Faculty Council disputes claims of racism levied by chancellor and provost in Feb. 10 email

Office of the chancellor in UMass Boston’s Quinn Administration Building.

On Feb. 10, Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco and Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Joseph Berger sent an email to the campus community condemning the “racially charged treatment” of Dr. Tyson King-Meadows by the Faculty Council. The FC disputes this claim of racism; some faculty members are demonstrating support for the FC, while others are not.

On Feb. 7, the FC—which is the governing body elected to represent the faculty—convened for its monthly meeting with administration, staff and faculty. Following the meeting, the aforementioned campus-wide email was sent out, accusing the FC of behaving in a “racially charged” manner and insinuating that they had engaged in “traffi[cking] in [...] racial stereotypes and tropes.” 

In a letter to the chancellor and the provost, the FC wrote: “We were surprised and dismayed to read these allegations, which we take very seriously. There was no indication you believed or felt this way in the 2/7/2022 meeting. You also did not specify which comments were problematic in the Joint Statement itself.”

The FC soon found out that the allegedly “racially charged” remarks were made by American Studies Professor Jeff Melnick when asking for transparency in the Provost’s selection of Dean King-Meadows as Chair of the search committee for the Dean of the School of Education. A transcript of the meeting—available on the Faculty Staff Union website: fsu.umb.edu—shows no indication that Melnick made any sort of racist remark during this meeting.  

Melnick, along with being an elected member of the FC, is involved on campus in a number of other ways. Perhaps most saliently, Melnick is the elected Communications Director for the Faculty Staff Union.

In an interview via email, Melnick reflected on his work as Communications Director for the FSU. 

“I take this job very seriously and doing the job means, among other things, that I am a very visible and vocal critic of the university administration,” wrote Melnick. 

Melnick has in fact criticized administration in the FSU’s weekly email blast column, “The Point,” writing about discrepancies in the administration’s rhetoric regarding implementation of anti-racist and health-promoting values on-campus and their actual practices, the defunding of centers and institutes on campus, and more.

“I do a substantial amount of work every week to research 'The Point,'” wrote Melnick. “It is crucial to me to do this work with integrity, clarity and force.”

Melnick also reported that the upper administration has tried to silence him in the past.

“When our provost first met with my union’s president after taking the job, the provost directly asked him to see if he could get me to tone down my criticisms of the administration,” wrote Melnick. “And when it was time to start expanded bargaining again in the fall, administration first refused to do so. When it came down to negotiating about this, admin made it clear that their only issue was live-tweeting during the sessions.  I’m almost sure that I was the only person doing this, so again we see an instance of administration working to silence me.”

When asked why he believes these accusations of using “racially charged” language were levied against him, Melnick wrote: “It is puzzling. As you can see from the meeting transcript I did not say anything that was racially charged. I did not question anybody’s qualifications or fitness to lead. (Almost immediately after I first saw the memo I sent an email to the CLA Dean affirming my confidence in him and underlining that my question at FC was exclusively about the provost’s decision-making protocols.) I can only conclude with [the Graduate Employee Organization], the Faculty Council, and the FSU that the false charges were designed to silence faculty critics of the upper administration of UMass Boston.”

Kibibi Mack-Shelton, a Professor of History and member of the FC since the Fall of 2018, was also in attendance of the meeting in which such accusations were made of Melnick. 

When asked if she believed if anyone at that meeting had said anything racially charged in nature, Mack-Shelton—speaking on the record only for herself and not as representative of any department or organization on campus—replied: “No, there was not one member, including Melnick, who said anything that was racially charged at the meeting. As an African American, female FC member of three years, I have never heard any FC member use racially charged language or make such comments.” 

“Honestly, I liked the question Melnick raised, as it would have been one I could have raised easily,” added Mack-Shelton. “If it was me who asked Provost Berger to explain this choice, particularly amid criticisms of shared governance, would the chancellor and provost [have] sent out that joint statement denouncing me as making some racist innuendos about a fellow African American?”  

