At UMass Boston, a white professor’s criticism of a Black dean being selected to lead a search for the next education dean has generated heated exchanges.
At a faculty council meeting on Zoom last month, American studies professor Jeffrey Melnick raised his digital hand, unmuted himself and then questioned the provost's decision to appoint the recently hired dean of liberal arts, Tyson King-Meadows, to lead the search. He called the decision "a matter of some controversy" and went on to say the faculty had not yet worked out their feelings about the hiring of King-Meadows last September, according to a transcript provided to GBH News.
"I had heard from a few people that they kind of wondered why this brand new dean — who wasn't from the ed school and just got to UMass — why he had been named to lead the search,” Melnick said.
Melnick’s comments have stoked racial tensions on the most diverse campus in the UMass system, generating heated charges and countercharges of racism and weaponizing race. But the racial-ethnic lines are not neatly drawn in the conflict. Some faculty viewed his comments as racially motivated, while others — including Melnick himself — say they were a criticism of the provost's decisions during this hiring process.
The public dispute comes as UMass Boston and colleges across the country are adopting anti-racism policies, pledging to be more inclusive and diversify faculty and staff, decisions that have also caused conflicts at other campuses.
Four days after the faculty council meeting, Provost Joseph B. Berger, who is white, and Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, who is Latino, sent an email to students, faculty and alumni, describing Melnick's comments as racially charged.
The dean's “role and responsibilities as the chair of a search committee are being scrutinized and challenged in ways that no other dean has experienced at UMass Boston," they wrote, adding that "there's no room for this behavior on our highly diverse campus, especially one that aspires to be the leading antiracist, health-promoting public research university."
Melnick described his initial reaction to that email as: "Oh, s**t."
Other deans have been targeted with even greater skepticism, Melnick said, citing two examples from the last two years. Faculty scrutinized the Black woman who was dean of the nursing school, challenging her to such a degree that she left UMass Boston. A South Asian man who was interim dean of the business school applied for the permanent position, but administrators challenged him so frequently the provost canceled the search.
Melnick denies questioning King-Meadows' qualifications.
“I immediately understood [the email response] as a retaliatory act for the ways that I'm critical of the administration on campus," he said.
Other professors and administrators on the harborside campus in Dorchester don't see it that way. A handful are demanding Melnick recognize his comments were insensitive and apologize to Dean King-Meadows and Provost Berger.
“Diversity is really hard. If it were easy, we would've solved all the problems by now," said public policy professor Michael Johnson, president of the Black Faculty Staff and Students Association.
Johnson is among the 10 professors and administrators of different races who signed a letter saying they find Melnick's words concerning.
"They seem to cast doubt on Tyson King-Meadows' legitimacy and his competence,” Johnson said. “Those are pretty, pretty charged."
Johnson, who has taught at UMass Boston for 15 years, said these kinds of racial tensions are increasingly common on college campuses.
"In the wake of George Floyd's murder, there really has been a reckoning — a set of conversations — about what our institutions should be and should do with respect to race,” he said.
Jemadari Kamara chairs the Africana Studies department at UMass Boston. The tenured professor, who is Black, attended the faculty council meeting last month as an observer and he did not find Melnick’s comments to be racially charged.
“I heard [Melnick] questioning the decision-making process of the provost,” Kamara said.
UMass Boston provosts, who occupy a powerful presence, historically have selected whoever they want to serve on search committees. In most cases, a provost consults with the chancellor before making a final decision on whom to hire. It is rare for the provost to go against faculty recommendations.
Looking forward, Kamara said all members of the campus community should go through diversity training “to better understand the real meaning of racism and how it has impacted all of our communities and us as individuals.”
But faculty union leaders, including labor historian Steve Striffler, accuse UMass Boston administrators of using race to chill speech.
"The administration is weaponizing anti-racism to silence faculty on other issues that really don't have to do centrally with race," said Striffler, who is white. He says his union's members have the right to challenge leadership decisions.
"By calling out someone like Jeff, a tenured faculty member, you send the message that, no, this isn't actually the role of the faculty council, they shouldn't be challenging us, when in fact that is their role,” he said.
A UMass Boston spokesperson declined GBH News requests for comment because Suárez-Orozco and Berger are in formal talks with the faculty council.