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Education professor sparks conversation on representation of Latino faculty

A Latino visiting professor's approaching departure has raised concerns about Latino/a faculty representation and treatment.

According to the 2013 Faculty Diversity Initiative Biannual Report, there are only 12 Latino/a professors in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. Latino/a faculty currently comprise 2 percent of all tenured professors—a figure that has been nearly stagnant for two decades, even as numbers have increased for other underrepresented groups.

Speaking at the Unity Through Diversity forum hosted by the Center for Multicultural Affairs, Jason Mendez—a visiting assistant professor and the director of the minor in education who is leaving at the end of the academic year—described the environment in the education program as contrary to the spirit of equity and diversity promoted by the University. The only full-time professor of color currently employed by the department, Mendez said that the program's leadership is not committed to recruiting or retaining diverse faculty and has failed to provide minority students, faculty and staff with the support that they need to succeed.

Mendez also said he has experienced "microaggressions" and "inequitable practices" from the department of education's leadership.

“My issue is not with Duke,” Mendez said. “My experience at the University as a whole has been wonderful, and I’ve had the opportunity to form some incredible relationships. However, change—and significant change—needs to happens within the program in education.”

The Chronicle made repeated attempts via telephone and email to contact Director of the Program in Education Jan Riggsbee and Director of Undergraduate Studies for Education David Malone, but neither could be reached for comment. Angela O’Rand, dean of the social sciences, and Laurie Patton, dean of arts and sciences, declined to address ongoing personnel matters.

Mendez was hired summer 2012 by a search committee run through the program in education. He said that the committee promoted the position as a two-year visiting appointment that would lead to a national search to permanently fill the opening.

Earlier this year, however, Mendez said Riggsbee informed him that, due to budgetary constraints, the search will no longer be conducted and his appointment at Duke will end.

“Two narratives about the discontinuation of the search exist,” Mendez said. “The first is the story put forth by those in the program in education and the administration. The second is the story that I’m telling now. I’m telling this story—despite the possible repercussions—for my students and for all those that follow, so that they know the truth.”

2014/04/17 English Department Fiesta PowerPoint - Images by Duke Student Publishing Co. Duke Chronicle>

"My first role model at Duke"

Mendez's impending departure will leave an already small Latino faculty presence with one fewer member—upsetting a number of Latino students. Mendez has been involved in Mi Gente—the Latino student association—throughout his time at Duke, and students in the organization have been advocating to retain him since the beginning of this school year.

Junior Samantha Huerta, senior Sarah Vega and junior Walter Solorzano—the secretary, chair of Latino Student Recruitment Weekend and co-president of Mi Gente, respectively—have reached out to those in the program in education, arranged meetings with administration and collected letters of support for Mendez.

“It has been eye-opening and shocking to learn everything that Dr. Mendez has been going through over the past two years,” Vega said. “As a student, it’s difficult to understand the whole picture, but the Director and DUS of the program in education’s lack of transparency has been incredibly frustrating. It’s hard to understand how something like this is happening at a school that prides itself on diversity and accountability.”

Huerta said that they have received more than 40 letters of support from faculty, Mendez’s students and others that he has worked with on and off campus.

“We even received one letter from a student at Yale who considered Duke and was inspired by Jason's speech at Latino Student Recruitment Weekend but upset by the lack of Latino faculty on campus,” Huerta said. “It's been heartbreaking to read letters like these, but also great to see the support."?

Administrators have said, however, that efforts have been made to increase the presence of Latino/a faculty.

“[The low percentage of Latinos] is not for lack of awareness of the issue or lack of interest in hiring them to improve our faculty. Attention is being paid, though we have not been very successful,” Academic Council Chair Joshua Socolar told The Chronicle in January. “One thing we see as a way to make our faculty better is to make it more diverse and representative of all the groups, and there have been efforts.”

Solorzano said that such a lack of diversity can make it difficult for minority students to relate to their professors.

Jason has been a role model for me, and honestly he's been my first role model at Duke,” Solorzano said. “He's the only professor that has a background similar to my own, so I know that when we have a conversation, he knows what I'm talking about."

Mendez has worked extensively with the CMA during his time at Duke, speaking at and supporting a number of events. CMA Project Coordinator Sean Novak noted that Mendez's support has been vital in creating links with Latino/a alumni and students.

"[Mendez] provided valuable mentorship to many students on how to navigate hardships in a way that they can maintain their authentic selves," Novak said.

When he saw the advertisement for his current position—which went out in July 2012—Mendez said the position sounded like it perfectly fit his interests and skill set.

“When my position as the director of the minor in education was presented, it seemed like the minor would be mine and I could run with it,” Mendez said. “After a few meetings, though, I realized that even though I was given the title of director, I was not going to be allowed much freedom and was expected to do more labor work than anything else.”

Mendez said that he felt concerned about his future in the department beginning in October 2012 when he noted what he perceived as increased hostility from leadership in the program. As a result, Mendez began reaching out to other professors of color at Duke. After speaking with several faculty members, Mendez said that he was presented with exploring the possibility of a joint appointment between education and African and African American studies.

But leadership within the department did not seem to be receptive to such an arrangement and declined to meet with Mendez to discuss, he said.

In addition to what he felt was unfairness in his personal treatment, Mendez described a work culture that he found lacking in tolerance.

"My experience is unique, but this environment in which difference isn't tolerated has existed for a long time," Mendez said.

'Change needs to happen'

PowerPoints produced by the department for welcome parties at the start of the 2008-2009 and 2010-2011 academic years underscore Mendez's claims. Obtained by The Chronicle, the PowerPoints feature stereotypical images from Latino and Asian cultures—including sombreros, maracas, tigers and fortune cookies—imposed on faculty's profiles.

“The content of the Powerpoints is shocking, but I was not surprised given what I have experienced over the last two years,” Mendez said after seeing the slides.

Students in Mi Gente and the Asian Student Association have also received the PowerPoints and expressed concern over their content.

“The PowerPoints were especially shocking because those in the program in education are supposed to be working with communities of color and educating children,” Vega said. “The slides with things like cartoon sombreros trivialize the communities that these professors are working with.”

Huerta said that the PowerPoints’ content is especially frustrating in light of what those in the program in education and administration have said about Duke’s commitment to diversity.

Junior Charlotte Ke, vice president of political affairs for ASA, said that she was disappointed but not surprised by the PowerPoints.

“Most people of color on campus are pretty accustomed to seeing our cultures and histories reduced to what others perceive as a ridiculous and fun caricature,” Ke said. “This is often seen at student-hosted theme parties and on Halloween—it is no surprise that the same ignorance and racism would exist among staff and faculty as well."

Huerta also referenced past fraternity party scandals – including “Asia Prime” and “Pilgrims and Indians”—and said that it was shocking to see faculty taking the same type of actions that students had gotten in trouble for.

“How can these faculty hope to educate a diverse group of young adults in how to educate other young people in the future when they cannot even appreciate multiculturalism respectfully?” Ke said.

Mendez said he chose to speak at the Unity Through Diversity forum about his experience in order to serve as a role model for others fighting for social justice, saying that he wanted to put into action what he teaches in his classes regarding agency and the power of voice.

"Change needs to happen," Mendez said. "I am not talking about diversity workshops or some politically correct PR statement showing leadership's newfound commitment to issues of equity and diversity... the program in education is in need of major repairs."

Correction: a previous version of this article referred to Charlotte Ke as the secretary of ASA. The Chronicle regrets the error.


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