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The Storm Facing Tulane's History Department (And We Don't Mean Katrina)

"I was floored and devastated." This statement by Tulane historian Susan Schroeder is not a reference to Katrina. It is a comment about charges involving racism, harassment and slander that have riven Tulane's department of history, led to the filing of a lawsuit by one member against another, and made a mockery of the image of school collegiality created in the wake of the 2005 storm when students and teachers rallied to one another's support. While historians outside Tulane have frequently wondered how their peers are dealing with Katrina, many members of the department itself have been preoccupied with a post-storm fight that has prompted four of the department's ten full professors, including the former chairman, to boycott all meetings. By 2007 nearly every contentious issue common in academia had been raised by the ordeal including, in addition to racism, the treatment of junior faculty by senior faculty, gender and age discrimination, and plain bureaucratic indifference.

The origins of the imbroglio can be traced to complaints by Rosanne Adderley, the only African-American member of the department, that she was the victim of discrimination for years. Adderley, who joined the department in 1996 after receiving a PhD. from the University of Pennsylvania in history specializing in Caribbean studies, insists, according to a summary made in the course of an investigation, that beginning in 2001 she was subjected to "discrimination, harassment and unprofessional conduct, sometimes based on race, ethnicity, gender and age." In March 2005, five months before Katrina, she filed a formal 21 page complaint with Tulane's Office of Institutional Equity alleging nine different categories of offenses involving three senior members of the department: Susan Schroeder and Colin M. MacLachlan, who specialize in Latin America studies, and Richard Latner, an Americanist who served as chairman of the department during the period under review. She claimed that they marginalized her in the department, steered graduate students away from her, and publicly ridiculed her proficiency in Spanish.

Investigations of allegations like this are supposed to take place promptly, according to Tulane's own guidelines. But because Adderley had not provided many details, the school official in charge of the investigation, Deborah E. Love, apparently found it difficult to determine the merits of the case. Not until March 2006, a full year after the charges had been filed, did Love begin to notify the three professors of the claims being made against them. Latner was told in February or March, Schroeder in April, and MacLachlan in May.

While the charges remained secret rumors began circulating of trouble in the department. As one after another of the three professors came under the gun they hired lawyers and prepared to defend themselves. Fearful that something they might say or do could be used against them by Adderley, they stopped showing up for department meetings. By then it was clear to the other members of the department that something was up even if only a few were aware of the full circumstances.

Schroeder, MacLachlan and Latner denied the charges, each producing detailed defenses; Latner's ran to some seventy pages. But they admitted having had a problem with Adderley, according to the subsequent investigation. Although she had been hired as an expert in African Diaspora studies, she awkwardly had been assigned to the Latin American and United States subdivisions. Because as she herself admitted she had only an average reading proficiency in Spanish and Portuguese the senior professors felt she wasn't ideal as a graduate advisor to students who would be working in the foreign languages of Latin America. She could not speak either Spanish or Portuguese and had not done research on Latin American subjects. Her specialty was the English Bahamas.

Adderley charged that she was being discriminated against on the basis of race. But the senior faculty responded that their beef was with her credentials; she seemed ill-suited to mentor students in Latin American studies. They noted that under their leadership--one of them was serving as chairman, another as graduate student advisor--four minority graduate students had been recruited to Tulane and a $15,000 a year fellowship had been established specifically designed to attract "applications from minority African American, Native American, and Hispanic students." Tulane had never before made as concerted an effort to draw minorities as they had, they insisted.

Complicating matters, Deborah Love, the official in charge of the investigation, gave Susan Schroeder just two weeks to answer the complaints Adderley had made. Coming in April, just as classes were winding up and the burdens of teaching were becoming acute, the deadline seemed preposterous. Schroeder asked to be given until June 30 to respond; Love agreed to compromise, setting the deadline back to May 30. But bad feelings remained. Schroeder felt that Love was not being impartial or fair.

By now tempers were hot and the department was in disarray. But things were about to get even more difficult. Schroeder now laid down the gauntlet. She demanded that the charges be dismissed and threatened to file a lawsuit if Adderley didn't apologize. "The longer Dr. Adderley's vacuous allegations are allowed to linger," Schroeder's lawyer argued, "the greater the likelihood exists for permanent and irreparable damage to Dr. Schroeder's good name, professional reputation and standing within the academic community." Schroeder was said to be in danger of losing a federal grant as well as her privileges at the Newberry Library, a highly esteemed research facility in Chicago, where she and several colleagues under the terms of the grant were scheduled to spend a month a year for three years. When no apology was forthcoming Schroeder sued in state court, claiming she had been defamed. She did not ask for specific damages.

