Monday, May 18, 2009

Syracuse University’s Case with Dr. Boyce Watkins starts heating up

In many academic circles, being attacked by Bill O'Reilly might be a badge of honor. A Syracuse University professor, however, charges that he was denied tenure last week in part because of the fallout over his on-air disputes with the Fox television star, who has branded him "a new Ward Churchill."

Boyce Watkins said that the university has responded to attacks on him in ways that are different from how it handles other controversial statements made by professors, creating a stigma around his work because it does not conform to "white liberal" ideas about race.

And Watkins, who is black and who teaches finance, said that an e-mail message that was not intended for him, but which he received and has forwarded to Inside Higher Ed, shows that professors view his public statements in a negative light, and that he couldn't get a fair tenure review.

Watkins has appeared frequently on CNN and various other news shows, offering outspoken commentary that, while earning him the enmity of O'Reilly, has also won him many fans, who say that he voices ideas that tend to be skipped over in national debates. With Watkins vowing to sue the university (and to continue to speak out), this case is likely to set off debates about race, public intellectuals and how universities respond when their faculty members are attacked. And while many parts of the tenure process are off limits, many of the statements at issue are not only public but on YouTube, providing fodder for those seeking to draw their own judgments on Watkins (or O'Reilly).

The dispute with O'Reilly took off in 2007 in the aftermath of controversial remarks he made on a radio show in which he described a trip to Sylvia's, a famous Harlem restaurant. O'Reilly spoke at length about how he "couldn't get over" how the restaurant -- black-owned, and primarily with black customers -- was full of "respectful" people. He talked about how it was just like "going to an Italian restaurant" and how there wasn't "any kind of craziness" or anyone "screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea.' "

O'Reilly maintains that the comments were part of his effort to show that all people are the same, but his repeated expressions of surprise that one could have a civilized dinner in a black-owned restaurant in a black part of town struck many people as offensive and ignorant. Responding to the dispute, O'Reilly then interviewed Juan Williams on one of his television shows, and Williams expressed support for O'Reilly.

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