Throughout his almost two-decade tenure, St. Cloud State University education professor Michael Davis has been outspoken.
“My mouth always is getting my [behind] in trouble,” admits the New York City native. “My mom always told me to stand up. I’m a former gang member — you push me and I will push you back.”
He wanted to escape New York’s tough streets: “I went through hell getting my Ph.D. from Columbia — it took me 17 years working [on the degree] between jobs. [Then] I went to Chicago to a job fair,” and there, while studying an employment bulletin board, he met a Black professor from St. Cloud State.
“I asked him was he looking for a job,” recalls Davis, “and he told me he was a dean. Then he asked was I looking for a job, and I said yes. He told me to send him my résumé.
“Then I come here [to St. Cloud State] and get this — people hated me before I even came here. My first two years were the worst — people wouldn’t speak to me, and to this day there are people who haven’t spoken to me.”
Sitting in his office located in the school’s education building, Davis hunkers down at his desk in his customary posture of solitude. “This is my little space, my sanctuary,” he proudly points out. “I don’t have friends. I don’t socialize with anybody. No one wants to be connected with me.”
Davis has often — too often, he says —tried to speak out on behalf of SCSU students of color he feels are being treated unfairly. But he feels that no one supports him, especially many fellow Black faculty members.
“White students are rude to faculty of color,” Davis continues, but rarely is anything done about it. “Students come into [class] and tell you how much work they are going to do. Some come 10-15 minutes late… I tell them to get out, and they go and tell the dean. They don’t look at us as being as intelligent as our White colleagues — we’re perceived as being stupid.”
He recalls an incident last November with an SCSU student in a campus parking lot when he says at least two students witnessed the White male student swear at him. “This happened the day after Obama won. I thought maybe this guy was upset because Obama won.”
According to Davis the incident was reported, but he was later told in February by a school official that there wasn’t enough evidence to rule against the offending student.
“The student admitted that he cussed me out,” Davis says. “Then, when the student was interviewed by the affirmative action officer, she said that she didn’t understand why [the associate dean] didn’t do anything.
“The student never got reprimanded, and he graduated two weeks ago.”
We asked SCSU President Earl Potter if there are consequences for students “cussing out” faculty.
“The particular incident that [Davis] is referring to was investigated,” said Potter, “and it was determined that it was an argument over how each driver behaved in the parking lot. There was screaming on both sides, and no action was taken.
Potter added, “I certainly don’t condone our students treating any faculty member badly. It is really contrary to the purposes of the university to undermine the authority and role of the faculty.”
“I do think that faculty of color experience inappropriate comments in and out of the classroom by their students more so than White faculty,” points out SCSU Human Relations and Multicultural Professor Semya Hakim. “It is very difficult for us to report it and do it in a way that it doesn’t undermine student success.”
However, she believes that in regards to racism and harassment at the school, “things have gotten better.”
“The administration is weak,” Davis says of how problems are handled that he and other faculty of color regularly face. He is especially critical of Potter: According to the professor, Potter has not met with him one-on-one. “I was told he doesn’t want to speak to me,” says Davis.
Potter explained, “There is a standard process for requesting a meeting with the president. I have no record that Professor Davis has made such a request.” The president added that while he is not avoiding meeting Davis, he’s not exactly looking forward to it either: “…Semya and others have encouraged me to talk to Professor Davis, and I am the one who says that I am not excited about doing that.”
Potter said there are reasons why an amicable relationship between him and the professor doesn’t presently exist. “The first time I met Professor Davis was when I was here for my presidential interview. At the interview, he insulted me.”
Then, “After I got here, I was asked to sign a letter that objected to the British Union barring of Israeli scholars from coming to Great Britain. I thought it was a discriminatory act and signed the letter.
Professor Davis called and threatened me, said that he was going to bring students to protest in my office, and hung up on me.”
Third, at an on-campus event honoring women of color, “The [planning] committee invited me and the [St. Cloud] mayor to attend,” recalled the president. “Professor Davis dis-invited me and the mayor two hours before the ceremony and told us we would not be welcomed. It was personally uncomfortable, awkward and embarrassing.”
“First of all,” Davis says of that incident, “I wrote the grant [to fund the dinner]. I wasn’t being rude to him… All I wanted to do was have an evening with our sisters [Black women]. He came in and I said, ‘You got to leave — I did not invite you. This is my party.”
Ever since, said Potter of Davis, “When I have been in his presence, he has turned his back on me and walked away.”
Potter acknowledged that Davis has been through a lot at the school, “and it is my personal belief that someone who behaves like he does has been wounded and is angry,” Potter said. “He is a good teacher and has been good for very many students.”
“You got to make an appointment to see the president!” argues Davis. “This is stupid, man — do you really want to listen to me about my issues?”
The years of battling at SCSU have taken its toll on him, says Davis, who admits that it has affected his health, but not his mind: “I’m strong and focused, [but] it’s lonely fighting.”
He’s tired of the repeated incidents of harassment. “I have two mailboxes, and people open my mail,” he claims. “It’s all documented [with] the affirmative action folk over the years.
“I’m stuck in my own little room,” Davis says of his windowless, cluttered office. “I have been trying to get out of here the last six years so that I can go back to New York.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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