Presented at the National Association for African American Studies (Houston: Feb. 16, 1996)
By Greg Moses
In December of 1993, Dr. Garland McIlveen, Jr.–who is here with us today–filed a race discrimination suit in Houston federal court against the Texas A&M University System, alleging several counts of racial discrimination that have overshadowed the past decade of his career. Today, more than two years later, the lawsuit remains unreported by media in and out of Texas.
The lack of public attention to McIlveen’s case is one of the peculiar factors which perpetuate a disturbing pattern of neglect and exclusion, not only for Dr. McIlveen, but for other black professionals in the extension services. Thus, I believe the case serves as an interesting paradigm for the tenacity of racism in our alleged age of affirmative action.
Just this month (February, 1996), Dr. McIlveen learned that his pending lawsuit has been factored against him in his effort to win promotion as director of the Cooperative Extension Service at Prairie View University. Such news serves warning that black talent cannot win on white terms. Prompted to sue for his rights in the first place, Dr. McIlveen is now told, in so many words, that white power will decide when and where his rights shall be conferred. And so far, the time has not yet come.
Dr. McIlveen’s experience as the great invisible man, curiously sacrosanct from media attention, raises serious issues of institutionalized racism which reach far beyond the borders of Texas or the timeframe of this decade. After 30 years of employment within the Texas A&M University System, Dr. McIlveen finds himself scrunched up against an impenetrable ceiling of opportunity. And with each passing year, the number of black professionals employed by the extension service dwindles.
For as long as the Texas Agricultural Extension Service has existed, there has never been a black male promoted to district director, and Dr. McIlveen’s lawsuit revolves around the pointy question of why he was not interviewed for two such promotions doled out to less qualified white men.
Dr. McIlveen’s lawsuit revolves around two documents obtained from the Texas A&M University System after a protracted open records search. They are called consent decree reports because they are records that the extension service has been ordered by federal courts to keep. These documents record important data about hirings and promotions.
According to one of these documents, Dr. McIlveen was disqualified for the job of district director in 1990 because of his, “Lack of recent experience as a County Extension Agent, lack of broad understanding of the total Extension program and no supervisory experience.” Instead, the extension service promoted a white man with sixteen years less experience.
True enough, McIlveen’s days as a county agent, from 1963 to 1971, were not “recent.” After earning his master’s degree from the University of Florida, Dr. McIlveen returned to Texas in the summer of 1972 and never again worked as a county agent. He went on to become a specialist in entomology, serving for a time in the very district that he would later be judged unqualified to direct.
Another consent decree report explains that Dr. McIlveen was disqualified for a district director position in 1993 because of, “Lack of experience in Extension programming at the county level.” Once again the extension service promoted a white man with sixteen years less experience.
“Mr. McIlveen has devoted the past 29 years of his life to developing a reputation and expertise in the field of entomology,” says his petition to the court. “During this time Mr. McIlveen has coordinated numerous programs and studies; secured grants or been a party to contracts totaling over $654,000; and authored many state and national publications, papers, news articles, studies and reports, including the development of international programs.”
The lawsuit charges that Dr. McIlveen’s career has been hampered in various ways as promotions and pay raises failed to keep pace with his white, male colleagues. The suit alleges negligence, racial discrimination, and retaliation. Not only is Dr. McIlveen being held back for the color of his skin, says the lawsuit, but he is also being punished for filing an earlier lawsuit in federal court that he had the misfortune to lose in 1990.
The previous lawsuit alleged a fact that was difficult to prove–was it race discrimination that caused him to fail a four-hour oral examination in 1986 while he was attempting to earn his Ph.D.? Certainly, he was the first African American to attempt the doctorate program in entomology at Texas A&M University, and records reflect that he was also the first student in the history of the program to be flunked for an oral exam. Did the fact that he was the first black in such a position contribute to his singular failure? The judge in this case ordered the jury to find Texas A&M not guilty. And the attorney who handled Texas A&M’s side of the case has since been appointed statewide director of affirmative action.
To this day, Dr. McIlveen is convinced that he was flunked for the color of his skin, not the content of his intellect, or lack thereof. His major professor, however, at one time publicly insisted that Dr. McIlveen was not even up to the level of many undergraduates. Dr. McIlveen says he clearly remembers the professor laughing and poking fun during the oral exam, saying, “How about an uneducated guess, Garland?” But I have heard the professor say his own memory on the subject is hazy, and he doesn’t recall whether he laughed or not.
But to bring this episode to a close, Dr. McIlveen persisted, won his way back into the Ph.D. program, passed the oral exam, completed his dissertation, and was awarded his Ph.D. at Texas A&M in the Spring of 1995. As the last lawsuit was dismissed by various establishments, the present case draws remarkable silence. Dr. McIlveen says he has been offered $20,000 to drop the current case and retire. “Can you believe it?,” he asks. (After 30 years of service, you get a glass ceiling and a check to cover your attorney’s fees?) “It’s insulting, really, when you think about it.”
Getting to Know Garland
It was shortly after the 1990 debacle in court that a friend of mine, Professor Bill Plapp, from the Entomology Department visited my office at Texas A&M University and sat very still until I agreed to look into the peculiar case of Garland McIlveen, Jr. Until Professor Plapp’s visit, I had a tidy theory, shared by many white Americans, which held that modern-day racism was largely born of ignorance and cultural inertia. White folks, I reasoned, were largely sincere about equal opportunity–they just didn’t know enough about their own residual prejudices. Professor Plapp’s visit changed all that.