When asked why she believed the chancellor and the provost sent out the Feb. 10 joint email, Mack-Shelton replied: “I surmise the letter came because our upper administrators either misheard, misinterpreted or misunderstood what was said. Or, perhaps, a guest attendee may have shared what they thought was said.  We have a chancellor who is passionate about justice and equality, where he takes such charges seriously. We have a provost who has committed to ensuring the campus implements its new mission of building an anti-racist campus. In either case, despite their personal commitment to justice, the letter reflected a ‘rush-to-judgment’ action, accusing members of the FC as being racist, biased.”

Two faculty members who are not involved in the FC, Professor Tony Van Der Meer and Professor Keith Jones of the Africana Studies department, spoke with The Mass Media.

Jones and Van Der Meer are co-recipients of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Service Award for their anti-racist work on campus, which has involved coordinating, facilitating and overseeing production of the Sankofa Conversations on Structural Racism and the Restorative Justice Colloquium on “Homegoing,” as well as organizing the Undoing Racism Assembly.

However, rather than speaking to the individual incidence of the joint email, Jones and Van Der Meer sought to draw attention to the broader, structural issues of racism on campus.

“What is more important to us is to understand the larger context within which the chancellor and the provost are denouncing an anti-Black racist incident, yet have not done the work that we’ve been advocating [for] them to do nor providing the leadership necessary to put in place the kinds of initiatives that would address the very thing they’re saying is the problem,” said Jones via Zoom interview.

“If the provost and the chancellor are concerned about how Black leadership is treated on this campus, the question is then: why have they ignored the leadership coming from the Africana Studies department, which has put on their table a plan [to] restore the department to what it was?” said Van Der Meer via Zoom interview. “We have 1.5 tenure track faculty members, and we’re the ones that put on the table that it should be mandatory for students, before they graduate, to take an ‘Intro to Africana Studies’ course as well as another course from a cluster of critical race and ethnic studies and women and gender studies courses. So the real question is, there is harm that’s happening to our community, and there is a solution. Why aren’t they sending out a broad campus-wide email encouraging all the leadership and governing bodies across the campus to move to activate this process of addressing transformative curricular needs at this moment? We have also proposed 'Undoing Racism' training for the past six years, long before this present crisis, which has largely gone ignored. We should also ask, why aren’t they speak[ing] to the invisibilizing of the Africana Studies department and its leadership on this question?”

While some faculty support the FC, a letter with ten faculty signatories was sent out to the entirety of the faculty via email calling for an FC apology to Dean King-Meadows. Four of the ten signatories of the letter are interim deans. 

 The letter calls on the FC to reflect on the racial implications of their actions, and accuses FC members of contributing to a hostile climate for the new dean as he transitions into his role.

In December of 2021, the FC sent a letter to the provost voicing their criticisms of the outcomes of the dean selection process for both the College of Liberal Arts—for which King-Meadows is dean—and the College of Management.

“In both cases, the faculty of each college communicated to you their very strong, even near-unanimous support and preference that the internal finalist candidates (Rajini Srikanth and Arindam Bandopadhyaya, respectively) be hired as permanent deans,” reads the letter. “In both cases, you chose to exercise your administrative prerogative and disregard the expressed will of the faculty.”  

When asked about the effects of the Feb. 10 joint email, Melnick reflected on its effects on the community, as well as how it personally affects him.

“As a white person committed to anti-racist work I welcome each and every opportunity to think about how systemic racism works and what part I might play in its reproduction,” wrote Melnick. “So personally, I welcome this chance to keep on doing this work—even if the opportunity to do so was presented by two powerful administrators who put me on blast to the entire extended UMass Boston community without making any effort to first contact the Faculty Council leadership or me.”

Chair of the Executive Committee of the FC, Heike Schotten, declined to comment on the situation when contacted by The Mass Media.

The Mass Media also reached out to the chancellor, the provost, and Dean King-Meadows for comment and has received no reply.

This is a developing story and The Mass Media will continue to provide updates as they occur.

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