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He’s the only full-time Black professor dedicated to African American studies. Students are fighting to save his job.
Scott Heath is the only full-time professor at Loyola University dedicated to the African American studies program. His job is up at the end of the semester.
In September, Scott Heath experienced a major loss.
The director of the African and African American studies program at Loyola University in New Orleans was grappling with the death of his best friend, Brian Horton, a famed jazz musician found dead inside his home in North Carolina.
Heath took it upon himself to plan his friend’s funeral arrangements, who had no immediate family to do so. The professor, who was on his second year of tenure track at the university, took a short leave but kept his students up-to-date on their readings and assignments while grieving his longtime friend.
In October, Heath was told that he is being dismissed from his role as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of English, where he’s been since 2019 — having started out as a visiting assistant professor. He is the only Black professor in the department and the only one who consistently teaches African American studies, according to students. Students also say Heath’s nonrenewal is unprecedented — a second-year professor has never been dismissed in the second year of their appointment in the Department of English.
“When I was looking through the course catalog and I couldn't find his classes, I literally cried because he is my favorite professor in the English department,” said Crow Carson, an English major at Loyola. “The part of Connecticut that I'm from is a very white, liberal echo chamber. He was the first Black teacher that I've ever had. And I have learned so much from him.”
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Oftentimes, Black academics are not only expected to work, but to also do The Work™ — a separate set of responsibilities relating to diversity and inclusion, unspoken or otherwise, foisted on Black professionals in predominantly white spaces. Heath is no exception. He was the original sponsor for the university’s original NAACP chapter, the Caribbean African Student Association and was “wrestled” into becoming the director of African and African American studies.
“I say wrestled because I was looking at it and there was nobody to teach in it. And it was sort of assumed that I would take over that directorship,” said Heath.
The specifics as to why Heath was issued the nonrenewal are vague, citing “absenteeism” and “negligence” — claims both Heath and his students vehemently deny.
“While he was away, he was still giving us class assignments, books to read, and films to view. And he was out for maybe two weeks just doing the funeral arrangements, but he was also corresponding with students and teaching in a hybrid kind of situation,” said Camilla Johnson, a sociology major.
Heath, who has taught courses like “The Black 90s: Archiving the Love Jones Generation,” “Octavia Butler Now! Reading Race, Gender, and Critical Futures,” and “James Baldwin Unplugged,” focuses on African American literature and speculative race theory. Students say his classes are unique to Loyola University, a private, predominantly white Jesuit university in the middle of one of the Blackest cities in the country.
“I looked at the English catalog and it's just stuff on like Jane Austen and fan fiction. I'm sorry, I don't care about that. No offense to Jane Austen, but I want to learn outside of my lived experience,” Carson explained.
For Johnson, Heath’s dismissal means she and other Black students won’t only lose the professor’s unique courses like the one she’s taking now on Afrofuturism, but they’ll lose a faculty member that looks like them and can advocate for them as well.
“His courses have been really important for me as far as forming my Black identity for myself and learning things that I did not learn in high school,” said Johnson, who attended a predominantly white high school in Memphis. “I personally just have a lot at stake in his reinstatement. I would feel very isolated in reaching out to other professors because I just don't see myself.”
Carson and Johnson are two of the students spearheading a campaign to have Heath reinstated, alongside two other students, Carson Cruse and Malaika Saleem. They’ve sent a letter addressed to Loyola University leadership and have garnered over 600 signatures from students, parents, faculty, and even one donor.
Students have also been active on social media as well. The university’s chapters of the Young Democratic Socialists of America and the NAACP made a joint post on Instagram, where several alumni spoke about their experience with Heath as a professor.
“Dr. Heath's classes were my most valuable insight into American and specifically Black American culture during my year as an exchange student in Loyola,” one commenter wrote. “Loyola will be a worse school without him.”
Another commenter wrote: “Dr. Heath was one of the first professors I had during my time at Loyola and he is a major reason that I enjoyed classes here. For a university who prides itself for its Jesuit values and caring for people, this is a decision that reflects the opposite.”
Heath, who is still teaching until the end of the semester, wants to make it clear that he’s had no involvement in any of the students organizing on his behalf. However, he’s “humbled and honored” that they are making their voices heard about something they care about.
“I’m proud that they are speaking up for what they want and what they need from the university. Their action creates an opportunity for Loyola to course correct because I know this is bigger than me,” he explained. “This is a great opportunity for Loyola to do something good on behalf of their students and their larger community.
The students are a bright spot in all this.”
Some students expressed concern that the university is dismissing Heath at a time when African American studies programs are under attack across the country. Loyola insists that’s not the case, explaining they plan to hire two new faculty members for the program.
“Loyola’s commitment to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in our entire community remains strong — as is our commitment to African & African American Studies,” a spokesperson for Loyola University said in a statement. “We are hiring two new faculty members to expand this important program and expect to have these positions filled for fall 2023.”
But Carson said students wouldn’t be up in arms about Heath’s dismissal if the direction Loyola plans to take its African American studies program were clearer, and if the university already had a diverse faculty. Losing even one Black professor on the campus feels like a death blow, especially as other Black faculty in other departments leave for other opportunities. Student organizers say if they continue to feel unheard, they plan to escalate matters with a walkout and rally for Heath on Wednesday.
“This is a serious issue if you look at what's happening with the erasure of African American classes across the country and the erasure of Black studies in general,” Johnson said. “They’re hoping they can sweep it under the run. So we’re hoping the walkout and rally shows we’re serious.”
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