an EEO complaint regarding the department’s hiring procedures. That he had made a complaint before this complaint against him was raised (and that his complaint apparently was not pursued the way Whang’s was) seems salient to all this. As does the fact that the AAUP finds the procedures in handling the complaint against him dubious.

  18. yerblues — I am not assuming innocence. I am sure Duckett was, as has been alleged, a real pain in the patoot and made his colleagues uncomfortable, what with all his insistence on racism as a big deal and a big deal not just in general terms but in terms specifically relevant to his place of employ and his colleagues’ behaviour and hiring choices. The point is I do not see being a pain in the patoot about racism to be a fireable offence for a tenured prof. Indeed it may well be an important duty. In light of these allegations — which remain unproven in a court of law, but which I find very plausible — I might well had I a real-life encounter with him treat him accordingly. Shake his hand, something like that.

    Mutatis mutandis for credible (but unproven in a court of law) allegations of sexual harassment: I might well modify my interactional behaviour with the offender in question on their basis.

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