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Carolyn Davis, PhD, is a writer, editor, and yoga teacher-in-training based in Austin TX. She rarely updates her public social media accounts because she prefers to live her best life, but you can follow her and her adorable dog on facebook or instagram @mollzy_the_collie.
By Carolyn Davis, PhD.
White supremacy is the lifeblood of academia, and I learned that the hard way. I moved to Austin, TX in the fall of 2013 to begin my PhD in English at the University of Texas at Austin (UT). The first thing I noticed was that this liberal city, where all the weirdos came to live their dreams of peace and love, was disturbingly white. The graduate department was a perfect microcosm of Austin’s unbearable liberal whiteness. Of the 20 people admitted that fall only two of us were black and, as far as I knew, there was only one other black woman in the program when I arrived.
I met Will during the week of our white-washed orientation. He was the first black face I saw in the sea of white women I would spend the next six years with, and we both agree that it felt like a lifeline was tossed within our reach that day. On that first day that we smiled at each other across a picnic table, we never could have imagined how much we would be forced to survive together.
You may have read the many articles about sexual misconduct in UT’s English graduate department, which first came to light in 2017 after Dr. Jenn Shapland wrote “Maybe I Just Needed to Kill,” in the Arkansas International. I never met Shapland as a student, and the events she describes took place over a year before I entered the department, but her story was one of the first I heard over drinks with more advanced students. I was told almost immediately to watch out for Coleman Hutchison, a recently-tenured professor, and over the next few years I would continue to hear stories of his arm touches or flirty banter from the women around me.
As a black woman with no interest in what white southerners felt about post-slavery America, I never took a class with him, and I never experienced the uncomfortably sexual encounters that so many of my peers described to me. I met with him on multiple occasions when he stepped into the role of graduate advisor, and we served on the Graduate Programs Committee for a year, but that was the extent of our interactions. Cole’s effect on my career was much more insidious, and it’s something that hasn’t been reported in previous stories because the complainant had no interest in telling his story to the white reporters who have written their own investigations.
Following Shapland’s article, UT’s Office of Inclusion and Equity (OIE) launched a formal investigation into Cole’s behavior, and the full “confidential” report was unceremoniously leaked and disseminated through the graduate community in the spring of 2018. it specifically noted multiple allegations of retaliation against “Graduate Student four” for his opposition to the use of racial slurs in class. Cole denied this accusation—of retaliation, and the investigation ultimately concluded that the complaint was too far outside of the limit to be considered for the case. Graduate Student four is my best friend, Will.
In the Spring of 2014, Will took a course with Cole, “Re-Reading the American South in Literature and Film,” where he was immediately confronted with the regular use of the n-word by our overwhelmingly white classmates and professor. On January 15, Will emailed Cole in the hope of facilitating a conversation to preclude a semester of triggering and dehumanizing language. Cole’s response was deceptively civil: “While the word is indeed hateful, I suspect that it will show up more than once in this course. And I will certainly have to utter it again.”
Meanwhile, Cole forwarded the exchange to Department Chair Liz Cullingford and Graduate Advisor Wayne Lesser. Cole expressed his “bewilderment” at receiving such feedback from a Black student: “in more than a decade and a half of teaching, I have never had a student—graduate or otherwise—try to police my speech.” Liz suggested he assign Will an essay on white liberal feelings by another white professor in the department, presumably so he could better understand the necessity of teaching racist literature within the academy.
Wayne was less interested in pedagogy. “Good grief,” he wrote. “If he says that he can’t abide the uses of language necessary to conduct a graduate level inquiry of the course’s texts and issues, he should see me about changing courses.” “I will find him another course,” Wayne continued, “and advise him to resign from the program at the end of the Spring term.” The exchange ends with Cole’s thanks and a pithy sign-off—“yours in anti-racist pedagogy.”
And so, a year later, Will was at my house recording an episode of our podcast Snatched! when he received the letter outlining Wayne’s decision to place him on academic probation and subsequently pull his contractually-guaranteed funding for the 2015-2016 school year. At the time we had no idea why this was happening, but I know a decaying rat when I smell it. When the OIE report with these emails was released in 2017, I felt both satisfaction and rage; satisfaction because it confirmed what I knew in my heart, and rage at how easily powerful whites can upend black survival.
The known narrative of the situation is that Will chose to switch to the department of African and African Diaspora Studies (AADS) at the end of his third year, with no harm. The truth is that these professors, with the responsibility of support our careers, retaliated against him because he refused to let them feel like they were good anti-racist white people.
These events made me realize that graduate school was not and would never be a safe space. For the next five years I kept silent, listened hard, and put together a dissertation team that demonstrated emotional and ethical strength along with their incredible scholarship. I stopped trying to envision my life as a professor because I couldn’t imagine putting my future in the hands of yet more people who could so flippantly and subjectively dismiss me and my work because I happened to make them feel bad. I struggled daily with depression and anxiety, but in the end I wrote the dissertation I wanted to write and gained the tools to be a stronger woman than I was when I started.
In the months before our graduation, I had multiple conversations with my committee chair about the swirling negative energy that had enveloped the department since these events came to light. One thing she said has stuck with me for the last year: “it never occurred to me that you all would take Cole’s actions against Will as a sign of his power over all of you.” That, in summary, is the true failure of tenure: much like America writ large, it conflates power with freedom and forgets the suffering left in its wake.
I’ve spent the last ten months working at a bookstore just to remember what it felt like to love books as experiences, and not just research fodder. With the long term effects of Covid-19 to consider, I’m working from home and finding my written voice again. Will, on the other hand, teaches at a prestigious SLAC as a tenure-track professor and is quite literally living his best black life. We have both thrived despite the ravages of academia, and largely because of each other.
Until this country’s mostly white tenured faculty recognize and relinquish the white supremacist power they hold over so many futures, academia will never be a home for black, indigenous, and other POC to flourish. I truly believe that much of academia’s racism is because so many of the people in it see race as a theoretical exercise. Academia is, at best, a roomful of people with delusions of grandeur. It neither serves nor deserves us.
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