Duke University plan to hire black faculty goes awry It didn't foresee shortage, stigma

September 19, 1993|By New York Times News Service

DURHAM, N.C. -- Five years ago, in an effort to diversify its faculty, Duke University approved a simple and direct policy. By the fall of 1993, it said, each department must have added an additional black faculty member.

Now, after its 56 departments have shown a net gain of only eight black members, Duke is the focus of a very public fracas over hiring and promotion that has come to sum up the racial issues buffeting academia and many of the broader dilemmas involved in minority hiring initiatives nationwide.

As the fall term begins, Duke's initiative is being lambasted by black students as a sham and derided by many faculty members, including some blacks, as an unrealistic standard that ignored the dearth of black Ph.D.s.

The university has been called racist by some blacks and paternalistic by others who said its conspicuous efforts to hire blacks branded them as substandard affirmative- action hirings.

A black professor is threatening to sue the university, claiming he was denied tenure because of racism, and a white professor in the same department is arguing a form of reverse discrimination, contending he was not given tenure because the department could not give it to him and deny it to his black colleague.

Ambitious effort

To supporters, Duke's initiative was a worthy, if overly ambitious, effort.

"Let's give Duke credit for the nobility of the goal," said Samuel DuBois Cook, the president of Dillard University in New Orleans, who in 1966 became the first black full-time professor at Duke. "It didn't reach the goal, but the goal was a worthy one, and Duke should stick by its guns."

More common is a sense that the program's main effect has been to make painfully explicit the fault lines in a competitive or declining job market in which whites have traditionally been dealt the best hands.

Like other universities and corporate America, Duke has been wrestling for years with the goal of changing from a place dominated by white men to one more reflective of society. It opens this term with a new president, Nannerl O. Keohane, one of a handful of women to lead a top-ranked research university.

Twenty-five black faculty members have been hired since 1988, but 17 others have left. As a result, the number of blacks among Duke's 1,600 full-time professors has risen by only eight, to 39.

Black students, who make up 7 percent of Duke's enrollment, assert that blacks on the august, Gothic-style campus are most often seen behind cafeteria lines or as janitors.

But among the faculty, most people say the university's goal was clearly unattainable. Nationwide, only 2 percent of the college professors outside historically black colleges are black, roughly the percentage at Duke.

Again nationwide, fewer than 1,000 black people receive Ph.D.s each year; about half are in education, and many of the other recipients do not go into teaching. In many natural sciences, the number of black Ph.D.s each year is in the single digits.

Bertram Fraser-Reid, a Duke chemistry professor who is black, said improvement would be difficult because top black students can make more money in less time in industry, medicine or law than in academia.

But many blacks say that many departments never seriously tried to reach the goal and that high attrition revealed Duke as a place less than hospitable to black faculty members.

The biggest embarrassment came when Duke lured Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the nation's leading literary scholars, from Cornell University in 1989, with the hope that he would be a magnet for other black professors.

But after one year at Duke, he was off to Harvard University, complaining that Duke had not come as far from its Southern roots as it liked to think.

"It was the most racist experience I ever had in my professional life," Professor Gates said recently. "No matter what kind of car I drove or house I had, it was assumed it was a gift from the university."

Dillard President Cook and others at Duke say the departure of Dr. Gates, who in recent years has moved from Yale to Cornell to Duke to Harvard, said more about his own ambitions than Duke's failings.

But the reaction to his departure was only one way that Duke's high-profile initiative injected racial issues throughout the hiring process.

Resolution called naive

One young black scholar, Carol Swain, spent a year teaching in Duke's political science department and then declined to seek a permanent position precisely because of Duke's hiring initiative. She said the policy stigmatized black hirings.

In retrospect, almost everyone here, with the exception of some black students, agrees that Duke's 1988 resolution was naive. Brenda Armstrong, a professor of pediatric cardiology at the Duke Medical School, said that the university should have been looking at 10 to 20 years to achieve its goal and that it needed an enforcement mechanism, funding and a focus on retaining black teachers, not just hiring them.

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