Chancellor's letter divisive, critics say McPhail defends note to black faculty, staff

September 10, 1998|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

A seemingly innocuous thank-you letter sent by the chancellor of the Community Colleges of Baltimore County to a group of black faculty and staff has drawn criticism from white professors and a rebuke from County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

The letter -- written by Chancellor Irving Pressley McPhail after an Aug. 19 reception in his honor -- urged those attending to "watch each others' backs." From a book of African proverbs, the letter quoted the passage "the friends of our friends are our friends," and closed by saying, "The Struggle Continues."

While some contended the letter was racially divisive, McPhail, a respected scholar and administrator hired in February to restore calm to the system of three campuses, said critics failed to understand cultural expressions he intended for a select audience. He said he was outraged because the private letter was made public.

But Ruppersberger said this week that the chancellor's letter exhibited "poor judgment, the way it was written."

"It just left room for misinterpretation," he said. "All of us in leadership positions have to always be aware that whatever we say can be misinterpreted and magnified."

Both Ruppersberger and Francis X. Kelly, chairman of the system board of trustees, said they continue to support McPhail and his strategic five-year plan to mold the system serving 60,000 students into a national model.

To some, however, the incident remains puzzling.

A black faculty member in Catonsville's speech and communication department who attended the reception at a Randallstown restaurant for McPhail and his wife, Christine, said he was "mystified why the flap developed, and why it continues."

"The chancellor encouraged everyone at the reception to work together, that the community college system needs everyone," said Tim Thompson, a member of the Tri-College African American Faculty and Staff Caucus, which held the event.

"People who are calling this racism are simply afraid of change, they don't know how to deal with diversity," he said. "And, they weren't there."

The thank-you letter, written on community college stationery, was sent in a sealed envelope with a copy of the chancellor's strategic plan. The letter, dated Aug. 22, was placed in CCBC's mail distribution system to about 30 people who organized the reception.

Copies of the letter were leaked into the system's community, including to faculty leaders at Catonsville Community College and to the other campuses at Essex and Dundalk.

The loudest protests have come from the Catonsville campus, which serves as the system's headquarters and where McPhail's office is located.

"I think for the chancellor to make this assumption that we're out to get him is absurd, especially if you introduce race," said Larry Aaronson, veteran business professor and leader of Save Our Colleges, a group that last year tried to unionize the 1,200 full- and part-time faculty members but later abandoned the effort.

Aaronson said he has received nearly two dozen calls about the letter from fellow professors, predominantly white. "Our interpretation is we can't be trusted," said Aaronson.

Said another veteran instructor who asked for anonymity: "One reason people are upset about the letter is we keep hearing through the grapevine that if hiring is not diverse enough, the chancellor will take away the hiring power from the divisions and departments."

But Margy McCampbell, chairwoman of Catonsville's faculty senate, said she was initially "appalled" at the letter, but "I pulled back my indignation when I admitted to myself the chancellor wasn't writing it for me but an exclusive group of people."

McPhail, who was heavily involved in the student and civil rights movements of the 1960s, said the conflict will not deter him from trying to improve the college system. He was hired after a series of controversies led to the firing of the former chancellor, Daniel J. LaVista.

Born in Harlem, McPhail earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Ivy League universities and has worked in prestigious academic and administrative educational posts, including the Johns Hopkins University.

The chancellor said he told Ruppersberger and board chairman Kelly that the remarks in his letter "were familiar usage to the people of my history and background.

He said the expression, "watch each others' backs", which he also used at the reception, was simply "an African-American culture call for support and encouragement. There was nothing provocative intended."

The quote was used, McPhail said, "because I love African proverbs, some of the most original, metaphorical use of language I know. It was one in a book of hundreds that seemed most relevant."

Pub Date: 9/10/98

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