Pulitzer Prize winner and renowned author Isabel Wilkerson has not fulfilled her requirements as a College of Communication professor and a member of the Boston University faculty-in-residence program despite her relatively high professor’s salary and other benefits, BU students and faculty said.
The issues this semester regarding Wilkerson began when she started canceling classes to promote “The Warmth of Other Suns,” an acclaimed book about the Great Migration of African Americans in the 20th century, students said. Wilkerson began to cancel classes two weeks into the semester to attend these engagements.
In an Oct. 13 email sent to her newswriting students, Wilkerson said she would not be teaching her class for several weeks “due to a scheduling conflict.” Wilkerson never returned.
“Little did any of us know that she would be leaving for the rest of the semester,” said Alessandra Martinez, a COM sophomore. “I know that I was upset when I heard her leave, but became frustrated when I realized she wasn’t coming back.”
COM officials acknowledged the inconvenience of the situation and blamed the circumstances on a miscommunication.
“We knew it was a bad situation for the students because when ‘professor A’ has a certain style and ‘professor B’ has a different one,” said Bill McKeen, chair of the journalism department, in an interview.
While it is not uncommon for professors to take time off to focus on their books, McKeen said most declare leaves at the beginning or end of a semester. Most professors, he said, achieve the balance of publishing successful books while fulfilling their responsibilities in the classroom.
“I think it’s something every professor needs to find,” McKeen said. “I’d probably sell more books if I were more aggressive about promoting them, but the job comes first.”
In an email to The DFP, Wilkerson said students had not personally contacted her about any issues this semester.
“The situation stemmed from miscommunication about an internal logistics issue that ideally would not have happened in the first place,” she wrote. “It was precipitated by a late change in my teaching schedule, one that had been in place that began at BU.”
The miscommunication started in July, McKeen said, when he noticed that only two students had signed up for the professor’s narrative nonfiction course for the fall semester.
As a result, the class was turned into a directed study, and McKeen assigned Wilkerson to a section of Newswriting and Reporting I that met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which would allow her to attend promotional events the rest of the week. McKeen said he explained these changes to Wilkerson in an email.
Wilkerson did not respond to McKeen’s emails, which he said he interpreted as a sign that she had no objections to teaching the courses. McKeen said that Wilkerson had avoided standard procedure and contacted COM Dean Tom Fiedler instead, copying McKeen in her emails only after the dean told her to communicate directly with him.
“I’m also surprised that everything I [reported], I received secondhand. I was always copied on emails. To rely on the dean to forward messages to the department chair, I’m not happy about that,” McKeen said.
Although Wilkerson did not return after sending her emails in October, she has been paid as a faculty member for the Fall 2011 semester. Officials said she decided to declare an unpaid, one-year leave of absence starting in Spring 2012.
In Wilkerson’s email to The DFP, she said she chose to take the leave of absence to forestall potential scheduling issues.
“I feel empathy for students who were inadvertently caught up in an internal logistics issue,” she wrote. “I look forward to returning to the classroom and to campus.”
Most students in Wilkerson’s newswriting class and narrative nonfiction writing seminar managed to adjust to the teaching styles of their new professors, McKeen said.
However some went to him and complained either about Wilkerson’s absence or the pace of professor Jim Schuh, who replaced her. One student dropped the course as a result.
“I think that for me, being a beginner, it was very hard at first to get adapted,” said COM sophomore Kelly Carrion. “It’s a good thing that he came in, [but] I feel like she should have [had a leave of absence] beforehand. It’s the transition that really threw off the class.”
While Fiedler said he was vaguely aware of Wilkerson’s speaking engagements, he said he thought the publicity would have died down by the fall.
“I was surprised. I was disappointed,” Fiedler said in an interview. “I think she saw this as a miscommunication. I think she also recognizes that she can’t do both, and I think it’s to her credit that she declare [a leave of absence].”
Some BU officials have expressed frustration with the treatment of Wilkerson in COM.
One COM faculty member who asked to remain anonymous said Wilkerson is presumed to make more than $200,000, while most professors make less than $90,000.
Fielder said Wilkerson joined BU as a “research-active” professor, which means she must teach at least two courses each semester and advise an assigned group of students. However, Wilkerson has only completed two classes in the last two years at BU.
In fall 2009, Wilkerson’s first semester, Fiedler allowed her to take paid time off to finish her book. She taught the Narrative Nonfiction writing course in spring 2010, but he “relieved her of her teaching responsibilities” in the fall because of the level of publicity her book received, Fiedler said. She returned in Spring 2011 to teach Narrative Nonfiction writing, this time in conjunction with professor Stephen Kinzer.
“The idea was that they would sort of partner up,” Fiedler said. “The reality of it was that the speaking demands of Wilkerson overwhelmed her, leaving professor Kinzer to have to handle [the class].”
Upon her appointment in Fall 2009, Wilkerson received an on-campus apartment in Shelton Hall as part of the faculty-in-residence program, which was facilitated by the Fiedler, said Daryl Healea, the Residence Life associate director.
Wilkerson received the apartment without applying, even though the FIR brochure stated the program only accepts applications from professors who have two years of “full-time teaching experience at BU.” Faculty-in-residence not only provides an apartment, but also a partial meal plan and some funding for student-related activities, according to the brochure.
Fiedler said he recalls that Wilkerson was trying to place her mother in an assisted living facility and to sell her house in Atlanta at the time, which made the idea of renting or buying an apartment in Boston difficult.
“When professor Wilkerson inquired about becoming an FIR, I strongly recommended her because I believed it would enhance my chances of getting her here,” Fiedler said.
Wilkerson’s status in the FIR program is currently “inactive,” Healea said. He declined to comment on what constitutes inactivity.
As director of COM’s developing Narrative Nonfiction program, Wilkerson created the program’s curriculum and organized the annual Narrative Journalism Conference in fall 2009, as well as every spring after. The Spring 2011 conference featured an in-depth panel discussion about her best-selling narrative piece “The Warmth of Other Suns” as a narrative piece, which Fiedler said was part of Wilkerson’s duty to give service to COM as a full-time professor and director.
Fiedler said that despite the issue this semester, Wilkerson has benefitted COM by “indirectly representing” its program.
Some students, however, said they believe Wilkerson made a mistake in not taking a leave of absence earlier.
“I can understand that a book tour is of great important in Professor Wilkerson’s professions,” Martinez said. “However, it was really upsetting to see that a teacher would choose to teach a class with the knowledge that she might possibly have to stop teaching it. I would respect it more had Wilkerson given our class some sort of warning.”