Race, SU and Tenure: Watkins vs. University

This is Part II of a two-part series. Read Part I.

The original feud, and what Watkins said destroyed his chances for tenure, with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly

By Naresh Vissa

Whitman School of Management Professor Boyce Watkins cites his 2007 feud with Bill O’Reilly as a principal reason for not receiving tenure last May. The dispute began when O’Reilly praised customers at Harlem’s Sylvia’s Restaurant for being “respectful” and not “screaming” profanity or being crazy. NPR’s Juan Williams, who is an African-American, supported O’Reilly’s statements.

Watkins countered by saying O’Reilly’s comments were “like going to a black home and congratulating those there for having a mother who is not a prostitute.” He finished his rant by dubbing Williams as O’Reilly’s “happy negro.” O’Reilly sent his producer to Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s office and demanded an apology. Cantor didn’t budge.

“Watkins hides behind academic freedom in his villainous pursuits,” O’Reilly said on his show after receiving no response. “But Syracuse University should have academic standards, and it apparently does not.”

In response to O’Reilly’s words, the SU went against protocol and issued a statement saying Watkins’ views did not represent those of the University. Newhouse Associate Dean for Professional Graduate Studies Joel Kaplan thinks the University was “outrageous” in its actions toward Watkins.

“Each week, Syracuse University highlights the quotes that faculty and administrators give to a wide variety of media outlets,” Kaplan said. “In none of those cases did the University send out a statement to say that those faculty members only speak for themselves and not the university, yet that’s exactly what they did with Professor Watkins. The question is why?”

A “horns” error in human resources applies when one specific incident in the past clouds over an entire performance evaluation. “Horns” errors are more about an individual’s personality and not his or her performance. Watkins may have fallen victim to the error because of his outspoken words privately within the University and publicly in media. It’s no secret that he has alienated himself and that his colleagues think about him differently because of the extra baggage he carries. He appealed the tenure decision and is now waiting on Vice Chancellor and Provost Eric Spina to give a judgment.

“You can’t say to me that a business school with seven departments that hasn’t given tenure to a single African-American in nearly one-hundred years of operating history is a normal school,” Watkins said. “That’s racism. You can’t go any lower than zero.”

I’ve never had Watkins for a class. His evaluations on Rate My Professor and Rate My Class are poor. He told The Daily Orange in 2007 that classes are the least of his worries because research and Scholarship in Action are what he focuses on, since that’s what supposedly makes up the bulk of tenure decisions.

“I would much rather be an expert or top-notch researcher than a top-notch teacher,” Watkins said at the time.

I have several friends who have taken his courses over the past year.

“He comes to all classes prepared, explains problems thoroughly and ties in current events to topics,” junior finance and marketing major Jameel Murray said. “He never discusses his personal issues. I had an idea he was on the news, but I didn’t know he was such a huge deal until I Googled and YouTubed him.”

Not getting tenure may not turn out so bad for Watkins in the long haul. He can make a whole lot more money as a full-time commentator on national media than as an academic at this school.

The school makes tough decisions every year, so I can’t argue with any tenure verdicts. I’m glad I’m not the one making those calls. But as a University Ambassador, I’m a staunch promoter of SU and want what’s best for it. Watkins’ voice is incredibly strong, as he has promised to sue the University if things reach a certain point. His story is sure to spark discussion about universities responding to their employees being publicly attacked as well as race in academia. If Watkins doesn’t get tenure, don’t expect him to go out quietly. He has very strong supporters across the country and enough power to get the NAACP to march on campus in the spring to wreak all sorts of havoc – all because the University couldn’t treat one of its own the same way it has others.

Naresh Vissa is a member of the Class of 2011. He is a broadcast journalism, finance and accounting triple major. He can be reached at nvrammoh@syr.edu.

Watkins coverage on CNN

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