Six Black Professors Departing From Duke

By Off the BASN Sports Wire By Paul Bonner
Updated: June 17, 2006

DURHAM — Amid the departure of a half-dozen black professors from Duke this summer, the university remains committed to hiring and retaining black faculty, Provost Peter Lange said.

Houston Baker Jr. and his wife, Charlotte Pierce-Baker, are among highly touted hires by Vanderbilt that the Tennessee university recently characterized as a “blockbuster recruiting coup” advancing its scholarship in Southern literature.

Although the couple were wooed to Nashville before the lacrosse rape scandal broke, Houston Baker has been a prominent dissenting voice in Duke’s handling of the allegations. His letter charging Duke’s administration with “tepid legalism” amid a campus “culture of silence” protecting white male athletes was widely disseminated and continues to have repercussions.

Lange replied publicly to Baker — although he has declined to discuss the exchange further — countering that Baker’s letter “disappointed, saddened and appalled” him by what Lange said was its prejudgment of the case.

Last week, 15 professors from around the country joined the debate, now more than two months old. They signed a letter to Lange, saying his reply to Baker “assumes a lofty and condescending position of White authority,”

Lange declined Monday to discuss the latest letter.

And although he and others close to the situation agree that the loss of prominent black faculty is unrelated to the lacrosse scandal — and in fact, Duke will realize a net gain in black professors this year — Lange said the university is sorry to see them go. Five are in arts and sciences and one is in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

“We don’t want to lose anybody,” he said.

Besides the Bakers, they include John L. Jackson Jr., and his wife, Deborah Thomas, both in Duke’s department of cultural anthropology. They will teach at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

Lange said that the university is gaining 10 black faculty this year: three in medicine, two in divinity, two in nursing and three in arts and sciences.

“I think this has always been a highly competitive environment,” Lange said. “We’ve been a leader in our aggressive efforts to hire black faculty.”

Houston Baker was unavailable for comment, but an assistant released a statement in which the couple said Vanderbilt had made a “generous and gracious offer,” and that living in Nashville will put them closer to their children and grandchildren.

Vanderbilt’s hires also include scholar Hortense Spillers, from Cornell, and writer Alice Randall, whose novel “The Wind Done Gone” skewers “Gone With the Wind.”

Mark Anthony Neal, an associate professor of African and African American studies at Duke, agreed that competition among universities is keen for top black scholars, and that it’s not surprising Duke should be a recruiting ground.

“It’s the downside of having very good people in a high-profile institution,” Neal said. “Duke has benefited from that when we recruited Professor Baker from the University of Pennsylvania a few years ago, and now this is the other side of it.

“And it’s a fairly normal thing. … We’re proud of the department we put together over the last couple of years, and we’ll be proud of it as we go through the retooling process.”

Pierce-Baker’s scholarship has focused on issues of rape, especially among blacks. She also spoke out on the lacrosse case, including in a forum on WUNC radio.

Even so, Neal said, speaking of the couple’s departure, “ultimately, I think the lacrosse aspect of this is a non-factor.”

One of the signers of the latest letter, Clyde Taylor, a professor at New York University, said the Baker-Lange exchange was noticed by another of the signers, Herman Gray, a sociology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who brought it to Taylor’s attention.

“I forwarded it to some people I know, and three or four of us thought there should be a response,” Taylor said. A draft circulated among as many as two dozen professors, he said.

While acknowledging the signers are “too far away to make any judgment about who did what to whom” in the case, it nonetheless resonates with other racially tinged episodes such as a string of e-mails at his own university containing racial and anti-Semitic hate language, he said.

“We have these events so regularly, and we get used to having them,” Taylor said. “I feel we should not become used to having them and should not try to put Band-Aids on these individual incidents.”

Duke in 1993 undertook a Black Faculty Strategic Initiative that doubled their numbers from 44 within nine years.

“And we’ve seen data of late that suggests that among our peers we’ve been doing quite well,” Lange said. “But it’s a continuing issue, trying to retain the faculty you have, hire new ones and help fill the pipeline.”

Duke operates summer programs in economics and political science to increase the number of minorities moving into faculty positions in those professions, he said. And the university’s overall strategic plan includes a goal of 25 more faculty of all minorities in the next five years.

Turnover will likely remain an issue, however, Neal said.

“The only place I think that’s not an issue is someplace like Harvard, because where do you go?” he said.