At UT, never a tenured African-American

As his teaching career begins to draw to a close, University of Tampa professor George F. Botjer continues to wonder why his beloved university has never had a tenured African-American professor and isn’t on track to have one anytime soon.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

As his teaching career begins to draw to a close, University of Tampa professor George F. Botjer continues to wonder why his beloved university has never had a tenured African-American professor and isn’t on track to have one anytime soon.

History and geography professor George F. Botjer, 73, is white, and he is committed to racial justice. These two factors shaped the professor's career in a personal way at the University of Tampa.

He has taught at UT since 1962, longer than any other professor. He earned tenure during the 1965-66 school year and was promoted to full professor in 1974. He loves his work and Tampa U, as he refers to it.

Once I learned all this, I wondered why Botjer contacted me to disclose something few people outside the university are aware of, something few on campus ever speak of: Since its founding in 1931, UT has never had a tenured professor who is an American-born black (African-American).

It does have one African-born black tenured professor on its 252-member faculty. He is Arthur O. Hollist, a native of Sierra Leone. Such exotic, foreign provenance is preferred by many U.S. universities looking for a black face. Hollist was awarded tenure in 1997. There is another foreign-born black on the faculty, assistant professor Kendra Frorup, a Bahamian who teaches sculpture. She is not up for tenure.

When Botjer wrote me in 2009, it was not the first time he had tried to do something about the lack of a tenured African-American. His is a tale of fighting for equity for others and battling what he sees as institutional retaliation.

During his first semester as an instructor, Botjer did not think much about the absence of black professors. After all, this was Jim Crow Florida, where the traditional universities and colleges were all white.

UT had admitted its first black student, Odis Richardson, in 1961, the year before Botjer arrived. Officials admitted Richardson to avoid an expensive and protracted court battle. Initially, Richardson attended classes at MacDill, one of four off-campus sites set aside for blacks. They were not allowed on the main campus.

Racism and collegiality

After about a year, Botjer, a Brooklyn native, became fully aware of what he saw as UT's racism. He later would argue in a complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that during his first years at UT, the dean of the university would informally discuss schemes to keep blacks out of the school.

"I took umbrage with this, and told the dean that this was wrong in front of colleagues," Botjer wrote in his complaint. "Thereafter, the dean took to insulting and disparaging me in public, and finally did so in front of my wife. I tendered my resignation to then-president, David Delo, in July 1966, giving this as the specific reason. Delo strongly urged me to continue my employment, and I withdrew the resignation."

The strained relations continued for the next 10 years until a new dean, Michael Mendelsohn, was hired. He made Botjer chairman of the Division of Social Sciences. That same year, UT hired its first black professor, sociologist Lois Benjamin.

She refused my request for an interview. She did not want to discuss the experience that she describes in one of her books as being "my own visceral and wrenching encounter with racism at the University of Tampa. ..."

Qualifications not enough

In 1979, the third year of Botjer's term as chairman, Benjamin came up for tenure review. Botjer recommended her even though a group of her sociology department colleagues had forwarded a note to him and to the new dean, David Ford, rejecting Benjamin. Botjer was steadfast in supporting her. He believed that her teaching and scholarship made her eminently qualified.

She was denied tenure. Then-UT president Charles Cheshire wrote a letter to Benjamin explaining the decision. He said that she was not a "professional fit."

Benjamin filed a complaint with the EEOC. The agency ruled for the university, concluding that Benjamin was denied tenure because of her "inability to work harmoniously with her colleagues." Furthermore, according to the report, her accusations published in the local press calling for an investigation and the hiring of full-time black professors had nothing to do with her firing.

William H. Thomas, director of the federal Office of Civil Rights, wrote to Cheshire informing him of the OCR's favorable disposition: "This office finds that there was not sufficient evidence to show that Dr. Benjamin was denied tenure based upon race. Also, our evidence did not reveal that she was retaliated against because she verbally opposed alleged practices of institutional racism."

In her book, The Black Elite: Facing the Color Line in the Twilight of the Twentieth Century, Benjamin writes that at UT, she experienced the struggle of "what it is like for a black professional in this society." She also refers to feeling the "isolation" of the "professional black woman" in academe.

Sensing a pattern

After Benjamin's departure, Botjer saw his career stall, and he was more convinced that he was caught in a cycle of revenge. He was a white man in a white university who had defended a black professor. He sensed that too much coincidence, if it were that, was piling up.

"I went from instructor to full professor in 12 years, and then division chair," he said. "That's moving along. Heck, I could have become a dean or something."

He even had received a letter from his dean thanking him for his "fine efforts as Division Chairman" and for conducting himself in "a professional manner."

But a deanship — or any other administrative promotion — was not to be. How, Botjer wondered, could things have gone so wrong so fast?

His division merged with the Division of Education, requiring the two faculties to select a single chairman. Botjer was not chosen as the new chairman. The merger lasted one year, when the two divisions returned to their previous separation. Botjer's replacement continued as the chairman of the Division of Social Sciences. He was certain the short-lived merger and his removal as chairman were intended to take him out of the leadership position.

"I felt that I was put on a kind of bad list," he said. "Several years after the Benjamin affair, I began to notice there hadn't been any more African-Americans on the faculty. I think administrators became leery of hiring blacks. They were seen as troublemakers. But Dr. Benjamin wasn't a troublemaker.

