Campus, News

COM prof. abandons class to promote book, officials, students say

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.”


  1. Something in the situation doesn’t pass the “smell test.” How does July (two months, according to McKeen) mean “short notice”? “Internal Logistics” doesn’t seem to be the problem. Two people enrolling for Wilkerson’s class says a lot about what students think of her. Her not completing multiple classes says a lot more about what she thinks of students than her bogus line about having “empathy” for students. Oh, and does “inactive” mean she is getting a free apartment without actually doing anything to deserve it?

    Dean Fiedler, you are engaging in a cover-up. SHAME ON YOU former investigative journalist. When did you stop wanting to do the right thing and start playing CYA. Glad I am not in your class. Reconsidering my JO major if this is the ethics you have/teach. SHAME, SHAME, SHAME on COM!!

  2. Wow. Makes me glad I dropped the JO major. What kind of ship is Fiedler running? He is clearly covering up for something. No one gets that kind of treatment. Elie Wiesel teaches his classes and the man has a Nobel prize. No wonder our tuition is so high. We have to pay for professors who do nothing but collect a big check. Fiedler doesn’t seem to care. All his comments here seem to be about covering up. Why does he let her get away with it? THAT might make a good follow-up story. Can’t wait to read more on this.

  3. Sounds like the prof owes the school a refund of her semester’s salary, and the school might owe some students the same. If the product don’t match what’s been advertised, people should get their money back.

  4. This is awful. My mom lost her job as a middle school social studies teacher last year because of budget cuts. She has been working 2 low-end part time jobs so I can stay at BU and finish my psych degree. To find out that my tuition is helping pay someone a super-high salary for doing NOTHING is a slap in the face to my mother. Not to mention everyone else who works hard to pay for BU tuition. How can President Brown let this happen? How many other profs are getting paid to do nothing? This isn’t just a COM problem if the President let it happen. All students who pay tuition should be angry about this.

  5. COM-cerned About This

    Isabel Wilkerson is an embarrassment. She makes three times what most faculty at COM make ($90,000 is a pretty high figure – I think most COM profs come in a lot lower than that!), she is NEVER there, enrollment in her classes is pitiful, and she treats the COM faculty and staff with utter disdain.

    Mitch Zuckoff published a book this past semester, was all over the place promoting it (he was really good on The Daily Show), but he still teaches his classes. Dick Lehr also publishes, as does Caryl Rivers, Patrice Oppliger, Deborah Jaramillo, and many other faculty. I don’t see them disappearing for semesters at a time or bringing in “co-teachers” who perform a last minute bait-and-switch on the students.

    Wilkerson needs to put up or hit the road. I’m sure when the Dean hired her, he saw a great opportunity to bring on a professional who could serve as an example to students. What he got was a diva who has cost COM well over half a million dollars (although it’s probably closer to 3/4ths of a million by now), but contributes nothing to the academics at the college. Who is learning from her? Who is she advising? What “Narrative Journalism Program”? Let’s see this “program” on paper, shall we? Her books lists her as its Director, but it seems like she’s a Director of…nothing.

    There are COM faculty who can’t even get a new office chair without going out and buying something themselves, and here we have a “professor” who has contributed NOTHING to the college except an example of how to milk the system. Get rid of her and spend the money someplace else.

    • COM-cerned, you are right. What an embarrassment! Free apartment, free food, free money…no teaching, no advising, no show…what IS she teaching BU students? How to succeed by playing the race card? Why else would she be allowed to do this? Either Dean Fiedler is the dumbest sap ever who just keeps getting played by her, or he is just a giant push-over. His comments do sound like a cover-up. Is he getting something out of this, because the students sure aren’t. What is the President doing about this?

    • COM is bleeding money thanks to Dean Fiedler’s JO-centric decisions. NECIR, Isabelle Wilkerson, The Narrative Conference, The “phantom” New York program that has been in development for almost 3 years. The list goes on…..

      Isabelle Wilkerson has been in COM for maybe a week total since she started here. I’m NOT joking.

      Please do something about this President Brown.

    • Caryl Rivers was my thesis advisor at COM. She was AWESOME!! Talk about a students’ professor. I loved my experience at COM and my master’s program at the J-School. However, this Wilkerson is also something I experienced at COM when Randal MacDonald was running the show (MacDonald was super as well). I think you can’t place the blame solely on Dean Fiedler…Wilkerson should shoulder the brunt of the responsibility. Wouldn’t most of us J-School grads LOVE the burden of a successful book tour AND the opportunity to teach some of BUs best and brightest students?

