Nell Irvin Painter


Subsequent Letters to the Editor regarding article in Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 December 2000:  "Black Studies, Black Professors, and the Struggles of Perception"

Letter from Nell Painter enclosing anonymous mail
Letter from Ronald Jeremiah Schindler
Letter from Ely A. Dorsey

The Chronicle of Higher Education
January 26, 2001
The Battle Continues for Black Academics

To the Editor:

The enclosed letter came to me in an envelope with no return address. I thought your readers might be interested in seeing a specimen of the sort of mail I referred to in "Black Studies, Black Professors, and the Struggles of Perception" (The Review, December 15).

I don't claim that every lecture I've given in the last quarter century has succeeded. Sometimes they fall short because I'm just starting out on a project and my thoughts aren't yet tidy, or because the sponsors don't like what I have to say. Few of us, even experienced lecturers, can please all the people all of the time.

However, some of my colleagues may be surprised to see how people convey their displeasure when the senior professor is a black woman. Anonymous mail like this belongs in the category of harassment I mentioned in my article.

Nell Irvin Painter
Professor of American History
Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.


Dear Professor Painter:

This is feedback from the provinces and we hope you will take it to heart.

Several of us at Old Dominion University found disingenuous your recent Chronicle of Higher Education opinion piece entitled "Black Studies, Black Professors, and the Struggles of Perception." Our attention focused upon your statement that "the widespread American assumption that black people are not intellectual affects everyone in higher education who is black or who does black studies."

The problem is that your public presentation here at Old Dominion several years ago did nothing to dispel that notion. Indeed, your presentation was laughably inadequate and, by consensus, absolutely the worst of more than 80 presentations that have been given in this institution's President's Lecture Series. It was embarrassingly devoid of content and was badly disorganized. It was a banner ad for the antithesis of what you wish to demonstrate and made you the subject of disparaging jokes for months thereafter.

The blunt truth is that considerable damage was done to your Chronicle thesis and your reputation by your presentation here. Some 300 individuals left the room believing either that you were intellectually a lightweight, or that you simply did not care. Given your past writings, we're inclined to the latter explanation, all the more so because of your other cavalier behaviors during your visit here.

Reputations are made (and kept) by excellent, rigorous work. You fell far short of that standard at this university. All the Chronicle opinion pieces in the world will not alter that reality. The next time you agree to speak, treat the invitation more seriously.


Several Old Dominion University Faculty

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Chronicle of Higher Education

From the issue dated January 26, 2001


The Evolution of Black Studies

To the Editor:

Nell Irvin Painter's fundamental claim is that white folk perceive black academics as "not intellectual" ("Black Studies, Black Professors, and the Struggles of Perception," The Review, December 15). Dr. Painter provides no empirical data to substantiate her accusation; in fact, she says it is anecdotal. Anecdotes are not scientific; they are no more than working hypotheses, if not gossip, that must be tested with control groups.

I can speak only for myself. I perceive blacks as engaged -- reasonably so -- in a power struggle to control public policy at universities, particularly at the state level. Black activists do so through the instrument of affirmative action. That was a good stratagem in the 60's, when there was a surplus of jobs. Now, academia is driven by an oversupply of Ph.D.'s, and grossly political factors override academic qualifications. ...

I contend that administrators and liberal faculty members are socializing a host of populations into a sense of victimhood that belies the social reality that there is juridical equality of all according to the Constitution. Too, I believe that most Americans ... act according to their best moral instincts, steeped as we are in a Judeo-Christian ethos of love. I argue for a reversion to a universal standard of fairness, where the measure of an individual is his empirically definable accomplishments. ...

What Dr. Painter has unintentionally proposed is the trafficking in human beings as commodities by designating color as the criterion of merit -- instituting new forms of slavery, apartheid, and intellectual dogmatism. In the past 30 years, the two races have never been farther apart than now because ideology has replaced the disinterested pursuit of truth and the establishment of uniform standards, under which no one group can claim special entitlements.

Ronald Jeremiah Schindler
Elkins Park, Pa.

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To the Editor:

Nell Painter points to the dilemma faced by black scholars in pursuing the validation of their craft in black studies. ... I would like to expand her reasoning to include black scholars in any discipline in the academy. ...

Succinctly, there isn't one predominantly white institution of higher learning in the United States where black scholars aren't catching hell. Just as we thought things were getting better, it seems as if a wave of racist madness has swept over the academy. Everywhere we hear similar laments of black scholars who are harassed, denied tenure and promotion, assigned nonchallenging courses, subjected to a higher level of intellectual scrutiny than their white colleagues, and clearly paid less for comparable work. ... African-American institutions of higher learning offer no safe haven. ...

Surely, we can do better than this. Maybe it's time to admit that whiteness is no longer a viable cultural form for human beings to embrace.

Ely A. Dorsey
Institute for the Study of Industrial Systems and Technology Management
Associate Professor of Management
Bridgewater State College
Bridgewater, Mass.

Section: The Chronicle Review
Page: B17

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