A sign reading “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance” hangs in the office of Michael Brown—the first professor of color to receive tenure in Emerson’s 139-year history and the longest-serving professor at the college.
Arriving from Washington D.C. to attend undergrad at Northeastern University in Boston, he had not anticipated teaching at Emerson, but was offered a job after he graduated in 1970. Brown took the position at Emerson while he figured out his next career move.
“I thought I would be there [at Emerson] for two, three, or four years to figure out what I was going to do,” Brown said.
Brown enrolled in law school at Suffolk University after becoming a full-time professor, impassioned by a concern for civil rights and social justice. While completing law school, he applied for tenure at Emerson although professors are required to have a Ph.D. to qualify for the position. He asked the dean of admissions at the time to accept his J.D. instead of the doctorate he did not have. The dean agreed this would be acceptable.
Brown said he expected the process to go smoothly; however, the college hired a new academic dean who decided a law degree was not acceptable for applying to become a tenured professor.
“When it came to applying for tenure, the old academic dean was gone and the new academic dean and I did not get along,” he said. “They sent me a letter saying the J.D. was not an acceptable degree.”
Brown said he was frustrated, knowing that he had received approval, and confused as to why the academic dean wouldn’t grant him tenure. He did not see the school as discriminatory or racist at the time, but the lack of professors of color with tenure seemed odd and unjust to Brown. This led him to believe his race was a factor in the college’s decision.
“Growing up, I thought that the bigots of the world were just uneducated people—I had to grow up and meet well-educated bigots to find out that that was not the case,” he said.
Brown filed a lawsuit against Emerson in 1977, and won the legal battle two years after becoming the first professor of color at the college to receive tenure.
“The year I officially got tenured, 1979, there were eight full-time black faculty at the college, so I said [to myself] that this was fine, that this is not a bigoted racist institution,” Brown said.
Brown filed a lawsuit for the second time when the college attempted to fire him several years later. The department claimed Brown was not focusing or prioritizing the classes he was teaching because he was practicing law full-time while teaching, even though many teachers did the same.
Brown said he acknowledges that he can be outspoken. He said he feels passionate about speaking his mind and fighting against what he believes is wrong.
“I have had difficulty with administrators and presidents, not because I did anything wrong, but because I said what was on my mind,” Brown said.
This persistence has given him the ability to endure at Emerson and create a legacy as a professor at the college.
“In a sense, what my forty-nine years have meant to me, is that I have outlasted all the bastards,” Brown said with a smirk.
Throughout these years, Brown witnessed the lengthy process of the campus relocation. Emerson was originally located between Marlborough and Beacon Street, before finding a home on Boylston.
Brown said he believes that Emerson has reached new heights at the college’s new home and has the room to grow further and exceed the expectations that have been set for the college.
“It’s really like [Emerson] has grown up, become professional, raised our national profile in so many ways, and there’s no single person and no single event that did that,” Brown said.
He stresses to students who attended Emerson at its previous location to attend alumni events to see the differences between the new and old campus.
“I am always encouraging students to come back to alumni weekend, especially the students from the old campus, because they won’t believe what the college has become since they’ve been here,” Brown said.
Brown has been around for these changes, changes within the culture of the student body and the experience of the student body, but has always recognized the values of the community Emerson has constructed.
“They still, for the most part, are the same people. They are independent, intelligent, creative, and irreverent,” he said.