  6. Are you kidding me?!?! What is the President going to do about this? Dean Tom is a real nice guy, but c’mon. This is not defendable behavior. Sounds like Dean Tom has broken all the rules for Wilkerson. And why does she still have an apartment on campus paid for by BU? Doesn’t that fall under Dean Elmore’s watch? Who else are Dean Tom and Dean Elmore paying or giving perks to for little or no work?

    Come on BU students!! Get angry. This is our money they’re wasting. I’m taking out student loans to pay for this degree. Is Wilkerson going to pay them back for me? I say we Occupy COM!!

    • COM-cerned About This

      Sadly, this article came out right at the time when finals are here and in a week no one will be around to care. If this had been published back in November or in January right as classes started, maybe it would have more impact.

      President Brown is kicking off a major Donations campaign this upcoming year – maybe Wilkerson could take some of that big paycheck and “re-invest” it in the University?

      If she was an adjunct faculty member, the College wouldn’t hire her back. If she was tenure-track, they would at least have a long, serious talk with her. She’s neither, and yet nothing will happen.

  7. I have to agree with everything in this article, mainly that Isabel Wilkerson was not a good professor when I had her last year. She was always very nice and friendly but had no idea how to actually teach a class. She spent far too much time talking about herself and her articles and no time at all trying to teach students how to write. I’m sure she could have given us a lot of great advice, given the success she has had as a writer, but each class was more or less a waste of time. She would set deadlines for us, then make up excuses week after week about why she didn’t have time to grade what we handed in. We even had to meet after the exam period for a three-hour class because she had canceled so many classes through out the semester. This all happened in spring 2010, right when she started teaching.

    • This isn’t Wilkerson’s first teaching job. According to her Wikipedia page she taught at Emory University for a few years before coming here. If she is as bad as “former student” says, why didn’t BU check her teaching ability BEFORE hiring her as a Professor? COM really dropped the ball on this one.

      Dean F says he gives Wilkerson credit for FINALLY declaring a leave. Why did it take so long? And why did SHE have to declare it? Why didn’t HE take some sort of action sooner? We’re talking about what sounds like 5 semesters of Wilkerson troubles. Where is the leadership?

      • COM-cerned About This

        Because I think the problem was, she was never hired to “teach” in the first place. She was hired to go on press junkets and speaking tours and to say “Boston University College of Communication” a whole lot.

        And yes, I think this problem was known from day one. No one ever did anything about it because that was the “deal” that was made.

      • I had her at Emory and she was terrific. She bent over backwards to help students and befriended many of us like few professors would. In the classroom she was always gracious and enlightening; her assignments were tough but enjoyable. This article is slanted, overlong, and, speaking as a journalist, appears to have been informed solely by colleagues with an ax to grind, who are undermining their professionalism by airing grievances through a student journalist (some anonymously). She wrote a deeply personal and deeply important book that deserves all the national attention it has received. While all professors should fulfill their commitments to students, it appears she was missing a course that was included into her schedule at the last minute without mutual agreement. We are all unique snowflakes with particular talents: Isabel Wilkerson should not be teaching News Writing I.

  8. It's Not Like She Was Ever on Oprah

    If you could get away with it, why wouldn’t you? Who turns down that kind of salary? One could argue that everything was served to her on a silver platter.

    The question, then, is when should the line have been drawn?

    • My parents work so hard to pay for my tuition, and I contribute as well, I work 22 hours a week. At COM we’re told the college is so broke that we can’t even use the Xerox machine, and here they are paying someone 200K, free apartment, and free food for nothing? We all know Dean Tom is a joke, but we thought he was honest. How can he pretend he didn’t know this was happening? I had friends in Wilkerson’s course when she was supposedly teaching, and even then she missed so many classes, and when she did show up she spent most of the class talking about her book–even reading it out loud! She doesn’t give a damn about students–or about anything except her PAID speaking engagements and book sales! She’s using BU…and this cover up has totally destroyed my and my friends’ confidence in COM. It’s not just journalism, it’s COM we’re talking about here…at least McKeen told the truth.

  9. As an African American I am utterly offended. First, by Wilkerson. She is playing right into the “scheming diva” stereotype. My mom always said “make a promise, keep the promise.” Wilkerson promised to teach, took the cash for it and didn’t deliver on her promise. The important book she wrote doesn’t mean much if the author makes us African American women seem unreliable and unethical in real life.

