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When the Dean Said a Slur, And Then Got Promoted

By Featured, SAIC

Illustration by Cat Cao.

In Sept. 2018, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) had just hired a new Dean of Faculty, Martin Berger. Introducing himself to the SAIC community at the All Faculty-Staff meeting, Berger gave a lecture on his academic work surrounding the American civil rights movement. In the course of his lecture, Berger, who is white, read a quote including the unabbreviated n-word.

At the time, some faculty and staff expressed concern, with feelings ranging from offense to hurt. Others considered it fair use in an academic context. After an emailed apology letter, sent only to a few people, neither Berger nor the administration issued any further response — no public acknowledgment, no community meeting. Students were never informed. Faculty and staff waited for a more thorough response. None came. Instead, a few months later, Dean Berger was promoted to Provost — one of the most powerful positions on campus.

After his promotion, a collective of faculty and staff wrote an open letter requesting an open forum meeting to discuss both the original incident and the promotion process. Though the letter requested internal handling via the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), administrators chose instead to hire an outside anti-racism group to mediate the meeting. The meeting was held October 2019, over a year after the original incident.

The forum focused on Berger’s use of the slur, but did not touch on the larger issues at play: institutional racism, as well as administrative transparency and faculty- staff self-governance. These issues remain unresolved. In working on this story, F interviewed, in person and via email, 12 faculty and staff. Five of them spoke with us only on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation. Distress from the original controversy, compounded with the unexpected promotion, has continued to simmer for over a year.

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The quote Berger read in the meeting was from Elizabeth Eckford, in an article she wrote for Ebony Magazine in 1974. In 1957, as a teenager, Eckford was one of the Little Rock Nine, the first black students brought to attend a formerly all-white public school in Little Rock, Arkansas. The schoolchildren were met with vitriol and threats of violence from white mobs outside the school. Eckford, who is still alive today, has written about it many times.

Berger, in addition to his work as an administrator, is an art historian with a focus on race and gender. His books include “Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture” and “Seeing through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography.”

Berger told F via email, “In an effort to return agency to the young black activist, I used Eckford’s own words to illuminate her actions and thoughts.”

After this meeting, a handful of people came to President Elissa Tenny and then-Dean Berger to express concerns. A week later, Berger sent out an apology letter to those he had met with individually.

“I want to unambiguously express my sincere regret for causing offense and harm. I am deeply sorry I offended people and am pained that there are members of the community who now feel unsafe,” he wrote on Oct. 7, 2018.

The letter was only sent to the people who had come forward, not to the faculty and staff as a whole. Tenny told F, in a December interview, that their aim was to avoid “inflicting unintentional pain” on people who had not been in attendance.

But some faculty and staff were disappointed with this limited response. They felt that the administration, rather than making amends, was trying to contain the story.

One faculty/admin criticized the move, saying in an email that “It was self-protective at a moment in which an open and respectful response was demanded.” As one part-time faculty member pointed out, “To only send your apology letter to people you met with, you assume they’re the only ones you’ve affected.”

Following the apology letter, some faculty and staff requested a more wide-reaching response and an open community dialogue. These requests were declined by leadership. They were instead “redirected … towards private one-on-one meetings to express concerns,” as wrote the same part-time faculty member in an email, “and told that they should trust that their concerns would be adequately addressed. Many staff and faculty did so, and waited in anticipation that SAIC leadership would act upon the feedback.”

The wait lasted several months. Instead of follow-up, the next news they received was the announcement that Berger had been promoted to Provost.

The Search Committee

When Berger came to SAIC in the fall of 2018, the provost position had been recently vacated by Craig Barton. He had left the post abruptly in July, a few months before. The Provost supervises the deans and some of the vice presidents, making it one of the highest-ranking positions below the President. Then-Dean Berger was on the search committee for Barton’s replacement.

A Feb. 12, 2019, email from Rachel Weiss, chair of the provost search committee, outlined the search process. In the email, she promised “feedback mechanisms” by which faculty and staff could share their thoughts on all the finalists.

But the chance for feedback never came. After several months of searching, the search committee did not consider the finalist pool strong enough to hire from. Because the process is confidential, none of the search committee members were at liberty to provide details. Beth Wright, chair of faculty and member of the search committee, explained to F that they asked Berger to leave the committee and prepare a new CV. They then conducted an interview, and after a secret ballot, it was the committee’s unanimous recommendation to hire him as Provost. Tenny followed this recommendation, and his promotion was announced April 4, 2019.

