How is it possible, half a century after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, for respected, tenured, award-winning African-American professor Jean Cobb to lose benefits at a university she has taught at for more than three decades?
“She is a Republican and an objective scholar who takes a dim view of the political correctness scourge, and of those who use the classroom to indoctrinate students into radical (Marxist/black separatist) politics,” her friend, Dr. Carey Stronach, said recently. “For this she should be applauded, but instead, it has been the undoing of her career.”
Her political affiliation made sociology professor Jean Cobb a marked woman at Virginia State University (VSU) in Petersburg, the historically black school where she has served on the faculty since 1971. Last year, Dr. Cobb took unpaid leave to care for her dying husband, who passed away in January of this year. Her caregiving efforts brought her an “unsatisfactory” evaluation from the new department chair, who cited “frequent absences” as the reason for the rating.
The man who made that call, Dr. Mokerrom Hossain, may himself get to spend some quality time outside the office. The FBI is investigating the sociology department chairman for possible links to Al Qaeda. One tip-off was the fact that his office computer had an Al Qaeda screen saver. Dr. Hossain, a Sunni Muslim, made the excuse that his son put it there, without explaining how his son had access to the university computer.
In 1994, Dr. Cobb was stripped of the sociology department chairmanship and had her pay reduced by 25 percent. One year later, she was fired as the director of the program she had created. The offense that led to her dismissal from the director’s post: riding on the Republican float in the homecoming parade.
“She founded the Social Work Program at VSU, got it accredited (accrediting agency: Council on Social Work Education), and kept it accredited throughout the 24 years she directed the program,” Dr. Stronach said at a conference here in North Carolina.
As Dr. Stronach tells the tale, Dr. Cobb is on one side of a bizarre civil war at VSU that has pitted her and her African colleagues against university president Eddie N. Moore, Jr., African-American militants on the faculty and Iranian Shiite Muslims whom Moore has formed an alliance with.
What Dr. Cobb and her colleagues have in common are their mostly conservative views. The other side is allied by a mixture of ideology and opportunism. Dr. Stronach himself is a distinguished (Caucasian) physics professor who has served at VSU since 1965.
Around the time that Dr. Cobb’s troubles began, other faculty members also experienced harassment and the threat of unemployment. “Bad things started happening to Nigerian-born accounting professor Emmanuel Amobi (an outspoken Republican with ties to Oliver North), to Pakistan-born biology professor Shaukat M. Siddiqi (another Republican), to Indian-born engineering professor Janeshwar Upadhyay, to Nigerian-born chemistry professor Godwin Mbagwu, and to Egyptian-born engineering professor Fathy M. Saleh (yet another Republican),” Dr. Stronach said.
“Amobi, Siddiqi, and Upadhyay filed suits and, after much foot-dragging by the state, received substantial out-of-court settlements.” Dr. Cobb did go to court but elected not to settle out of chamber because her end of the bargain would have involved resigning from VSU.
Although VSU has always been a troubled institution, Dr. Cobb and company’s troubles really began with the arrival of VSU’s current president in 1992. Moore’s unusual alliances brought the historically black school to the point where three of the five deans are Shiite Muslim Iranians. Moore has also sided with professors who view Dr. Cobb with scorn but not Louis Farakhan’s Nation of Islam, of which at least one of the critics is a member.
While Moore has dispensed with highly credentialed faculty members during his tenure at VSU, his own qualifications for the job are rather suspect. The only doctorate he can claim, for instance, is an honorary one given him by VSU itself.
Even those achievements Moore brags about on the VSU web site are somewhat suspicious. For example, the EPA is investigating Moore’s much-heralded new student housing to determine whether it is built on a wetland.
Moore likes to be known as “The CEO” rather than as president of VSU. The CEO’s scholarly record, in turn, is hardly competitive.
“He is so proud of his combined SAT score of 920 that he put it on his automobile license tags,” Dr. Stronach points out.
“What is truly sad is that Moore’s 920 was the highest combined SAT score of any graduating African-American senior in the Philadelphia (Pa.) school system that year.”
Moore was appointed to his post by Virginia’s first African-American governor, Douglas Wilder. Wilder has always been something of an iconoclast in his own Democratic Party. Recently, he appeared at a press conference in Virginia’s state capital of Richmond to criticize the proposed tax hikes and budget of the state’s Democratic governor, Mark Warner. He did so side by side with the state’s junior Republican senator, George Allen, even though Gov. Warner had appointed Wilder to a blue-ribbon commission.
When he was running for the chief executive’s job, though, then-Lieutenant Gov. Wilder took a dim view of African-American state employees who did not endorse his candidacy, including Dr. Cobb. He also, in the current parlance, “had issues” with VSU.
Although he is a consistent favorite at colleges and universities as a commencement speaker, Wilder was not always so welcome in academia, at least in southern Virginia. “Not many people know this, but back in the 50s, Wilder flunked out of VSU,” Dr. Stronach reveals.