Black women in the City University of New York (CUNY) are asking a timeworn question that has nagged us for centuries: “Ain’t I A Woman?” According to tradition, Sojourner Truth was the first to invoke that question in the year 1851 at a Women’s Rights Convention for fair and equal treatment of women. Concomitantly, her soul-stirring speech made visible the undervalued humanity of Black women. With the passing of the 19th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “Ain’t I A Woman?” should have retired gracefully to the annals of Women’s Rights History for its role of distinguished public service. However, a new generation of Black professional women at Medgar Evers College, one of CUNY’s senior colleges, has resurrected the refrain to lead their gender cause. Still embolden, what we have discovered is that “Ain’t I A Woman?” retains the moral fervor to ignite protest in defense of the equal treatment of Black women in the campus workplace.
At Medgar Evers College, named after the slain civil rights activist Medgar Wiley Evers, women faculty have organized to air their grievances at two recent Board of Trustees’ hearings in order to inform the CUNY brass that gender harassment at a University campus is unconscionable in the modern day workplace. Also, at the seat of Black elected officials throughout Brooklyn, female professors from the College, as well as some of their male colleagues, have gathered to testify about the disparaging behavior lashed out at the hands of Provost Howard C. Johnson, senior academic officer.
At the administrative level, Black women have been the primary targets of the Provost’s intimidation and bullying behavior. Refusing to recognize women as professionals and deserving of workplace respect and collegiality, Provost Johnson has carried on a protracted crusade to relieve women of administrative responsibility. Under his three-year leadership, he has acquired a reputation for removing us as chairs of academic departments, as deans, assistants, and associates of upper- level administrative staff. On principle, women’s leadership has been undermined within their departments in an attempt to discredit them as ineffective.
His latest threat is to remove all chairs who are assistant professors. The problem is that the only assistant professors remaining are women chairs. Clearly, he is more comfortable with men; his new hires speak loudly to that effect. In the 21st century, who would believe that top administrative management would eschew gender leadership diversity in the workplace unless the women in question agreed to act as dutiful “male” surrogates? But even such loyal subjects have discovered that they are not invulnerable to his gender contempt.
When women are removed as chairs, the Provost justifies their removal by articulating that they have been removed because of “educational matters.” How many women will have to be removed or forced out before CUNY recognizes that “educational matters” is only a pretext to abolish women’s leadership, as well as to invest all decision-making into the hands of the Old Boys’ network?
Although Black women have been the primary targets of the Provost, his treatment has proven that he practices equal-opportunity gender harassment. The CUNY Chancellery has not been so color blind. Unfortunately, it has demonstrated a discriminating posture that all women are not meant to be treated equally. For instance, when Provost Johnson intimidated a white female dean, CUNY Central stepped in swiftly, intervened “on her behalf,” and removed her from the very shadow of Medgar Evers College. As for the cry of Black women for relief from the bullying and intimidation, CUNY has yet to return a letter of acknowledgment, in spite of the fact that that the administration has been specifically contacted about this ongoing behavior. Over this 3-year period of time, the behavior of Provost Johnson has been sanctioned by the silence of President William L. Pollard.
Adding insult to injury, when a gender discrimination and harassment outcry was heard from female professors at Brooklyn College, the CUNY Chancellery acted quickly and promised them an investigation. At Medgar Evers, Black females are still waiting. Many have left the institution while waiting for redress, driven out by gender harassment. The promised benevolence and protection have yet to be ours to cherish as women professionals. Yet, on record, Medgar Evers College has more documented cases of gender and sexual harassment than any other college of CUNY. What this suggests, as has been true historically, is that Black women can be treated like mules and workhorses, despite our professional degrees, because our labor as well as our persons are undervalued and considered not deserving of professional treatment, even under the law.
Gender diversity in the workplace is an equal opportunity protection. When will CUNY obey the law and hold a perpetrator accountable, Black or White? Otherwise, CUNY is accused of a benign neglect which declares that open-season gender harassment is tolerated for Black women. “Ain’t We Still Women?”
Submitted by:The Concerned Faculty of Medgar Evers College