MAXWELL:  Gerald Gee is a victim of racial discrimination

5/7/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Gerald Gee is still trying to save his job. He is the white professor here at historically black Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University who, in advising students in a public relations class on the need to create their own opportunities, used the expression “nigger mentality” in illustrating his point.

That was the night of Sept. 20, 1993. FAMU President Frederick Humphries, who is black and one of the most powerful figures in the nation’s family of historically black colleges and universities, wanted to fire Gee. After the faculty union and the Board of Regents intervened, however, Gee received a two-week suspension without pay, and the decision to grant him tenure was delayed.

Shortly after he made the comment, I wrote that, although he had erred in using the term “nigger mentality,” Gee should be forgiven. His intentions had been honest; his student evaluations were consistently positive; nothing in his relations with his students and colleagues indicated he is a racist; his performance in the PR department was always a major contributor to the journalism college’s overall superior marks during accreditation.

Nineteen months after Gee’s indiscretion, I returned to talk with students about what has come to be known as the “Gee incident” and to chat with the embattled assistant professor himself. Is he bitter? How has life changed? What, if anything, has he learned? I wanted him to answer these questions.

Of the 27 students I interviewed at random, only one said Gee should be fired. The others, including one of Gee’s current students, said the professor should be granted tenure. “Our administration is the problem,” said a student who had taken a course with Gee last year. “They act so silly sometimes. Mr. Gee cares about his students. He said he was sorry. Dr. Humphries and these other administrators are acting like racists _ not Mr. Gee.”

Gee is not bitter toward his students, but he is resentful of the administrators. He believes that some of them, those driven by race politics, encouraged the student protest.

In light of his background and character, Gee’s problems at FAMU are paradoxical. A liberal of the 1960s and an ordained Methodist minister, he regrets having insulted his students. After all, he has always tried to help them, not hurt them.

So what really happened that night in class? What was the context of his comment? When he walked into the classroom, several students were discussing the lack of on- and off-campus “outlets” for FAMU PR students to practice their craft, while print and broadcast students find ample work.

Some claimed that the university “owed” them their own PR outlet. After listening for several minutes, Gee interrupted, pointing out that PR people must be versatile and that enterprising students can find many opportunities. He even offered to help the class establish a student-run PR firm on campus. But when the complaining persisted, Gee used “nigger.”

To put Gee’s use of the term in context, I quote his entire comment as he reconstructed it in a prepared statement for the Tallahassee Democrat’s editorial board:

“Now I’m going to say something which may upset some of you, because I’m going to use a term that I, myself, consider offensive. What I’m about to say is not directed at any one of you, or at all of you as a class; it’s just something I want you to think about.

“What I want you to be aware of is that, in this day and age, a person can’t sit around waiting for someone to give them something. Anyone who doesn’t take advantage of the opportunities that are there, or who doesn’t make the opportunities for themselves may be guilty of having what some would call a “nigger mentality’ _ the sort of thinking that can keep us all on the back of the bus forever.”

Two days later, six students who had been present that night delivered a letter of complaint to the division director. Thus began Gee’s ordeal. A few days later, the story was grabbed by the national media, including the Wall Street Journal and CBS’s 60 Minutes. Even Connie Chung lay in wait for him. Since then, his life has not been the same. Uncertainty is taking the biggest toll on him and his fiancee.

Over the years, Gee, a tall, thin intellectual, has had many opportunities to leave FAMU for a bigger paycheck, but he has stayed. Why, I asked, would a white man stay at a black school whose president is his avowed enemy?

“I love teaching at FAMU,” Gee says. “Many of my students are the first in their families to go to college, and they come here wanting to learn. They are fun to teach, and I learn a lot, too. I wanted to teach at a black school because I want to help change the complexion of the PR industry. When I came into it years ago, the industry looked like me _ white and male. Since then, it’s changed. It’s become female and blond. I still want to see more blacks in the field. We must change things.”

Are these the sentiments of an incorrigible racist who should lose his job? And what sin did he commit?

“Having taught at FAMU for 17 years, I felt comfortable enough with _ and concerned enough about _ my audience that night that I attempted to communicate with them in language I knew to be familiar to them,” he said. “But I know now that there are some words in our common language that we don’t share. How can we ever communicate if we retreat into our separate languages?”

On April 27, Gee received a letter from the university president. Tenure had been denied. According to the letter, Gee’s last day as a member of the FAMU faculty will be when he submits final grades for the spring term of 1996. Of course, his attorney will appeal.

Even if he is permitted to keep his job, the real damage has been done. Gerald Gee is a victim of racial discrimination. He will suffer. But black students entering the tough public relations industry, who need a nurturing professor, will suffer more.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.