African American Studies Professor Barnor Hesse withdrew his name from Last Lecture voting Thursday morning after noting that his biography extremely understated the work he has put into Northwestern and his teaching.
Every year as part of Northwestern's Senior Week, one professor is chosen by students to participate in a Senior Week tradition called Last Lecture, where one faculty member delivers a final lecture to graduating seniors with "life advice that didn't fit into the syllabi," according to an email sent to Northwestern seniors.
On Thursday, Hesse sent an email to ASG leadership and the 2015 Senior Year Experience to withdraw from the process. In a detailed email message that the committee then passed on, by Hesse's request, to the senior class, Hesse wrote that he felt "demeaned and insulted" by the committee.
This year's finalists included Hesse and Alexandra Solomon from Weinberg, Gail Williams from Bienen and Karen Smilowitz from McCormick.
Hesse's description in the voting form seniors used to vote on the professors stated: "Professor Hesse knows how to put up a fight and challenge people's subconscious assumptions. His engaging and comical nature prove to be utterly entertaining. By taking his courses, you can find out how truly brilliant he really is."
There was little mention of Hesse's accomplishments as a professor of African American Studies or his work with undergraduates. Two of his courses, Racism in Western Modernity and Unsettling Whiteness, are generally popular and well-received by students. In his letter, Hesse noted, "Ironically, the terms in which I was described resemble longstanding racist tropes within US (white) culture that associate black people with entertainment value rather than intellectual value, indeed figures of fun rather than seriousness."
In addition, the description for Hesse contrasted with those for the other nominated professors, all of whom, as Hesse noted in his email, are white women. Williams' bio, for example, notes that she "touches lives as an advisor and mentor to her students."
Hesse's email concluded by summarizing the "teaching moment implications." He noted that the incident "suggests there is no understanding in place of what it means to nurture a mutually shared culture of diversity among students," "raises the question of what efforts are being made to involve and take seriously the perspectives of students of color in these kinds of process" and demonstrates "the absence of any kind of multicultural literacy on the part of the organizers of this nomination process."
The Senior Experience Committee honored Hesse's request and withdrew his name from the nomination. Students who had already voted for Hesse were given the chance to vote for one of the three remaining candidates. In an email to Northwestern seniors, the Senior Year Experience Committee wrote that the descriptions had been taken from student-submitted nominations.
"It should not have escaped our attention that the list of descriptions for each professor carried distinctly different tones," the email read. "We cannot apologize enough for the hurt this mistake has caused. Today we share in this learning experience with the rest of the university. We appreciate being a part of a student body that is not afraid to stand up for what it believes in, especially when that means challenging and engaging our peers in meaningful dialogue. As seniors, we hope to see our class carry the unwavering and supportive spirit of this student body where ever we go from here."
For SESP senior Karen Wilber, this response was frustrating because it pins responsibility for the incident on a specific mistake – poorly written descriptions – instead of the way Northwestern institutionally and culturally treats professors in Hesse's department.
"It's just a classic example of how professors of ethnic studies classes are so crucial to the university, and yet the University uses them as their diversity plug, to act like they care about the injustice of inequality," said Wilber, who previously took Racism in Western Modernity with Hesse. "This is not anything new. They're trying to act like this is a one-time incident or an oversight, when the reality of what it means to be an ethnic studies professor here, it's not by accident that this happened."
In his email, Hesse noted that he had been alerted about his description by concerned students, and quoted from students in his response who felt uncomfortable with the entire Last Lecture process.
"I think it's really awesome and important that he said these are the ways students get left out of these conversations," Wilber said. "He's trying to get across that it's about how faculty are painted, but it's also about how students are treated, who's put into the conversation and who's left out."