How Institutions Protect Racists – #BLM Guest Post

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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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


How Institutions Protect Racists – #BLM Guest Post — 17 Comments

  1. I’m an Indian American woman, and I took a class on women in america at a SLAC. There were two people of color in the class including me. This class was awful. The professor allowed unchecked comments about female slave owners being “other victims” and how conservative (and decidedly racist) anti-ERA women found their own actions to be “liberating” and “feminist in their own way.” The oppression of women and white colonialism is a large part of my ancestry, so I felt uncomfortable, so much that I couldn’t say anything. I tend to wear my emotions on my face, and one time the professor told me, “You look like you just smelled dirty underwear.” I met with the Dean of Faculty about this professor, and I was advised to put my comments into the end of course anonymous review. I knew it was a brush off, as I had been brushed off many times. But I sincerely believed that my comments would impact this professor, who was on a visiting contract. I was wrong. Her contract was renewed. The other person of color was brave enough to advertise a workshop for anti-racist white allies that was happening on campus. I’d bet money that it was a waste of her time. It’s probably naive to think that if I became a professor I could help make things better… but I feel obligated to try.

    • I’m sorry you had to hear words from another student that made you uncomfortable, but do you really think trying to get the professor fired is the appropriate response?

      The situation you described sounds like the perfect opportunity to learn to tell someone why their comments made you uncomfortable, or to learn to be more assertive and communicative and to express your point of view, or at least give them an opportunity to clarify or apologize and reflect on their statements.

      It’s hard to tell from your telling, but it sounds like your professor was inviting you to express your opinion on the subject and you tried to get them fired over it.

      Saying nothing in the moment, and then writing an anonymous note expecting to get someone fired, especially in a precarious field with very few labor protections is not the way I would recommend you go about it.

      • You do realize that “telling someone why their comments made you uncomfortable” is exactly what got Will kicked out of the English program at UT? That kind of retribution is extremely common. The original poster was under this professor’s power. Speaking out against this kind of issue is extremely difficult and entails a lot of risk. I think that going to the Dean of Faculty was the best of many bad options here.

        Lecturing the original poster on what she “should” have done is condescending and pedantic. If this faculty member couldn’t manage to run an anti-racist and anti-imperialist classroom, then academia would be better off without her in it. The fact that her contract was renewed illustrates the fact that racism and imperialism are baked into the system.

      • Telling “someone why their comments made you uncomfortable” is exactly what led to the situation discussed in this article. That graduate student took precisely the approach you suggest and was summarily kicked out of his PhD program without cause or explanation. Confronting faculty directly, especially when that faculty member holds power over you because you’re in their class or you’re their advisee, is a tremendous risk–particularly for students of color and women. I think it’s perfectly rational NOT to confront faculty and to seek recourse elsewhere.

        As for the “precarious field with very few labor protections,” that’s an entirely different conversation. The fact that someone is a VAP doesn’t excuse racism and/or imperialism. Frankly, if a faculty member can’t run an anti-racist and anti-imperialist classroom, academia might be better off without them. The fact that this woman’s contract was renewed speaks volumes about the way such oppressive ideologies are baked into academic institutions.

        • I never expected the professor to be fired. They were on a visiting contract, and I hoped that based on my feedback, the school would give that opportunity to another academic, maybe an academic of color. I don’t feel bad about going through an informal reporting process, and no, I don’t feel that making a comment about my facial expression was “an invitiation to express my opinion.” I didn’t think I needed to tell anyone that I don’t have sympathy for slave owners or known racists. The professor took away my agency to decide to engage by putting me on the spot with her inappropriate comment when I was visibly uncomfortable. I do student advocacy work (focused on disability complaints) and I always tell students that it’s okay not to engage in a confrontation, and it’s okay not to report things. You can not change everyone’s mind, and there’s no guarrantee reporting/engaging will change anything, but there is a guarrantee that there will be some cost, emotional labor, time, retaliation etc. Only that student knows what’s right for them, and I don’t think it’s fair to judge them, because a million factors go into the decision, and everyone has different circumstances. I knew myself and my circumstances, and I made the best decision for myself. You may want to think about how what you’ve said will only compound bad experiences by suggesting how someone handled it makes them mean, or even indequate or ineffective as an activist/advocate/leader. I originally commented because I wanted to support the author in this small way by telling this story, and hopefully validating concerns about speaking up, and choosing something other than direct confrontation. You would not be the first person to suggest I should feel bad about my decisions, and that’s why I support students in whatever choice they make.

  2. “’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.”

    Amazing to see how power renders itself invisible to those who have it.

  3. I did my PhD in the English department at UT and am here to attest to the fact that Wayne Lesser torpedoed the careers of an entire generation of women matriculating in that department, and the female faculty there were complicit. That man was trash. May he not rest in peace.

    • Thank you for your comment. There is so much complicity in the academy among women and POC which is another reason academia is what it is.The racism, misogynior and elitism are suffocating. The academy is an especially horrible place for Black women. One thing I am curious about is what a course on anti-semitism or Nazi Germany would look like.

  4. Carolyn, Thank you for sharing your story and Will’s. I graduated from the same program though our years did not overlap. The UT English Department was not a safe place, though I did not understand the core reason. It makes sense that white supremacy was at the center of it, and that white students like me were protected from the oppression our Black colleagues experienced in the program as well as in Austin at large. I wish I had been a better ally. I wish you had experienced something healing and empowering rather than the unbearable liberal whiteness it was. Finally, I am so glad to hear you and Will are both thriving.

  5. Surprising/not surprising that they were so intent on gagging Will with the white professor’s view–as if a black man who got into school wasn’t already WELL AWARE of white people’s views. The professors should be made to read Liz Pryor’s work on the n-world or Korintha Mitchell.

    In my department, at least one prof teaches minor works by certain authors that contain the n-word and then complains that the students complain that she reads them out loud. Save me from liberal white profs who teach “race.”

    • Forgot to thank the author for this beautiful piece of writing with such clear, unsparing vision. I wish her great success wherever she lands.

  6. If you think you HAVE to use language like that, even after your students have asked you not to, in order to teach, you’re a shitty teacher. But those will continue to be the people who get tenure and TT jobs while the rest of us don’t. It’s infuriating. I’m so sorry you had to go through this. I was a baby grad student in a different country when it happened, so am unlikely to ever be much help, but solidarity anyway.

  7. I was a grad student there in the mid-nineties and had a lot of problems as a Black graduate student directly with Elizabeth Cullingford. I made a formal complaint but, of course, nothing was done. I’m sorry that she was not only able to continue business as usual but was put in charge when I transferred to Cornell. That is also very typical of academia.

  8. Eloquent and forceful, Carolyn.
    Can you advise on the problem of using quotations from literature that contain offensive language. Recently I was teaching a 60s course, and had a unit on the Black Arts Movement where the problem came up. I like to try to respect the original language and the desire by the writer to shock and cause discomfort, but only when pointing out the relevant passage(s), as quotes. (It would seem that in the case of Will, there was more going on in the class?)
    Yours, trying to sometimes teach race in a classroom without being racist.

    • Hey Brian, how about you not ask a WOC to do that labor and do the work of educating yourself? Or, failing that, ASK YOUR BLACK WIFE.

  9. Thank you for this post. You are clearly a talented writer with strong analytical skills and I hope you can live your best life after surviving that department that I wish didn’t represent most of academia. While I wish you could become a tenured professor yourself so that students could benefit from learning from you, I know that whatever you do will be impactful and wish you all the best.

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