Popular Black House assistant fired

Rani Gupta

The recent firing of a popular administrator in the office of African-American student affairs is raising concerns about relations between students and university officials.

After three years at Northwestern, Derek Wilson, assistant director of African-American student affairs, was fired July 2.

Wilson said Carretta Cooke, director of African-American student affairs told him he was fired because students were in his office, where some confidential material is stored.

But Wilson said this reasoning was “unjustified” because he was in an unlocked office and had asked to be moved to an office with a lock.

“For me to be held accountable for confidential material and information in an unlocked office, that’s what I felt was unfair,” Wilson said.

Wilson also questioned the “so-called warnings” he received of students in his office because the incidents occurred when he was not on campus. He said one incident was on a Saturday and one was at 10:30 p.m.

“How can I keep students out of my office when I’m not around?” Wilson said.

Cooke declined to comment on the incident Wednesday.

Students also are concerned because of the circumstances surrounding Wilson’s termination and the manner in which black students were informed.

FMO Coordinator Tiffany Berry said some students believe Wilson was fired over summer because it was a “time when students weren’t there to voice their concerns.”

“I would hope this wasn’t the case,” said Berry, a Weinberg junior. “But it is a great coincidence that this happened over the summer when many students were not around.”

Berry also said NU students, even the FMO executive board, were informed not by administrators, but through “word of mouth.” She said an official statement concerning Wilson was sent out over the FMO listserv only after students went to the Black House and voiced their concerns.

“We had to ask them, ‘Where’s Derek?’ instead of them telling us, ‘Derek’s been let go,'” said Akili Lee, a Weinberg senior and former FMO technical director.

Lee said Cooke’s e-mail was sent to the FMO listserv “about two weeks after (the firing) happened. And who knows when it would have come out if it we hadn’t said anything?”

Further complicating matters is NU’s policy not to comment on personnel decisions.

Le’Jamiel Goodall, former FMO administrative vice-coordinator, said students are upset because they feel that they deserve to know the reasons behind such a decision.

“The firing of Derek was not a popular decision, and students not being able to officially know why only agitates the overall situation,” said Goodall, a Weinberg junior.

Goodall said that without an official statement, some students have “formed their own opinions one way or the other” and most suspect that the firing may have been unfair.

Many students said they are upset about losing someone they considered an important part of the black community at NU.

“Any time you have someone who works so closely with students and they’re let go, it’s going to make definite impact on the student body,” Goodall said.

Berry said Wilson was “more than just an administrator” to many students.

“He was a major backbone of the community,” said Berry, a Weinberg junior. “He served as a mentor for a lot of us, especially a lot of the black males on campus.”

Wilson said the support he has received is “rewarding.”

“It lets me know that the work I was doing for the students was not done in vain,” he said.

The issues raised by the incident, however, extend far beyond Wilson himself. Many say the problem is a lack of administrative response to issues important to students. In contrast, Wilson was seen as an administrator who took student concerns into account.

“When students had problems with things going on in the Black House, Derek tried to cross boundaries and talk to students and administrators,” Berry said.

Wilson said it was important for administrators to pay attention to students’ concerns.

“I think they need administrators who really understand today’s students, who can listen and continue be administrators at same time,” Wilson said. “Students need to feel like they impact and affect people on campus.”

Some see the problem as a lack of student input in decision making in the African-American student affairs office.

“The students who utilize the Black House are seriously concerned about how the house is being administered especially when it comes to acting on student grievances,” Goodall said.

Goodall also said creating a dialogue between administrators and students would benefit both groups.

Students said they should be more involved in hiring and firing faculty, especially those who are heavily involved in student affairs.

Lee said such a policy should apply to “any department that deals with students directly.”

“When it affects students, they should have something to say,” Lee said.

In an e-mail to The Summer Northwestern, Cooke said, “student input will be an important part of this process, and students will serve on the search committee for the assistant director position.”

“This office has a legacy that is deeply grounded and rooted in student involvement, and we are proud of that legacy,” Cooke said in an e-mail to the FMO listserv.

Students stressed that this issue is not limited to African-American Student Affairs Office, but reflects a campuswide problem.

Berry said she believes NU administrators do not take students seriously.

“Right now, these issues are coming out of the Black House, but they’re not limited to the Black House,” Berry said. “It’s not fair for us to hold only people in the Black House responsible; they also have people to answer to. The Black House is not a separate entity. It is very much a part of Northwestern and must abide by the rules set by the university.”

Students are working to convince NU to rehire Wilson by holding meetings and contacting administrators.

But Berry said their efforts are hampered by the school’s policy not to disclose the reason for Wilson’s firing.

Although no consensus has been reached, Berry said there is sentiment among NU’s black students that they would like Wilson to be rehired.

“We have to decide what outlook to take and how to get him rehired,” Berry said.

Wilson himself has not yet made plans for the future, but said he will “continue to work with young people.”