Television professor resigns, cites racial discrimination

By Ariana Portalatin, Campus Editor

Michael Fry, An associate professor in the Television Department who is known collegewide as one of the faces of Columbia in its advertising campaign on campus buildings, resigned Jan. 20, citing a decade of racial discrimination.

During a Jan. 25 interview with the Chronicle, Fry, who announced his resignation on Jan. 20 in a Facebook post, said he experienced discrimination and culturally insensitive remarks from Television Department leadership and faculty since his start as a full-time faculty member in 2007.

“Whether or not [the faculty member] understands what [they are] saying to me doesn’t matter,” Fry said regarding the remarks. “The intent doesn’t matter; it’s the outcome.”

Interim Television Department Chair Sharon Ross and former chair Michael Niederman declined to comment when contacted by The Chronicle.

Fry said even though the college used photos of him on the side of 600 S. Michigan Ave. Building, the Columbia website, and additional advertisements, it has not treated him with respect.

“I can almost guarantee they’ll put [another] black face up where [mine] was because what that says about Columbia is that any black face will do,” Fry said. “They will use me as advertising, but they will not treat me with dignity. They will use me to recruit black students, but they will not treat me with respect. They will use me as an example of why students of color should come to study with me and students not of color should come and study with me, but they will not treat me as an equal. That’s why I had to leave.”

Fry said he no longer had access to documents that could potentially verify his specific allegations, so The Chronicle has chosen to not identify individuals Fry said had made insensitive remarks.

Fry began teaching at Columbia as an adjunct professor in 1997 and received tenure in 2013. Over the course of his 10 years in the Television Department, he said he requested cultural sensitivity training for the department three separate times before finally deciding to leave the college when his requests were not honored.

“Columbia is a great place; I love Columbia,” Fry said. “This is a situation that is intrinsic with my experience to the Television Department. I am in no way upset with or have any complaints against the entity of Columbia.”

Fry said he has not decided whether he will take legal action against the school but has filed a complaint with the Human Resources Office. Fry said he did not file complaints earlier because he was afraid of losing his job.

“Back in 2007, I was broke; I needed that job,” Fry said. “I needed that money. [That] was why I didn’t speak up loudly about that.”

Associate Provost of Academic Personnel Pegeen Quinn and Associate Vice President of Human Resources Norma de Jesus declined interviews through the College News Office, but according to a Feb. 10 statement from college spokeswoman Anjali Julka, the college has received a total of four complaints of racial discrimination from full-time faculty members since 2007. The statement also said an investigation into Fry’s complaint found no evidence of discrimination or unfair treatment.

“The college made several attempts to persuade Mr. Fry to reconsider his decision and stay at the college. He declined,” the statement added. “The college wishes Mr. Fry success in his future endeavors.”

Fry said the department’s insensitivity also interfered with his tenure application and impeded his ability to rise in department leadership, though he was awarded tenure according to the usual schedule.

Fry said he does not think that anyone in the department is an “outright racist,” but that some employees “do not have the ability to distinguish between correct conversations with minorities and people of color.”

However, after a negative post-tenure review last year, Fry said he had reached his limit.

“That’s when I said I have to go,” Fry said.

The Chronicle contacted 18 black full-time faculty members to discuss their experiences teaching at the college. Most declined or did not respond, but Curtis Lawrence, an associate professor in the Communication & Media Innovation Department, said he worked with Fry on projects with the Center for Community Arts Partnerships and has a lot of respect for him.

“It’s a chilling message of concern to see faculty members talk about leaving the institution because of concerns about racism and racial insensitivity,” Lawrence said.

“Since the students are at a point where they’re trying to find their place, and we’re having this issue at the faculty level, it’s a big concern.”

Associate Professor in the Communication & Media Innovation Department Lillian Williams said Fry’s experience is reflective of institutions across the country, citing a Oct. 11, 2016 article by the Washington Post.

The article discusses the more than 6,000 responses University of Pennsylvania Professor and Researcher Marybeth Gasman received after writing a Sept. 20 article for The Hechinger Report.

The article discussed the lack of diversity at American universities, and was followed by responses from others describing their own experiences with discrimination in the workplace.

“Fry’s case underscores the need to address the socio-cultural forces at work that contribute to these problems in academia,” Williams said.

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