Some faculty and staff were alarmed by this lack of transparency. Many felt that the promise of an opportunity for feedback had been broken. The non-response to his use of the n-word, compounded with the opaque provost search process, left staff and faculty feeling powerless.

“I felt disappointed, overlooked, and not considered,” one black SAIC employee told F. “I would say black people felt that as a whole.” Another employee told F that the process seemed rushed. After an insufficient apology, this promotion felt like an extra blow. “I don’t think that anyone who looks like us was at the [search committee] table.”

The Open Letter

From April to July of last year, a group of employees crafted an open letter to the administration.

“We really wanted it to reflect group concerns,” one of the letter organizers told F in an interview in December. “We need[ed] to show the administration that this is not just a few disgruntled people. This is a campus-wide issue.”

The letter listed seven main concerns, abbreviated here:

1. “The elimination of community involvement from the stated [Provost] hiring practices.”

2. The “lack of opportunity to address the effects of the all-staff/faculty meeting on Sept. 25th, 2018, where Martin used a racial slur … causing distress to many members of the SAIC community.”

3. The apology letter, “in which Martin apologized for hurting members of the community, but justified the use (and continued use) of the n-word for purposes of educating and challenging white people in public settings, despite how this might affect persons of color.”

4. The limited scope of the apology, leaving out those who didn’t vocalize their concerns, and non-staff and faculty in attendance, such as security and food services workers.

5. The administration’s repeated denial of requests for “public acknowledgement and open community dialogue.”

6. Conflicts of interest within the search committee.

7. “The pattern of foregoing community feedback” overall.

The letter closed with a request for these issues to be discussed in an open forum, “specifically a forum where all parties have been informed beforehand of the totality of the situation.” They also requested that the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) moderate the discussion. When it was complete, the letter collected 55 signatures.

Thirteen months after the initial incident, on Oct. 22, 2019, the community meeting took place.

The Open Forum

Despite the letter’s request for DEI to moderate, the administration hired the Chicago Regional Organization for AntiRacism (CROAR), an outside organization that does workshops with institutions. The meeting started with a recap of events, and then the mic was opened for community members to express their thoughts. Only faculty and staff were informed about the meeting, not students.

All attendees who spoke to F said that the meeting was extremely tense.

“Everyone felt excruciatingly uncomfortable,” said Wright. But it was encouraging, she said, “to see that number of faculty and staff show up even though they knew it would be uncomfortable.”

Faculty and staff shared concerns about Berger’s use of the n-word, the time elapsed for a response, and the apology they considered insufficient. In interviews with F in the months that followed, some attendees reiterated their concerns.

One employee said the incident has had a “huge impact” on the psyches of black staff and faculty. They also said Berger should have been “mindful of different levels of class in the room” at the 2018 meeting. In addition to school faculty and staff, security and food service staff were also present. “If you’re picking up someone’s cup and you turn around and hear the n-word … You didn’t come to work for that.”

“We already have a major issue with the lack of people of color, and particularly Black staff [and] faculty on campus,” they wrote in a follow-up email. “This isn’t helping.”

“[Berger] later said that he uses the unabbreviated n-word to shock whites into understanding its power,” said an Office of Student Affairs (OSA) staff member via email. “Even if for educational purposes, what learning objectives are white educators hoping to meet when using the unabbreviated n-word?”

The same letter organizer agreed: “When one defends saying this word by saying it was for academic or educational purposes, it’s clear you’re only thinking of a white audience, and not about the people of color in the room.”

Said one faculty/admin, “I have yet to find anyone who disagrees that it showed extremely poor judgement, even amongst those who defend the usage under the umbrella of academic freedom.”

Academic freedom was one argument raised in the meeting to defend Berger’s word choice. As Raja Halwani, professor of philosophy and faculty liaison, explained in a December interview, “In philosophy, we distinguish between mention and use.” For Halwani, the use of a slur as a quotation is justified, especially when part of academic discourse.

The discussion’s narrow focus on the single slur, Halwani added, came at the expense of a broader, more urgent conversation about institutional white supremacy. “Even here,” he added, “the way it [the idea of white supremacy] was used at the meeting seemed to be a conversation stopper.”

But several others disagreed with the characterization of the original meeting as an “academic” context. Said the OSA staff member, this was a mandatory work meeting: “I was at a faculty and staff meeting, my attendance more or less required.”