"I might add that her scholarly publishing record is outstanding compared to the norms at Tampa U. We don't have a lot of highly productive scholars here. I've written two books, and I've got a third one in the works that might get published. Dr. Benjamin has at least three books. One has been reissued in a new edition. She'd be up in the upper reaches at Tampa U."

As talk of Benjamin's firing faded, Botjer began to feel an even more insidious retaliation, according to his EEOC complaint: "My pay raises stayed at 1 percent when the average pay raise was 2½ to 3 percent. It stayed the same even after my second book came out, which I always considered important evidence of pay discrimination."

And today, at $60,070, Botjer's salary is roughly $20,000 less per year than the average for full professors, according to a survey by the American Association of University Professors. His salary is comparable to the average salary of associate professors.

History is deleted

Botjer filed a second EEOC complaint against the university in 2008 for removing from the catalog a course he taught. History 307, Modern Far East, which had been listed in every catalog since 1961-62, was left out of the 2006-07 catalog, according to Botjer's EEOC affidavit.

"I was the only instructor of History 307 over the years, and secured tenure mainly on the strength of teaching this course," Botjer wrote. "It even inspired my first book, A Short History of Nationalist China. It was one of a small number of courses that comprised my teaching duties."

Whatever the ostensible reasons were for removing the course, Botjer said that official university protocol had been breached. No one informed him the course would be axed.

"It didn't go through the normal channels," he said. "Removing a course is totally a faculty matter. My department chair at the time and the history coordinator gave me written assurances that they knew nothing about it. It was done improperly."

Joe Sclafani, then-dean of the college of Arts and Sciences, who was asked to look into the merits of Botjer's charge of retaliation, sent a memorandum in 2008 to Janet McNew, the provost. The memo does not describe Sclafani's role in the matter, if he had a role, nor does it identify any faculty members who initiated the deletion of the course.

"I can attest to the fact that any curriculum change was made in the best interest of our students and not as an act of retaliation for any previous action on Dr. Botjer's part," Sclafani wrote.

Although the EEOC dismissed the complaint, Botjer was certain the removal of the course was punishment. Sclafani did not respond when I asked him in e-mail messages to comment on the Botjer affair.

McNew wrote in an e-mail message that the "university does not comment on personnel matters."

Diversity on paper

I e-mailed UT president Ronald Vaughn twice and sent him a certified letter requesting an interview. I wanted him to explain why the university has never had an African-American tenured professor, and I wanted him to either confirm or deny Botjer's charge of retaliation. He did not respond.

I did, however, receive a letter from Donna B. Popovich, executive director of human services. "The University of Tampa has grown and progressed markedly in the 30 years since the time of Dr. Benjamin's tenure denial," she wrote. "We are a diverse organization and an active Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action employer with many programs promoting diversity of all kinds in every facet of university life. ...

"Our desire to attract and retain African-American individuals for full-time positions remains strong. We have some success in attracting African-American candidates, as well as other people of color, to our staff and faculty and have confidence that those who are willing to be committed to our community and especially to our students will be with us for long, productive careers."

Popovich apparently does not see that the reality of never having a tenured African-American undercuts UT's elevated perception of its diversity efforts.

I telephoned the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the agency that accredits UT, and asked if the lack of an African-American tenured professor influences the agency's decisions on the university's status.

"Tenure decisions are not part of accreditation standards," said Pamela Garvey, the agency's coordinator of communications and external affairs. "We have specific standards that we look at when we're accrediting and reaccrediting. Most of the day-to-day operations of the institution are not covered by accreditation standards."

The bottom line is that UT, a private institution, is accountable to no one with regard to faculty diversity.

Tenure at Eckerd College

Curious, I contacted Eckerd College in St. Petersburg and asked if the school has ever had a tenured African-American. I wanted to know how UT compared with its smaller and younger neighbor across the bay. Founded in 1958, Eckerd, like other traditional colleges in the South, was lily white. But the private school, originally named Florida Presbyterian, turned away from its racist past.

Lisa Mets, the executive assistant to the president and vice president for communications, said Eckerd has three tenured African-Americans and another on tenure track. It also recently hired an African-American, Betty Stewart, as vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty. And, by the way, Mets arranged for me to interview the college president in his office.

A lasting legacy

Although UT prides itself in being a student-centered campus and enjoys a high graduation rate for its black students, Botjer believes the school is cheating black students out of the valuable experience of having top-level African-American professors.

"Role models play an important role for everybody," he said. "It played an important role for me at New York University. Black students can identify with black professors."

Botjer, who is beyond the normal retirement age, said he may retire next year — or perhaps the year after. He said he is thinking of the lasting impact he can make by persuading UT to become serious about minority faculty hiring.

I asked Botjer if his speaking to the press is revenge for the way he has been treated. "I don't want to see anyone punished or embarrassed," he said. "It's to make Tampa U a better place. There is institutional racism, sort of ingrained in the school. People are unconscious of it — maybe. I want to change it. That to me is worth some kind of legacy, that maybe I had a lasting influence at the school."

From all indications, however, there will not be a tenured African-American at UT for many years. Most universities require a five-year trial period before a professor has a tenure review. Currently, not one black is in the tenure cycle at the University of Tampa.

Bill Maxwell, a retired member of the Times editorial board, writes a Sunday column that appears in the Perspective section.

At UT, never a tenured African-American 11/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 5, 2010 6:53pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...