The professor involved says he was just joking. But many think his all-department email asking about a “National Society for White Engineers” in response to an event notice from a black engineering students’ group wasn’t funny.
The National Society of Black Engineers chapter at the Binghamton University, State University of New York sent out an invitation to a fundraising dinner on an engineering department mailing list. In response, Victor Skormin, distinguished service professor of electrical and computer engineering, wrote: “Please let me know about a dinner of the National Society for White Engineers”.
Students in the society chapter and others on the Listserv immediately took issue with Professor Skormin’s statement. The next day, Binghamton president Harvey Stenger issued a statement of his own to the department, saying that he and provost Donald Nieman found Professor Skormin’s email “deeply offensive”.
“Clearly,” Professor Stenger wrote, “this is neither the level of professionalism that we expect from members of the Binghamton community nor is it compatible with the university's commitment to diversity and inclusion. We support the mission of the students and faculty active in the National Society of Black Engineers and recognise the important contributions they make to the university, their disciplines and our society.”
Professor Stenger said that he and the provost hoped Professor Skormin “understands the pain that he has caused”.
Professor Skormin told Inside Higher Ed via email that his comment was “intended strictly as a joke”. He’s apologised in an email to his department, saying that throughout his long tenure on campus he’s always emphasised his “belief that all people have relevance in this world and deserve the best chance at opportunities”.
Because his field is challenging, he continued, “I often make funny and sarcastic statements, helping students to ‘recharge’ their attention mechanisms. People who know me personally can testify that such statements are never offensive, sometimes funny and, the most important, do enhance the learning experience.”
Unfortunately, Professor Skormin said, the email in question “left room for the misinterpretation of the statement, and consequently the statement was grossly misplaced. I did not intend to offend any of my past, present or future student recipients, nor any of my colleagues. Please rest assured that the impact of the message did not reflect my intent…To any and all who have been in receipt of the email, please accept my personal and professional apologies.”
A spokesperson for Binghamton noted the apology and said that Professor Skormin also met with representatives from its division of diversity and inclusion.
Siaki Tetteh-Nartey, a student member of Binghamton’s National Society of Black Engineers, told WBNG.com that she doesn’t want to see Professor Skormin fired since it wouldn’t change anyone’s mind about the issues at hand. Instead, she said she wants a “dialogue about why these [diversity-based] groups are still relevant in this day and age, in addition to what they do”.
She added: “We cannot expect people to learn from their mis-step if we do not sit down with them.”
This is an edited version of a story which first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.