College shaken by black professor's charges St. Mary's president dismayed by 'slurs'

May 17, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

As a promising black philosophy professor, Reginald O. Savage would normally be a prized commodity on campus. Instead, his future at St. Mary's College hangs by a thread.

His colleagues in the philosophy department won't speak to him, and the college president won't meet with him alone.

Mr. Savage, 41, has shaken the quiet college over the past two years with a dizzying series of charges that the campus establishment discriminated against him because he is black. In the past few months, he has broadened his target, claiming that St. Mary's has been too slow to integrate its staff and faculty.

To the dismay of the administration, Mr. Savage has broadcast his charges to state legislators, in the widely read Chronicle of Higher Education, and in many campus forums. He has filed discrimination complaints with state and federal authorities. Mr. Savage's claims are difficult to prove, and he has few vocal supporters on campus. But he presses on.

"There's sort of a project for me now at the school," Mr. Savage said. "I think St. Mary's College is a real symbol of what a college can be, multiculturally. The potential is there."

The fight is particularly distressing for St. Mary's, a small public liberal arts college in St. Mary's City that prides itself on its academic achievement and racial diversity.

"It's sad for an institution to have to go through this when I think the charges are slurs and unethical," said St. Mary's President Edward T. Lewis.

If nothing else, Mr. Savage's chorus of accusations has prodded the school to keep racial issues on the front burner. "We've always been committed to diversity," said campus spokeswoman Christine C. Cihlar. "The things that have happened in the last two years have only intensified our interest in that."

*

Reginald Savage grew up poor in Milwaukee and dropped out of high school. He worked for a decade in can factories and breweries. On the side, he read philosophy. One day he walked into Marquette University with some questions about the book he was reading. A discussion with a professor led to Mr. Savage sitting in on graduate-level philosophy classes.

He eventually landed a scholarship to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. There, at 35, he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy even though he had no undergraduate degree.

Fresh out of school, Mr. Savage was offered a job at St. Mary's in Southern Maryland. When he arrived, he was the only black professor on campus. For his first 3 1/2 years, Mr. Savage more or less flourished.

That all exploded one night in February 1990, when a colleague handed Mr. Savage a lengthy evaluation that said his teaching was subpar. Parts of the evaluation were scathing and included such basic suggestions as, "Assign papers whenever possible, make comments on them and return them to the students in a timely manner."

The evaluating committee recommended a three-year contract for Mr. Savage, rather than the normal five-year term. Mr. Savage, who had expected a glowing review from his colleagues, erupted.

Alan Paskow, a philosophy professor and chairman of the evaluation committee, received the brunt of Mr. Savage's anger.

Mr. Savage claimed that the evaluation committee made several factual misstatements and deliberately built up a unfairly critical case against him, holding him to a higher standard than other faculty in similar reviews.

"I'm not trying to say I don't have my faults," Mr. Savage said. "But I'm saying that double standards were applied. I would have had to have published the theory of general relativity before they could say, 'He's OK.' "

Professors defended the evaluation. "We were very unhappy with a lot of things that were going on," Mr. Paskow said. "We tried to show him the urgency of making some changes."

Mr. Savage took his case to a campuswide review panel, which concluded that "personal conflict" within the philosophy department had tinged the review.

"It is essential that [Mr. Savage] and all other parties involved in the controversy make every effort to re-establish a climate of professionalism and civility," wrote Professor Ho Nguyen, chairman of the college review committee.

The committee overruled the recommendation and voted unanimously to offer Mr. Savage the standard five-year contract.

L Mr. Savage had won the battle. But his war had only started.

He filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging that the negative evaluation was racially motivated.

He took aim at President Lewis, charging that he had made a racist remark about blacks to another professor, and that Mr. Lewis had tried to coerce him into dropping his discrimination complaints. Mr. Lewis denies both charges, and a panel appointed by the board of trustees dismissed the allegations.

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