Professor calls university ‘toxic working and learning environment’

In Zoom town hall on racial climate, Ferris professors and students share experiences

Over 250 Ferris students, staff and faculty attended the Zoom town hall on Tuesday, Nov. 24.

A single question left over 250 Ferris students, faculty and staff silent for a few moments that felt like hours.

“How would you describe the racial climate that exists now on our campus?” vice president of diversity and inclusion David Pilgrim asked.

The Zoom town hall on the racial climate at Ferris lasted an hour and a half on Tuesday, Nov. 24 in response to “recent incidents on our campus” that left many “feeling mocked and marginalized,” Pilgrim said in the email announcement Monday. President David Eisler was present in the meeting, along with a number of faculty and administrators.

After a few students and faculty responded to Pilgrim’s question, Dr. Rita Walters, an associate professor of social work, shared her view as a Black woman on the working environment at Ferris.

“I’m going to give a very direct answer; I find Ferris to be a toxic working and learning environment in respect to racial climate,” Walters said. “It’s becoming a problem, not so much because we have an isolated incident here, isolated incident there, it’s problematic because there is no result. I love taking part in town hall meetings, I love listening and learning. I take every opportunity to grow in that regard, but there is no result.”

Walters continued to say that they repeatedly come back to the table to ask what they believe the problem is. But there is no discussion of the steps that have been taken and inquiry of their effectiveness, according to Walters.

“It is a constant ‘What is wrong? How do we fix it?’ and I for one, feel strongly that we have the talent, the resources and the desire to do that,” Walters said. “I’m baffled why we have not.”

When Pilgrim asked for specific examples where Walters felt Ferris did not take action, Walters brought up the recent situation with physical sciences professor Thomas Brennan’s comments that COVID-19 was a ‘leftist stunt’ and his Twitter account, on which he uses racist, homophobic and antisemitic language. Part of the problem, Walters believes, is not wanting to come forward and own their failures.

“Things happen behind the scenes so that it doesn’t appear that it was addressed, and I’m going to be direct and come to the example of Brennan in the college of arts and sciences and education,” Walters said. “I was attending the faculty meeting where he made some very inflammatory comments. I brought that to the attention of the administrators and got no response.

“So again, things may be happening behind the scenes that the administration believes is in the best interest of the Ferris family. I may not be privy to that. But the impact was so tremendous on me, I came to you, Dr. Pilgrim, in tears. The follow up behind that with this particular individual continues to be devastating. So when I say I don’t see the effort being made to address a problem, that’s a prime example.”

Pilgrim responded, saying that actions were taken, and he was unaware of anything besides the comment in the college of arts and sciences meeting until last week.

“Just because a public statement is not made does not mean actions are not being taken,” Pilgrim said. “We understand that’s not very satisfactory to people. But it’s not like nothing happens.”

According to Pilgrim, Ferris has a diversity plan, and “a lot within it has been accomplished.” Areas where Pilgrim feels that Ferris is struggling in fulfilling that plan are the hiring and retention of faculty and staff of color, addressing racial incidents and decreasing the achievement gap between students of color and others.

Sociology adjunct instructor Dr. Angela Guy-Lee asked Pilgrim what the plan was to hire more diverse faculty, given the budget crisis the university is facing. Pilgrim said it is “obviously going to be a challenge” and there were times in the past when no minority instructors applied for an open position. He then called on the faculty to begin recruiting other candidates to make sure “the pools themselves are diverse.”

Guy-Lee, who has taught at Ferris for seven years, said at the time of her hiring in the social and behavioral sciences & humanities department, the only Black women were herself, Walters and former Ferris instructor Daisy Henderson.

“I hear this over and over again, we can’t get Black people to come work at Ferris and in social sciences that is not true, at all,” Guy-Lee said.

In 2014, Guy-Lee said there were three tenure lines offered to the College of Arts and Sciences, two of which were supposed to go to Guy-Lee and Henderson, who were level three adjuncts at the time. According to Guy-Lee, former Dean of College of Arts and Sciences Andy Karafa refused to give them the tenure lines. Guy-Lee is still currently a level three adjunct instructor six years later.

“So it’s fine to say recruit and call people, but what are you all doing for the people that are already there?” Guy-Lee said. “There are people that are actually at Ferris right now who are diverse. Monica Rodriguez teaches anthropology, has a PhD. I teach sociology, anthropology and African American studies, also have a PhD. I think that’s where our frustration goes.

“If people say they are going to make a commitment to diversifying the faculty…we really need to see a strategic plan to do that, because otherwise, it’s just performative. It sounds good in the moment, but there have been several opportunities to diversify the faculty and frankly, Ferris hasn’t taken advantage of those opportunities.”

