Loyola University of New Orleans students are protesting their university’s decision to not retain the director of its African and African American Studies program.
Scott Heath, that program’s director and the Jesuit institution’s only Black tenure-track English professor, said his contract is set to expire at the end of this academic year.
“No one has sat me down and said, ‘This is why we’re not going to reappoint you,’” Heath said. He said he’s hesitant to call anyone racist, but he said “it’s definitely racial” because of who he is, the program he leads and what he teaches.
He said the university requires annual submission of a request to continue working there.
In October, he had just returned from arranging his best friend’s funeral and he was behind on that submission, but was given no warning when the English department’s five tenured faculty members voted not to renew his contract because he hadn’t made the submission, he said. Christopher Schaberg, one of those five, said he and another professor didn’t realize that would effectively fire Heath.
Carson Cruse, president of the university’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter, helped organize a protest last week backing Heath.
“Getting rid of one of the only professors to teach those courses—it’s like a sinking blow almost,” Cruse said.
“It seems like that there was a lot more going on than just that,” Cruse said. “It seems somewhat racially motivated.”
Schaberg, who is also Heath’s faculty mentor, said Heath never got a meeting to defend himself.
“In my perspective, it was basically a couple of people who decided they didn’t want to work with him and they found things like technicalities, missed deadlines, improper use of technologies, like he would use Dropbox instead of Canvas,” Schaberg said.
Schaberg said the tenured faculty essentially decide on tenure-track renewals annually, and the group sends recommendations to the dean and then the provost.
“Once it was out of our department, then it was allegedly out of our hands,” he said. “It was like everyone sort of like dug in and it was like defending the process, defending the protocols.”
“There’s this structural problem underneath all this: I’ve seen my tenured colleagues in the English department go down from 12 to five or six,” he said.
In March, Schaberg said, the tenured English faculty voted 3 to 2 to not reconsider Heath’s case. Schaberg was one of the two minority votes.
“The strange thing is, because Scott missed a couple deadlines, we never actually were allowed to review his materials,” Schaberg said.
“We never actually sat down and looked at his teaching, his scholarship, his contributions to the university,” he said. “This is not a terrible teacher. In fact, he’s a great teacher.”
Cruse said at least 100 students and a few faculty members attended the protest supporting Heath outside the university’s administration building last week.
He said the Young Democratic Socialists of America called for last week’s protest after a meeting between Heath and the interim university president didn’t yield anything concrete, and after the university didn’t make a statement regarding a petition.
Cruse said the petition contains over 600 signatures, mostly from students. It says they frequently mention that Heath “is one of the best educators they have engaged with at Loyola.”
“Dr. Heath is an invaluable faculty adviser to Loyola University New Orleans NAACP and Loyola’s Caribbean and African Student Association,” the petition says. “He also serves as a representative in the Loyola University New Orleans Faculty Senate, the Loyola University New Orleans Board of Trustees Committee on Mission and Identity, and recently as a faculty stakeholder in the Loyola University New Orleans presidential search.”
“We are terribly concerned that with the termination of Dr. Heath’s employment, Black studies at Loyola will cease to exist,” the letter says. “We believe these fears are substantiated, as the university has not communicated to students Dr. Heath’s situation, nor possibilities to reinvigorate the African and African-American Studies program. We are also alarmed that the dismissal of Dr. Heath, and subsequently our African and African-American Studies program, is occurring quietly and in tandem with nationwide attacks on Black studies across the United States.”
“Professor Heath’s termination comes after the passing of his best friend, Brian Horton, a celebrated musician,” the letter says. “Heath was in charge of Horton’s funeral arrangements due to the fact that Horton’s immediate family was already deceased. Despite Professor Heath being on his second year of tenure track at Loyola University, informing the English department of his friend’s passing and his own brief absence and keeping his students up to date, the English department continues to push forward with his termination during this period of grief.”
The English department chair and the dean of the larger College of Arts and Sciences didn’t return requests for comment Monday. The university didn’t provide interviews, but it forwarded a letter that interim president Justin Daffron released to the university Friday.
“I am grateful to the members of the Loyola community who have been entrusted with roles relative to our shared governance,” the letter says. “Without your contributions, we could not advance the mission of the university. My involvement with Professor Heath’s case is not intended to undermine our strong commitment to shared governance but is an extraordinary measure that should only occur in rare circumstances.
“Out of respect for the privacy of our faculty and staff, the university does not disclose information related to personnel matters. So consistent with our practices, the university will not provide specific details related to Dr. Heath’s case, except to acknowledge that the decision is still under review.
“I am at liberty to share that Dr. Heath has submitted an appeal directly to me in my role as interim president to review the decisions determined through shared governance. My goal in any review is to ensure that the faculty members involved are treated fairly and in an unbiased manner. I am currently reviewing the case including interviewing all key leaders involved in making the current recommendation. As part of that assessment, I am taking extensive steps and consulting with experts to ensure that we are acting in a manner that is true to our values and equity-minded.”
“It’s in the hands of our interim president right now,” Schaberg said. “I know he’s taking it very seriously, and I’m hopeful that he will make a—sort of provide a positive resolution.”
Asked whether he saw racism in the English department tenured faculty’s decision on Heath, Schaberg said no.
“But I also didn’t see adequate discussion of the implications of what was going to happen from what we were doing,” Schaberg said. “It was going to look very clearly like we were excluding someone when we want to be commended for being inclusive.”
“It was more the absence of thinking in bigger and more nuanced ways of the implications of what was happening here than overtly citing race as a motivating factor,” he said.