Professor Complains of Discrimination at Virginia State University

Since 2004, veteran film critic Duane Byrge has brought a Tinseltown dazzle to Virginia State University, in Petersburg, where he teaches film criticism and journalism.

The former chief critic for The Hollywood Reporter has balanced classroom instruction with covering such major cinema events as the Cannes International Film Festival and Sundance for various news outlets including Reuters. He’s also been closely involved with Virginia’s film industry.

But he says his unsuccessful efforts to earn tenure at the historically black university have been met with unfair and discriminatory treatment.

On Dec. 11, Byrge filed a complaint with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission of Colleges, which oversees Virginia State. In it, he says the school “does not have adequate policies to ensure fair treatment of faculty being considered for promotion” and uses “arbitrary and discriminatory factors” in deciding promotions.

Byrge, who is white, has been popular with students and earned outstanding marks on his performance appraisals. His application for tenure in 2010 was initially approved and then denied, he says. His appeals got nowhere.

Was race a factor? “It’s a good question,” he replies, and says he believes it could be. “If the University of Virginia denied tenure to an African-American who had been recommended for it, you’d see Al Sharpton, The New York Times and me protesting.”

Virginia State spokesman Thomas Reed declines to comment.

According to his complaint documents, Byrge, who has doctorate from the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California, was deemed to be “one of the most respected film critics in the country who consistently scores excellent student evaluations,” according to his department chairman.

After his tenure application was turned down, Byrge says, what followed “was a bureaucratic nightmare.”

Byrge appealed and won. But VSU’s Board of Visitors stepped in — improperly, he says — and denied tenure again. It stated that “there was no sufficient documentation to support the requirement of rating an ‘outstanding’ in the area of teaching.”

The faculty senate supported Byrge’s complaint, saying the board had no power to intercede. The board prevailed but offered to extend Byrge’s contract.

For the next five years, Byrge says he tried to work out the tenure issue to no avail. He says he confronted “harassing techniques,” such as changing his nine-month contract to 12 months while keeping his salary the same.

Byrge first came to Virginia in 1991, when he served on a panel at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville with Mark Johnson, a University of Virginia graduate who produced “Rain Man.” Johnson encouraged him to consider moving here, which he did a few years later.

An early supporter was Rita McClenny, former head of the Virginia Film Office, who has said that Byrge is “an amazing teacher and professor, and he’s truly networked and plugged in to the Hollywood community.”

Byrge became active in Virginia’s nascent film industry, and has played scout for such local talents as Chesterfield’s Vince Gilligan, the force behind such acclaimed hits as “The X-Files,” “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.”

Byrge’s complaint comes during a spate of bad news at Virginia State. Its highly regarded interim president, Pamela Hammond, is resigning a year after replacing Keith Miller. A new president, Makola M. Abdullah, provost of Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, is set to take office Feb. 1.

Since issuing it in June, the Southern Association is extending its accreditation warning for Virginia State six more months. The group has found deficiencies in how the university treats faculty, coordinates academic programs and deals with financial aid.

A major problem at VSU, along with other public, historically black universities, is a reduction in the federal Pell Grant financial aid program for lower-income students. That has squeezed the school’s budget and made funding cuts necessary. Hammond’s first task after being brought in from Hampton University was to straighten out the school’s financial problems.

Byrge has no intention of leaving Virginia State, he says: “I love teaching there. I have a real rapport with my students, and they are very enthusiastic about the ‘real-world’ background that I bring.” S


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