Furthermore, wrote Matt Morris, associate professor, adjunct in the Painting and Drawing Department, “It’s a misreading of the logic of so-called academic freedom to take it to mean that one is not responsible to a deep (and hopefully compassionate) engagement with how multiple meanings occur around culturally charged materials.”

Because CROAR moderated, the meeting focused exclusively on racism, and on Berger’s particular use of the n-word, but did not touch on the open letter’s other concerns. Tenny told F that she shared the letter with CROAR ahead of the meeting, but letter signatories did not get an offer to meet with CROAR in advance.

The letter organizer who spoke to F wished that they had met beforehand. “As a group, we didn’t decide what were the goals of this forum.”

DEI was also not involved with the organization of the meeting, despite the letter’s request. The day of the meeting, Christina Gómez, the director of DEI, had a previous commitment and was traveling, she told F in a November interview.

Several employees who spoke with F said that they were disappointed by the lack of accountability to or continuity with DEI, an office created to deal with this sort of issue.

“Then what?”

After the open forum, CROAR hosted two days of workshops. Most of the faculty and staff who spoke with F said that the workshops were productive. But, said one employee,
“Then what? Is there changed behavior?”

“Healing and learning are different things,” they said in an interview with F. “There needed to be more of an acknowledgment from Martin about the impact that this has had on people. Aside from the email, what has he done to repair trust?”

It’s hard not to view these incidents as “symptomatic,” said this letter organizer. “We can say we believe in ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion.’ … But when there’s an incident like this you can see whether or not people of color are really listened to, whether their voices are really valued.”

Another staff member commented: “I have not felt supported as a black employee. That keeps getting solidified every time something like this happens.”

F asked Berger, who preferred to be interviewed via email, whether he would handle a similar situation differently in the future, now that he is Provost. He responded: “For the past 20 years, I have produced scholarship that aids academic and lay-audiences in understanding the experiences of women and people of color. … I have devoted my professional life to making U.S. society, and our academic institutions, more just. None of this will change. If I had the ability to go back in time to my September 2018 talk, I would most certainly not use the quotation from Eckford, as I have come to see that my use of the word did more harm than good.”

Tenny, in a December interview, expressed regret for how long the administration took to respond to the original incident. “I have learned my response was inadequate,” she said.

Berger’s unexpected promotion, coupled with the non-response to his original speech, has exacerbated faculty and staff worries about power and self-governance. Many who spoke with F expressed concern about a lack of transparency and a consolidation of power. There was a feeling that procedures are being bypassed. One faculty/admin wrote that morale “is low in the wake of both this offensively poor judgement and the ensuing promotion.”

For Allie n Steve Mullen, associate professor, adjunct, and SAIC employee of 15 years, this controversy has affected the way she teaches. Mullen, who is white, was at the 2018 meeting. Berger’s use of the n-word did not immediately raise a red flag for her, because it is content she often grapples with in her own academic work, the history of American music. But watching the reactions and long-term impacts on her colleagues altered her view. She told F that it has forced her to re-examine her own use of historical material in the classroom.

In her course America’s Musical Roots, Mullen plays Billie Holiday’s famous performance of “Strange Fruit,” a song about the lynching of black Americans in the South. Her slideshow, accompanying the Holiday song, used to include a photo of a lynching. After the controversy, she thought differently about the impact a traumatizing photo might be having on her students. Ultimately, she decided to remove it from the slideshow.

“That changed me. It has changed my teaching practice.”

For Mullen, the controversy presented an opportunity to open a real dialogue. “I worry about the health of our institution,” she said, if we are not being “challenging and courageous” about examining issues like this.

She added: “What was missed was an opportunity to ask the question, ‘How would an anti-racist institution, one that is built around a white capitalist framework, address trauma and rage, and re-imagine ways that real power can be shared?’ We missed an opportunity to shift the conversation from accusations like, ‘Look at the racist language the provost used!’ to the question, ‘How can we truly be an anti-racist institution?’”

For the letter organizer who spoke to F, the controversy has demonstrated the level of care that faculty and staff have for the institution. “I feel hopeful about the group voice that we have now.”

But there was much more leadership could have done. The OSA staff member wrote, “When the well-being of community members is being compromised, that’s the kind of situation where we need to go above and beyond to protect and support, and we’re just not seeing that from our leadership.”

One Response to When the Dean Said a Slur, And Then Got Promoted

  1. Martin Berger should be fired says:

    Martin Berger should be fired.

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