    Second, the University offends me. Use Wilkerson’s picture to pretend the faculty is more diverse than it is?!?!? She ain’t teaching here. Students don’t have contact with her. I emailed her several times–no response. I guess BU is paying for the right to use her picture, but it is way misleading. I thought she’d be a role model, but she just plain don’t deliver. Why does BU make such a big deal of her if she ain’t living up to her promises. Is that what BU wants its students to learn?

    Third, Fiedler offends me–not holding Wilkerson up to the same standards as the others. Why? Does he think an African American Woman can’t do the same job or meet the same bar as a white man? Does he think an African American Woman can’t teach his precious BU students so he shouldn’t care if she doesn’t show up? I read about him…maybe he thinks she is just another “chuahua nipping at his heels.”

  10. I’m glad this story was written. I took Wilkerson’s narrative course last spring, even though another BU professor warned me against it. Apparently BU’s precious Pulitzer Prize winner had a reputation for not showing up and not caring about students. That proved true. Most of the semester we were stuck with Stephen Kinzer — who is a very average professor and definitely not someone I would have teaching me narrative journalism for four months — and when Wilkerson did come to class, she seemed disorganized and only half-interested in what we were doing. I think she graded one of my papers, and that was it. She was often late for class, like some rock star who expects the fans to wait forever, and when she did she kept us way longer than the class was supposed to go, as if we had nothing better to do than to sit in COM and listen to her telling us about her book and Pulitzer Prize winning stories. Don’t get me wrong, Isabel Wilkerson is a brilliant journalist and author. But as a professor she is terrible.

  11. Regardless of how individuals feel about Wilkerson’s teaching (or lack thereof), I would like students to think about how difficult it is to come in with little or no notice to teach another professor’s course before they criticize him or her.

    • How is 2 months short notice?

    • We are not saying it is not difficult. But when the teacher herself signed up for the course , she should be held accountable to teach it, let alone show up.

      • “Thank you” to Jim Shuh for stepping in and saving the class. Students would have been behind a full semester had he not done so. No matter how different the teaching styles were, at least the students learned something useful.

        By the way, the course was News Writing & Reporting (intro-level journalism). Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer for her news writing and reporting, and who claims to have been a bureau chief and staff writer for the NYTimes should have been able to teach this in her sleep–if she cared enough to put even the slightest effort into it. This is the kind of class JO profs should be able to teach with no notice and she had two months to prepare.

      • I was talking about the previous criticism of Stephen Kinzer, not Wilkerson. The JO department chair had three days to fill her spot over the Columbus Day weekend.

  12. I just finished a three semester grad program in journalism at COM, and Wilkerson’s class was the biggest disappointment I’ve had in my education. Everything other students are saying about her is true! She should be fired.

  13. Another Grad Student

    This is not news, some of us have been complaining about Wilkerson for a long time! Wilkerson was a travesty, just awful. She treated students like garbage, forcing us to sit through her endless brags about HER work, and generally ignoring us if we weren’t giving HER praise. Mostly, though, she didn’t even show up!!! She really made us wonder about COM’s priorities…how could COM put someone who didn’t care a bit about teaching or about her students in charge of a graduate program? But as it turned out there is no graduate program, so what does that mean? Can BU just advertise a FAKE graduate program to pull in students?

  14. COM’s leadership has been a failure for nearly 10 years (see John Schultz’s deanship), so this doesn’t really come as a surprise. However, my roommates were in PR, and their professors seemed generally to be quite good at preparing them to get jobs in the field. The journalism department, on the other hand, hasn’t adjusted well to the reality that print is dying and that most of the students won’t take the path they did (small newspaper to regional daily to a national newspaper). As of two-three years ago, very few classes were offered on online journalism/website production, etc., and most of the professors weren’t able to teach a student the right skills to get them a job in the current journalism climate. This hiring is emblematic of that problem, albeit in a more egregious sense. Quite frankly, a narrative nonfiction journalism professor shouldn’t be on the top of COM’s list of hiring priorities. Students need to learn web production, how to tell stories for the web, how to produce in-depth investigative pieces using computer-assisted reporting techniques, etc. Also, judging from this story and the constructions of some of the quotations, COM could use a solid copy editing course.

  15. Angry Grad Student

    Wilkerson needs a reality check. I took her course in Narrative writing last spring, and it was honestly the worst experience I’ve had at BU. She acted like such a diva – She would miss class after class, or show up an hour late with no apology, and her teaching was worthless too. She bragged endlessly about her Pulitzer, and made us read her Pulitzer-winning feature week after week. Pretty much the whole class revolved around analyzing that one piece. She never even read our work but had Kinzer read and grade, who was a very lazy grader. (Usually he just slapped a letter at the end with no feedback). She never learned our names, except for the few butt-kissing students who gushed over her during class.