Pilgrim did not respond to Guy-Lee’s comments.

Several students of color also voiced their experiences at Ferris, including graduate student Kenneth Hawkins, who is in the community college leadership doctoral program at Ferris and currently teaches African American studies at a community college in Florida.

In Hawkins’ opinion, race does is not included in enough of Ferris’ curriculum, especially in his program, where they are learning to be community college presidents.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that perhaps in all of our classes, whether it’s biology or history or whatever it is, we should also be addressing issues related to race,” Hawkins said. “That way students can get more of a comprehensive idea of dealing with each other in a regular way. It would be cool and I think important to have issues of race in every class we’re taking.”

According to Hawkins, the Black students in his cohort are all very close, but he’s the only one who is outspoken. This isn’t necessarily due to fear, but Hawkins said there isn’t a high enough level of comfort to freely express their opinions.

“You get that comfort from having a curriculum that’s based also in issues related to race because if they’re never based on race ever, or mostly, then talking about race is always going to be problematic and people are going to be reserved in talking about it,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said one step he believes the university should take is firing Brennan.

“I think that would go a long way in terms of showing the university is serious about addressing those who make inappropriate racial epithets publicly on Twitter, that’s a real issue,” Hawkins said. “I know that’s why we are here, so you guys are taking it seriously, obviously, but that would be the first step in showing the world we’re serious about what happens next.”

Other students, like criminal justice junior Sha’Hirra Sims and Sorrell Dean said they’ve seen firsthand the toxic environment Walters mentioned, such as hearing non-Black students use the n-word. Sims said she never had to experience racism until she came to Ferris.

“I moved off campus because I felt like Ferris was a toxic place and I do feel like I chose the wrong university,” Dean said. “I chose Ferris because I would get emails saying Ferris very inclusive, diverse, a place that will make you feel at home. I did not experience that.”

Sociology junior Happy Bainbridge attended the beginning of the meeting, but left because she felt it was not productive. Bainbridge, who is Jewish, said the antisemitic comments made by Brennan made her feel “very excluded,” but they were not the first antisemitic comments she has heard at Ferris. When Ferris sent out the first statements on Thursday about Brennan and did not address the then alleged antisemitism, Bainbridge felt overlooked.

“That was definitely the most disappointing part,” Bainbridge said “When they sent that statement to my mom, she called me and she was very upset, we both cried. It just feels like our issues are ignored, especially from the higher-ups who don’t seem to take it seriously. But it’s definitely something I have experienced at Ferris the entire time I’ve been here.”

Assistant professor in health administration and health information Antionette Epps said there needs to be measurable metrics and outcomes in regard to diversity goals. If the university wants to have more students of color on campus, there needs to be a target number.

“If we don’t get those people on campus, then someone in a responsible position should be held accountable for that,” Epps said. “The same thing with hiring. Deans, associate deans, search committees, whomever. If it is a goal to have more persons of color, more Black folks, more indigenous folks, whomever as professors on campus, then that should be a stated goal. If we are using a head hunter, that head hunter needs to understand that they are not going to be rewarded for bringing a non-diverse group of candidates to the table.

“My observation in the seven years I have been here is that those things have not been done at Ferris and until they are done, until the outcomes are the measure and the rewards are associated with those outcomes, it is human nature to fall back into the usual suspects and doing what we’ve always done.”

Adjunct instructor of sociology Melissa DeRosia said that looking at the outcomes so far, there has been systematic disinvestment in the programs that talk about issues like race. When DeRosia started at Ferris, there were at least five tenured sociology faculty and a number of tenured political science faculty; now there are none in either area of study.

“We continue to have these discussions about how can we better serve the students and address these problems and have representative faculty, have a diverse workforce in both administration and faculty,” DeRosia said. “We need to model those behaviors and have the diversity in the classroom that we are after, and we are as a university systematically dismantling all those structures.”

Eisler did not offer any answers to questions during the meeting and commented at the end, thanking the students, faculty and staff who attended and shared their experience in front of over 200 people.

“You did so in a civil and respectful way and you did it talking about challenging issues in an honest and candid manner, and not every campus and every university can do that,” Eisler said. “I want you to know that I appreciate that you would do that. We listened this evening and if you listened like I did, there were actionable items for each of us in the conversation tonight, whether we be faculty, staff or students.”

Pilgrim closed with an assurance that Ferris was going to create a new plan, but it would not work unless every member of the Ferris community was committed to “building the kind of institution that we want to build.”

“What used to be relatively isolated incidents of racial intolerance, injustice, bias and alike have become more common,” Pilgrim said. “We cannot stand for that as an institution.”