In September, somewhat surprisingly given the course events had taken, Deborah Love, issuing her findings in a secret report, sided with Schroeder and the other two accused professors. Reviewing each allegation in detail, she concluded that none of the professors were guilty of violating Tulane's Non-Discrimination Policy.

  • "There is no information to support finding that Latner discouraged students form [sic] working with Adderley in Latin American History."
  • "There is no information to support finding that Schroeder violated Tulane's Anti-Discrimination policy."
  • "Although Schroeder and MacLachlan's [sic] did question one graduate student's choice to work with Adderley as her advisor, their behavior was not a violation of Tulane's Anti-Discrimination Policy."

Adderley had charged that when Richard Latner was serving as chairman he had forced her to tears after allegedly ridiculing her for missing the deadline for submitting documents for her promotion and tenure review. Adderley had explained that the delay was owing to a mix-up; she had expected the department secretary to collect the needed materials. But she claimed that Latner lashed out at her and said she had exhibited the worst behavior of any professor he'd encountered in twenty years at Tulane. Adderley insisted this was an example of discrimination. But Love found that Latner treated many junior faculty somewhat haughtily. (Latner denies this; he told HNN, "I don't recognize myself in these statements.")

Not only did the three accused professors rebut the charges made against them, so did a graduate student to whom Adderley had referred in her list of grievances. Love had claimed that Latner had steered the student away from her even though she would have been a natural choice as an advisor given the student's academic interests. But the student told Deborah Love that Latner had never tried to dissuade him from working with Adderley. Her statements to the contrary were "categorically untrue in their entirety."

It was nearly but not quite completely a full vindication of the three professors. Schroeder told HNN that Love warned that at any time the three might be called to account on new charges of discrimination. Schroeder found this alarming. So did the other two professors.

A single sentence buried at the bottom of the report also troubled Schroeder. Love concluded the report by saying that in her opinion Adderley had made her allegations "in good faith." Schroeder didn't understand how this could be the case. The legal implications of this finding were adverse to Schroeder's position in court. When her law suit against Adderley was presented to a trial judge the court ruled that the finding of good faith was grounds for throwing out the suit. If Adderley had indeed made her complaints to Tulane in good faith then she could not be accused of defamation. She had not gone around campus proclaiming that Schroeder et al. were racists. She had presented her charges in a confidential filing with the appropriate office and she had done so believing the charges were true.

That was in late January. Today the fight goes on. After Schroeder lost in court Adderley demanded that Schroeder either drop a threatened appeal or pick up her legal bills and costs, which came to nearly $10,000. Schroeder decided to appeal.

Where was the administration while all this was playing out in the courts and at the Tulane history department? Nowhere, says Schroeder. She complained that she couldn't get the administration's attention. Some in the history department agree the situation was mishandled. Just recently the department's executive committee, tired of waiting for the administration to act, decided to convene a meeting this week to begin resolving some of the issues that led to the conflict. James Boyden, the current department chairman, told HNN that the committee will "begin a discussion toward establishing new by-laws and procedures with the hope that they will ameliorate current tensions and avert future ones."

Both Schroeder and MacLachlan insist that the only way to resolve the matter is for Adderley to apologize in writing. Only then, they say, will they have confidence that she won't file more charges against them. Only then will they be willing to return to department meetings.

And then of course there's still Katrina to deal with. Susan Schroeder faced rain and wind destruction. Colin MacLachlan suffered severe damage to his roof. And Richard Latner lost his house.

Latner for one says he's trying to remain hopeful about both his personal and professional situation. He says he doesn't plan to return to his neighborhood to rebuild; it's too far gone. As far as Tulane, he's convinced "there has to be greater protection for faculty." For the time being he plans to stay away from department meetings. "The reason I'm not attending," he says, "is because confidential matters at faculty meetings have been misconstrued, taken out of context and disclosed and miscommunicated and used against me. Even things in non-confidential meetings have been twisted into allegations."

How does a department restore trust when trust is so obviously eroded that a former chairman feels compelled to make a statement like this? So far Tulane's history department hasn't figured out quite how, but it's trying.

*Editor's Note: This article initially featured a photo of Rosanne Adderley at a rally in New York City (the only photo we could find). Some readers considered it offensive. As it has proven to be a distraction from the issues raised by this article, the photo has been removed.