A Dubious Expense, a Compromised Professor

In an era of large federal deficits, amidst a political culture that makes raising taxes all but impossible, there’s a particularly high need to guard against unnecessary or even inappropriate federal spending. How, then, to explain the National Science Foundation’s awarding just under $50,000 for a conference to “offer guidance” to “underrepresented” minority political science professors on how to receive tenure? And, having made that decision, how further to explain the decision to funnel the money through Paula McClain, a prominent member of Duke’s notorious Group of 88?

According to the NSF’s announcement of the project, “the workshop has significant and substantial broader impacts,” since it would enhance “scientific networks[??] and collaboration,” and would enhance “the diversity of the discipline of political science, making important contributions to scholarship, teaching, learning, and society at large.”

A first question: should a project of this sort receive federal funding? The minority junior faculty members selected by McClain for her gathering will have their tenure applications decided in an academy whose leadership overwhelmingly praised the racial-preferences scheme laid down in Grutter. Perhaps, McClain could claim, tenured political science professors, the people who will hold greatest sway over the tenure applications of the seminar participants, stand outside this academic norm? It appears not. To take a representative sampling (from Julie Park and Nida Denson’s 2009 Journal of Higher Education article), around 85 percent of associate and full professors in social science departments describe “diversity advocacy” of medium or high importance for their institution. If anything, then, status as a minority might provide a minor advantage for people seeking tenure in political science departments.

It may be—as the project’s existence seems to imply—that contemporary professors of political science are the ultimate hypocrites, supporting the use of racial preferences for all others while resolutely seeking to block the advancement of some types of minorities in their own ranks. A likelier explanation? The project’s originators have no justification for the funding beyond the typical appeal to “diversity.”

A second question: even if the NSF considered it wise to spend $50,000 to “offer guidance” on how “underrepresented” minority professors can navigate a process in which they’re disproportionately judged by advocates of racial preferences, were the directors of the Duke program an appropriate selection for the task? Not unless the federal government hopes to guide a new generation of professors on how to be race-baiters.

For those who didn’t follow the lacrosse case, McClain—all of whose courses deal with race and American political culture—was among the Group of 88 members most willing to play the race card. She was part of a contingent of Duke professors who deemed the university’s response as too friendly(!!) to the lacrosse players, going so far as to falsely claim that black faculty members never met with a top administrator to discuss the lacrosse case. (Duke President Richard Brodhead himself had conducted such a meeting, in early April 2006.) After the university reached a settlement with the falsely accused players that protected Duke professors for their pre-settlement denunciations of the students, McClain huffed, “I’m not going to be intimidated into modulating speech.” (She might have talked a tough game, but she ceased her publicly denunciations of the students.) And, in summer 2006, when asked if she was willing to speak out publicly to urge due process for the Duke students targeted by rogue prosecutor Mike Nifong, McClain answered bluntly, “No.”

McClain ran the conference through Duke’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender in the Social Sciences (REGSS). The center’s co-director (who also ran a seminar session) was Duke professor Kerry Haynie, who, like McClain, doesn’t exactly embody a commitment to open-minded campus discourse. When asked why he had signed onto a winter 2007 statement defending the Group of 88’s actions, Haynie replied, en toto, “Get a freaking life! Quote me!”

So what, precisely, did the taxpayers receive for their $50,000? McClain and Haynie seemed to go out of their way to conceal what occurred at their conference. The conference program wasn’t listed on the REGSS website. Nor (as often occurs at Duke) were the conference proceedings uploaded to the Duke itunes channel. Two e-mails from me to the REGSS office requesting a copy of the program went unanswered. Finally, the NSF program officer interceded to obtain for me a copy of the program—which contained only vague session titles and included neither the names of individual faculty presenters nor the specific subjects of their presentation. Nor did the provided program indicate the demographic breakdown of the participants, even though McClain claimed to have catered to all types of minority professors. Since McClain has refused to provide it, I have filed a FOIA request to obtain the list of faculty presenters and their topics, and also the application that REGSS provided to the NSF.

The only hint at what exactly transpired came from a seven-paragraph release prepared by the Duke publicity office. (Ironically, the item was entitled, “Tenure Secrets Revealed.”) In this setting, McClain offered a quite different justification for the program that she had on the NSF’s official site, justifying the conference’s importance “because a lot of the cutting-edge research being done on America’s changing demographic is being done by scholars of color; not all, but a lot.” (Imagine the reaction if a high-profile professor at any elite university publicly stated that “a lot of the cutting-edge research being done on America’s changing demographic is being done by white scholars; not all, but a lot.”) McClain also was listed as moderating a panel that discussed, among other topics, “the repercussions of engaging in social activism.”

Nearly $50,000 in taxpayer funds for a key Group of 88 member to “offer guidance” on “the repercussions of engaging in social activism”? How many members of Congress, I wonder, would consider this money well spent?

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

One thought on “A Dubious Expense, a Compromised Professor”

  1. You miss the point KC. Its the conference and all that it brings that is the point. Holding conferences has become a way of life for black academics. I attended one at Michigan State, even presented a paper that was published, and I loved it.
    Getting tenure if you are a protected minority is not that difficult (and I say this as one who spend almost four decades in the academy). The feminists have the correct formula: establish multiple journals, define them as refereed, and then insist that publications there are equal to anything published in the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics and other top-flight journals. Also have universities sponsor symposiums where the papers are published. This is a painless way to build a “good” record necessary for tenure. But, on the other hand, this is more work and less fun than a conference.

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