The Inaugural Fireside Chat on Defining Moments of a Free Man from a Black Stream with Senior Leaders and members of the Board of Trustees at Lehigh University was held on February 27th. I read four excerpts covering why I resigned from MIT, and three episodes that occurred while I was a student at Lehigh University. These excerpts were selected to generate discussion around the issue of Value, namely, what happens when Black Faculty are not valued, as in the case of MIT in 2007, as well as positive examples of professors valuing a student. The chat could be characterized as engaging and honest. There were many questions and comments. Here are two questions, which actually, were asked back to back, and my responses.
Question: What do you tell students when they believe that a Professor has acted in a racist manner to them?
Answer: I tell the student or employee to acknowledge the hurt, the anger or humiliation they feel, but set a specified time period when they will move on from that experience. I used to give myself, one week.
Second, I tell them that there is always round 2. If a professor truly has racist tendencies, s/he will repeat it. That is when you say directly to the offender: Professor, you did this once before and it was quite hurtful. I do not expect you to repeat this behavior, because if you do, I shall have to take action.
Question: What if the student is afraid that the Professor will use the power of the grade to penalize the student?
Answer: I tell the student to consider the options: a) suffer in silence with the hope that you might get the grade you deserve; b) confront the offender when you are calm with a prepared response and hope that the offender gains respect for you, even if it is grudgingly.
Given those two possible outcomes, I would go with option b) because it signals to the offender that I do not plan to play the ‘victim’ role and being treated with dignity is more important to me as a human being than obtaining a specific grade.
The second question was the other side of this conversation.
Question: What advice do you have for a professor who wants to tell a minority student that their performance is inadequate, but is concerned that it would be perceived by the student as being done because of discrimination against the student.
Answer. Be direct and to the point, but start with something like the following: I have a very tough evaluation to give you, but I am doing it because I value you as a student and I am sure you can reverse this situation.
Give the evaluation and end with: I would like to discuss this with you in X days to see how I can help you improve this situation.
I also mentioned two positive examples in which I was valued. The first was my being told by Professor Young that I had produced water as my product in my organic lab experiment, but that I never felt demeaned by his comment about it. See page 47-48 of the Memoir.
The second example that I cited was the interaction with Professor Hoffmann when I was a graduate student at Cornell University. Pages 70-71. His first salvo was direct, succinct and devastating. His last salvo, however, made it clear that he was not discriminating against me. Instead, he was helping me reflect that my lack of commitment to study and hard work was speaking volumes about the lack of value that I had for myself.