Firing of Black House assistant draws criticism

Rani Gupta

The firing of a popular administrator in the African American Student Affairs office over the summer has raised concerns about the relationship between students and university officials.

Derek Wilson, assistant director of African American Student Affairs, was fired July 2 after three years at Northwestern. His position has been filled temporarily by Multicultural Advocacy Coordinator Curtis Askew.

Students said they were upset that they learned of Wilson’s firing not from administrators but from word of mouth started by students on campus.

“Of course students were upset when Derek was fired, but it really came as a slap in face when we heard over e-mail or from word of mouth,” said Tiffany Berry, For Members Only coordinator and a Weinberg junior.

“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.

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

Students said they also were upset about the manner in which Wilson was fired.

Wilson said Carretta Cooke, director of African-American student affairs, told him he was fired because students were in his office, where confidential material was stored. But Wilson said that reasoning was “unjustified” because his office did not have a lock and he had asked to be moved to an office that did have one.

Cooke declined to comment about Wilson’s departure, citing university policy not to discuss personnel matters.

Berry said some students are trying to learn why Wilson was fired and are attempting to get him rehired. But students are also looking beyond the Wilson firing to address related issues in the Black House.

“We feel like the situation has opened our eyes and helped us realize how much power we don’t have,” Berry said. “The situation just pushed us to become mobilized on other issues. Even if we can’t get Mr. Wilson rehired, this has pushed our passion about other things.”

Improving communication, Berry said, is the first step toward improved relations with administrators.

“I definitely think the new FMO board will serve as boundary spanners, relating to student concerns while taking the administration’s positions into deep consideration,” she said. “Basic communication will help us as far as issues like this. Once communication is put into place, it will trickle down into other things.”

Students said they want more input in African-American student affairs to prevent similar situations. Askew was hired within weeks of Wilson’s firing with no student involvement sought.

Cooke said she and Vice President for Student Affairs William Banis collaborated on the hiring, making the decision according to university policy and therefore not consulting students about the appointment.

Askew will serve as interim assistant director for one year while NU officials search for a permanent replacement. Cooke said the search will start in late fall and involve students, including students serving on the search committee, reviewing applicant resumes and speaking with candidates.

Cooke said Askew was selected for the position because of his experience at NU. In addition to leading the advocacy program, Askew has taught in the sociology and African-American studies departments.

Cooke informed the FMO executive board of the appointment in a July 25 e-mail.

“I understand that this has been an unsettling experience for many of you, but we need to look to how we continue to build the black community,” Cooke said in the e-mail.

Berry said she is interested to see how students will react to Askew’s appointment.

“Through my interaction with Derek and Curtis, they seem so different,” Berry said. “I’m interested to see if Curtis will be embraced by the rest of the community.” Berry said she thinks Askew and Cooke will work well together, which could have mixed effects.

“It’s good for people in positions that are close to work well together,” Berry said. “But I do think it’s good to have a person like Derek in the position to bring diverse thoughts to the table. It’s good to have people with different visions to come together so they can challenge each other, and I don’t think that will necessarily happen with Carretta and Curtis.”