A group of students at the University of Massachusetts Boston are protesting against the College of Liberal Arts for refusing to renew the contract of their cherished Professor Anthony Van Der Meer and for delaying with the tenure process of the only two female professors of the Africana Studies Department, Aminah Pilgrim and Veronique Helenon.
Some students joined the protest because they will no longer be able to take the classes with Professor Van Der Meer, which most of them need to take in order to graduate. Some others are joining the protest because they do not want to lose these professors in whom they see friends, mentors, and advisers.
"To those who have had the opportunity to take classes with either Prof. Van Der Meer or Prof. Pilgrim, you understand that both of these faculty members are the cornerstone of the Africana Studies Department," wrote the Coalition to Save the Africana Studies at UMass Boston, in a petitioning letter.
"To those who might have had any encounters with them, you know that they are not only excellent teachers, but also great friends, amazing mentors, exceptional scholars and overall caring and passionate community members."
Professor Robert Johnson, chair of the Africana Studies Department, echoes the coalition by mentioning the importance of these professors to the department. “[These professors] have contributed greatly to our department and to our students, they were reviewed by our department personnel committee, and then our personnel committee voted that [they] won tenure, ” he said.
Professor Johnson confirms that the department has approved Professors Pilgrim and Helenon for tenure, and also wishes to see Professor Van Der Meer continue to teach for the Africana Studies Department.
“Professor Van Der Meer has been a very excellent faculty member in our department for 22 years and he is very student oriented, he is very collegial in his relationship with other faculty members.” Johnson shares his thoughts of Van Der Meer as a fellow professor: “He is very much involved in the black community; he has always been involved and well-respected in the black community, which gives our department statue in the community.”
Professor Van Der Meer is also responsible for the majority of the work in getting the Cuban study abroad program together, and took upon himself to take 50 students to Selma, Alabama, for the 50th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Bridge.
The two other professors, Pilgrim and Helenon, are the only women faculty in the Africana department. If these women are not granted tenure, they have one year left to teach at UMass and then have to finish their teaching and research at a different university. The tenure process starts off with the department and moves up to the dean, provost, chancellor, and a committee, who will then discuss the work of the professors and make a final decision. The Africana Studies Department has already said yes to both women getting tenure. The decision is now at a higher level, and no word has been passed along about the decision.
Each one of these professors has taken part in the community and has supported students in getting involved with the community. Professor Pilgrim started a club on campus called H.I.P. H.O.P. Initiative, a community-based organization that encourages students to analyze their lives through a hip-hop lens. Pilgrim sees her students holistically and wants her students to do the same. Students feel that without her present in the Africana Studies Department, they are losing a valuable piece of their education. The Africana Studies Department is predominantly women, and female students show concerns that losing a strong female figure in the department may discourage women from joining the major.
“I have taken three classes with Professor Pilgrim; [she] is the first professor I've ever had to see real potential in me and tell me so,” said Askia Hanson. “Her classes are so engaging that coming to school is actually a rewarding feeling, and not a drag.”
There is also a concern about, since there has never been representation of an African American in the dean's office, whether the office understands Africana studies, and if they even support Africana studies. The Mass Media has multiple times tried to reach out to the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Dean David Terkla, but every attempt was unsuccessful, because no one is available.