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Arrest controversy highlights Gates' Duke year

The controversy surrounding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a black Harvard professor, has brought issues of race and prejudice back into the media spotlight.

Most of the attention has been focused on how black men and the police view each other. But some light has also spilled onto the year Gates spent in Duke's English department, a period Gates described as, "The most racist experience I ever had in my professional life," according to a 1993 New York Times article.

In the 1993 article, which focuses on Duke's struggle to attract black professors, Gates' contributions paint an unfavorable picture of the University.

"No matter what kind of car I drove or house I had, it was assumed it was a gift from the university," Gates told the New York Times. "It was all a 'Where did that nigger get that Cadillac?' kind of thing."

This characterization of Duke (though not Gates' 1993 comments) was raised again Friday on the front page of the New York Times Web site by Stanley Fish, a regular blogger for the paper.

In a blog post titled, "Henry Louis Gates: Déjà Vu All Over Again," Fish, who was chair of Duke's English Department when Gates was hired, describes how Duke professors questioned Gates' academic credentials, speculated on his salary, and spread rumors about him when he left the university. He also says workers and delivery people at Gates' house routinely mistook the professor for a servant, a mistake whose message was, Fish writes, "What was a black man doing living in a place like this?"

By the time Gates left Duke, he had taken to calling the University "the plantation," Fish says.

But according to an ABC-11 story, also published Friday (which brought up Gates' 1993 description of his time at Duke) both students and administrators say the situation for blacks at Duke has improved since the early 1990's.

And a 2002 report from The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education ranked Duke first on a list of prominent universities, based on its success at hiring black professors and attracting black students. Still, the journal's description of Duke notes racial segregation among students and high turnover among black faculty as continuing problems at the University.

Nevertheless, it concludes, "A decade ago, Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. called his one year experience at Duke the most racist experience of his academic life. But clearly the climate at Duke for both black students and black faculty has improved immeasurably since that time."

Duke saw the fruits of this improved climate last year, when it hired J. Lorand Matory who had been co-chair of Harvard's Association of Black Faculty, Administrators and Fellows and a professor of anthropology and African and African American Studies, to chair the University's African and African American Studies Department beginning this month.

The hiring represented a reversal, of sorts, of Gates' decision to leave Duke for Harvard, The Chronicle noted at the time.

As he discussed leaving Harvard with the Boston Globe, Matory said Harvard's professors were not diverse enough. "Harvard clearly has an insufficient number of African-American professors, and it's being abandoned by one more," he told the Boston Globe last September.


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