    I have had incredible professors in the journalism program at BU, some of whom were also in the middle of book tours, and it makes me sick to think of all the perks and breaks that this woman got for “teaching” one half-assed class. If the journalism program wants to put their money toward something valuable to students, GET RID OF WILKERSON FOREVER.

  16. I had her at Emory and she was terrific. She bent over backwards to help students and befriended many of us like few professors would. In the classroom she was always gracious and enlightening; her assignments were tough but enjoyable. This article is slanted, overlong, and, speaking as a journalist, appears to have been informed solely by colleagues with an ax to grind, who are undermining their professionalism by airing grievances through a student journalist (some anonymously). She wrote a deeply personal and deeply important book that deserves all the national attention it has received. While all professors should fulfill their commitments to students, it appears she was missing a course that was included into her schedule at the last minute without mutual agreement. The commenters accusing her of playing the race card are irresponsible reactionaries who should realize the weight of their accusations. Lastly, a fine education is attained not by thrusting any professor into any scenario. We are all unique snowflakes with particular talents: Isabel Wilkerson should not be teaching News Writing I.

    • Jason, be grateful you had her at Emory, then. Those of us who have suffered through (not) having her here are jealous.

      TWO MONTHS is not short notice for changing our class schedules (two weeks isn’t), why is it for a teacher’s schedule? Everyone teaches lower level classes at times–why shouldn’t Wilkerson? Isn’t she supposed to be a news writing pro–that PPrize and all? Is she too much of a diva to lower herself to teaching US the basics? It should be a cake-walk for her to teach. More accomplished authors than Wilkerson teach News Writing and Reporting.

      Her book may be important, but so should her students–otherwise, why bother to be a professor–just be a professional author and don’t steal our tuition dollars. Hopefully that is what she is planning on doing by FINALLY taking a real, unpaid leave.

  17. I wouldn’t be surprised if “Jason” is the guy who manages Wilkerson’s twitter.
    Jason, there are 25 comments on this feed from students who are upset with Wilkerson for failing to meet her responsibilities as a professor, not just from this fall, but since spring 2010.

    • If I were in your shoes, I would be upset as well. My point is that there is a lot of rage here and that in my experience she was a fine person. I didn’t see that side of her represented in the article, so I spoke up.

  18. You have to be kidding me! A friend of my older sister attended Emory, and she told me WIlkerson pulled the same diva crap there, she missed tons of classes and didn’t care about her students at all. Given that she LIVES in Atlanta, wouldn’t she still be teaching at Emory if things had worked out well there? What I heard was that Emory fired her. Did COM even ask about that when they hired her??? Anyway, why would one of Wilkerson’s former EMORY students be reading the FREEP? Come on, “Jason”, give it up. But seriously…everyone who took one of Wilkerson’s classes knew she was phoning it in. I have friends at Harvard and Princeton where the profs are HUGE NAMES and they never miss a class. It’s like BU students don’t matter. I really think we should get our money back.

  19. I found my experience having Professor Schuh to be very worthwhile. He makes you hit the ground running, churning out dozens of articles over the semester… It’s challenging, even terrifying at first, but but in retrospect I see that it not only prepared me well for my internship at a local paper, but also forced me to go out and explore Boston, meeting people and discovering things I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered. I understand a change mid-semester wasn’t great for these students, but they were lucky Schuh was the one to step in.

  20. She was also terrible at the SED graduation last Spring. Her entire convocation speech was about her book and her life — it was a travesty. My parents fell asleep I think. She never even connected anything back to the students who were graduating. I was incredibly disappointed, but very glad when Katie Couric rocked the house at Commencement.

  21. I had her at Emory and she was terrible. She favored the black students in the class the few times she bothered to attend and went out of her way to critize the non-black students.

  22. Wilkerson is the worse professor I’ve ever had at Emory. Bot only is she a diva, she is a racist diva.

  23. Refund the students’ tuition. That will force the facutly and administration to “get their act together”

  24. This is awful because she was still drawing her annual salary and not doing her job so basically she was stealing from the University and the student(s) who dropped her class were cheated because they paid for a course which was not provided. But some people think its OK because she won a Pulitzer prize and her name is assoicated with BU who cares who she cheated. Really this is not the morals I would have expected