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ASU nixes job of incoming journalism dean over racism allegations

The new dean of ASU's Cronkite School of Journalism won't start next month, after officials withdrew the job offer Sunday evening after probing claims she made racist statements at her current school in New Orleans.

Sonya Forte Duhé had been scheduled to take over as head of the ASU program, one of the top journalism schools in the country, on July 1.

Instead, ASU's provost announced that Duhé won't assume the position after the school reviewed reports that she had made racist statements to African American students about their appearance.

"We had high confidence we had selected the right person for the position. Subsequently, issues and concerns have arisen and additional information has come to light. I now find that the future of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and our public television station will be better served by not advancing with Dr. Duhé as their leader," Provost Mark Searle said in a statement to ASU faculty.

Next week, the university will appoint an interim dean for the journalism school, which is located at ASU's campus in downtown Phoenix.

Since allegations of Duhé's behavior began to be posted on social media Tuesday, more than 20 other students have made similar complaints to campus newspapers at ASU and Loyola University New Orleans, where Duhé has been employed.

Jevaughn Williams, a junior and spokesperson for Cronkite’s chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, cited student concerns and called for a thorough investigation.

“Almost all of our students at this school are voicing that they’re uncomfortable and don’t like someone with this past coming in to ‘lead’ our school,” Williams said. “I do think Cronkite would leave a bad taste in people’s mouth if they can … just graze over these allegations, and then move forward.”

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Will Sutton, a former national president of NABJ who is now a professional in residence at Loyola, said he was “disappointed and frustrated by what’s happened in the last few days.” Sutton, who started at Loyola in September, said he would not have the job if not for Duhé.

“She didn’t help me get the job, she is the reason I have the job,” said Sutton, whose roles included advising Duhé on matters of diversity and inclusion in the school.

Duhé has not responded to requests for comment from numerous media outlets. With the ASU post withdraw, her employment prospects are unknown. Loyola had already announced an interim dean of the School of Communications and Design there, who was to take over from Duhé when she left Loyola in May.

ASU's Searle said in a statement to students Thursday that the university planned to “investigate concerns” about Duhé’s treatment of current and former students at Loyola.

“Over the last 24 hours I have been made aware, along with President (Michael) Crow, of concerns about her past treatment of students, and in particular, students of color, at Loyola University in New Orleans,” that email from the ASU provost said. “Our commitment to diversity and inclusion is unwavering at Arizona State University. We will be looking into the concerns brought to our attention.”

When asked by Cronkite News about charges made by their students and alumni, officials at Loyola also issued a statement declaring their commitment to diversity, but otherwise declined to comment.

In a letter sent to university officials Saturday, more than 20 ASU faculty and staff said they had serious concerns about her appointment, saying the schools' reputation could be in "serious jeopardy."

The letter said that during a June 2 virtual meeting with Cronkite employees, Duhé "berated staff," and over the past weeks some school employees witnessed "erratic behavior and denigrating comments" by the incoming dean.

Her taking over could jeopardize support from donors, the letter said, and "based on the meeting and recent news reports, several high-performing faculty members said they could not stay at Cronkite if Dr. Duhé takes over as dean."

The investigation was prompted by claims made by Whitney Woods, a 2015 graduate of Loyola, who was angered when Duhé tweeted Tuesday using the hashtag #BlackOutDay, in support of a Twitter event that encouraged users to pause and show solidarity in the fight against racial injustice.

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The tweet, which has since been deleted, said, “For the family of George Floyd, the good police officers who keep us safe, my students, faculty and staff. Praying for peace on this #BlackOutTuesday.”

Woods tweeted in response that there is “no way in HELL that BLACK LIVES matter” to Duhé, who she called “one of, if not, THE most racist human” Woods has “ever encountered in a professional setting.”

She charged that Duhé “treated ALL of the black students” poorly. Woods said she took part in several human relations complaints against Duhé but claimed on Twitter that they were all “THROWN OUT because ‘friends’ in high places.”

Woods, who is African American, tweeted that while she was a journalism student at Loyola, Duhé told her her hair was “messy, not appropriate for on-air” and that Woods “didn’t have ‘the look’ to be on the news.”

Loyola’s student-run newspaper, The Maroon, said Duhé responded to a separate racial bias investigation in 2019 by denying the charges in that case.

“Never did I tell students of African-American descent to ‘not be natural’ when dealing with their hair,” the paper quoted her as saying, adding that she said she expected “all students, male and female, taking a professional photograph to be well groomed.”

But since Woods’ original tweet began circulating, the Maroon and the ASU newspaper, The State Press, reported finding many more students who raised similar concerns about Duhé. The State Press reported Friday that it heard from 23 other current and former Loyola students who confirmed Woods’ allegations and expanded on the charges.

Sutton, whose day job is working as a columnist and editorial writer for The Times-Picayune | The Advocate, said he had heard some complaints about Duhé’s treatment of students.

“I had heard about hair and dress and professionalism, and as a person who spent most of my career as an editor, supervisor or manager, the reality is those things are important,” Sutton told Cronkite News before the weekend. “And so it is appropriate to advise and counsel students about presentation.”

He said the school has done well under Duhé.

“I feel really good about the place where we have gotten to this point with Sonya’s leadership and that she’s been very supportive and I am disappointed and frustrated by what’s happened in the last few days,” Sutton said prior to the announcement that ASU was withdrawing the appointment. “But that does not mean it didn’t happen. And it does not mean that it’s wrong.”

Williams said people should not minimize the impact of Duhé’s comments.

“The student of color that receives these comments and is told how they’re supposed to look and to change their natural-born look to meet another standard that isn’t theirs and that isn’t of their race is very, very very damaging to a person’s mind and their mental health,” he said.

“A lot of people don’t understand that it’s a small saying or a small action, but that small action over time, repeatedly happening really can start to psychologically affect students of color,” Williams said.

"This development regarding the Cronkite dean is most unfortunate but we now must turn our attention to meeting that challenge and ensuring we offer the highest level of journalism education," Searle said Sunday evening.

Earlier, ASU had lauded their pick of Duhé.

"The school will transition to very capable hands," Searle said in a March announcement. "Dr. Duhé brings a wealth of leadership, academic, and professional experiences to this position, and I am confident she will be a strong leader for school, leading it to a bright future."

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ASU, which dubbed its journalism program after the legendary newsman Walter Cronkite, had touted Duhé's work at Loyola as "transformational," while the formerly incoming dean said "I hope to bring to the Cronkite School a little bit of spice."

"It's an incredible honor and opportunity because the job carries with it an awesome responsibility to uphold the values of the school's namesake," she said in March.

Although ASU had described her as "nationally recognized as a leader in strategic communications training for both the public and private sectors" and noted that "her research emphasis is applied broadcast research and science journalism, including risk and crisis communications," Duhe did not respond to questions posed by numerous news organizations this week.

In 2014, Duhé stepped down from the board of The Lens, a nonprofit news organization in New Orleans that has won numerous national investigative reporting awards, as that outlet prepared a story reporting on the controversial tenure of her boss, Loyola President Kevin Wildes, as chairman of that city's Civil Service Commission. The Lens was pushed off of Loyola's campus following that report.

Cronkite News reporters Misha Jones, Madison Atkinson & Bree Florence contributed to this story.

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Jerry Mucklow/Cronkite School