Prof. Jamal Eric Watson, who teaches full-time in Mercer’s English Department, was also an instructor at five other colleges on campuses located as far as 80 miles apart, in the fall 2011 semester. In all, his course load totaled 17 classes, the equivalent of simultaneously teaching full-time at three different colleges.
Watson’s schedule is extraordinary for several reasons. First, a typical teaching load for full-time community college faculty is five classes per semester. Mercer’s full-time faculty members are also required to attend mandatory committee and departmental meetings on the first Tuesday of every month, and hold five office hours per week.
It is not uncommon for faculty members to supplement their pay by teaching more classes at Mercer. However, the school’s current contract limits how much overload faculty may teach, in most cases no more than one or two extra classes per semester. Some faculty members elect to teach additional classes elsewhere, because the per credit pay rate at neighboring colleges is generally higher than at Mercer.
When asked how many hours per week a professor puts in outside of the classroom in preparation for each class, Mercer English Prof. Laura Knight, who is a former supervisor of adjunct instructors, said, “Between three to five hours per class.”
That Watson was teaching 17 classes in total (two of them online) is perhaps less remarkable than the fact that several of his teaching obligations occurred simultaneously. For example, on Fridays Watson had to be at Rider University for morning classes from 9:10-10:10 and 11:30-12:30 while he was also signed up to teach three classes 70 miles away in Wilmington, Delaware from 10-10:50, 11:00-11:50 and 12:00-12:50. (The accuracy of all course time listings mentioned in this article has been double checked using online course databases, and interviews with deans, department chairs and registrars).
Fall 2011 was not the first time that Watson took on potentially conflicting teaching obligations. The VOICE first reported, in an April 5 online article, that Watson had held a full-time tenure-track position at Lincoln University in Philadelphia from 2007-2010, years he was also full-time at Mercer.
Mercer was first alerted to Watson’s schedule conflicts by an email from a the University of Delaware sent to English Department chair at Mercer, Prof. Sharmila Sen. She received an email from the Assistant Chair of the English Department at the University of Delaware on January 8, 2012, indicating that Watson, who was teaching in a part-time position at UDel, was teaching classes in Delaware whose schedule time overlapped with classes he was teaching at Mercer. Sen says she immediately forwarded the email on to the Dean of Liberal Arts at Mercer, Robin Schore, and that Schore then forwarded it to Watson who denied the allegations. Sen said she believed Schore had forwarded the allegations to his superiors as well.
When asked what he did after receiving the forwarded email, Shore said, “I went to my supervisor and informed him.”
Schore “respectfully declined” to comment on what his supervisor then did with the information. Senior Reporter Kellie Rendina contacted Watson for comment and later sent questions via email at his request; however, he had not responded by the VOICE’s online press deadline three days later.
Nevertheless, it does not appear that taking on so much additional work necessarily indicates that Watson broke the law. Hoping to understand the financial and legal issues, The VOICE sought help from a local professor who holds a Ph.D. and is also a CPA, who has asked that his name not be used lest his comments result in unintended interpretations.
He said, “With regard to this employee working two full-time jobs on top of other part-time employment, this is completely legal unless the employee is violating some contractual agreement with one of the employers. Since our colleges simply require us to disclose outside employment without placing any restrictions on such, this employee is completely within his rights. Drawing multiple 401K matching contributions from the state [of New Jersey] along with any other benefits that accrue to wages is also legal. In fact, there are many public employees that hold multiple full-time jobs in New Jersey.”
In reference to New Jersey’s state ethics standards, Mercer’s policy #380 (last revised in 2006), the “Code of Ethics for Officers and Employees,” point #1 of the Ethics section reads: “No officer or employee shall have any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect, or engage in any business or transaction or professional activity, which is in conflict with the proper discharge of his/her duties to the College.”
Mercer’s policy #940 (last revised in 2005) entitled “Outside Employment” provides clarification. It reads, in part, “Outside employment shall not constitute a conflict of interest, occur at a time when the employee is expected to perform his or her assigned duties and/or diminish the employee’s efficiency in performing her or her primary work obligation at the college.”
VIEWS OF STUDENTS AND FACULTY MEMBERS
A former student of Prof. Watson’s English 102 class, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “Prof. Watson often canceled class, and on one occasion did not even inform us that he was not coming.”
This past December, Watson was voted by Mercer’s board of trustees to receive tenure; in August, it will be activated. In regards to this milestone, Watson said in a recent interview with the Trenton Times, “I was appointed to Mercer County Community College as a faculty member and I have been reappointed six times and granted tenure, and I expect that I will continue in my tenure position for many years to come.”
However, several of Watson’s students seemed to be under a different impression. They believed that the college administration had asked Watson to resign, due in part to Watson’s participation in a Trayvon Martin rally held on Mercer’s quad on March 29, 2012.
According to Stephen Middleton, a student in Watson’s Sociology 209 class, on April 4, Watson told his class the college was forcing him to resign, in part because of his involvement in the Trayvon Martin rally. In a phone interview conducted the next day, when asked if he had said this to his students, Watson told VOICE Senior Reporter Kenneth Napier, “I don’t know what you are referring to.”
Meanwhile, Middleton and classmate, Jason Rogerson, a second-year Hotel and Restaurant major, gathered signatures for petitions which were later presented to Mercer President, Dr. Patricia Donohue. During her April 5 VOICE interview, she acknowledged having received the petition as well as Middleton’s request for college administrators to keep Watson at the school.
Administrators later acknowledged that an investigation of Watson is under way; however, Donohue told the VOICE that it began “in the middle of March” and “the college did not ask [Watson] to resign.”
In recent weeks VOICE staffers uncovered criminal charges against Watson, including a guilty plea to a felony. It is not clear whether that background was fully disclosed or known to Mercer when Watson applied for employment, nor whether that background is part of the current investigation.
Casey DeBlasio, spokeswoman for the Mercer County prosecutor’s office, confirmed that both the West Windsor police department and the college have been in touch with their office.
“They have provided us with information which we are reviewing,” she said.
“[Watson] threw us under the bus,” said Middleton during a follow-up interview with The VOICE on April 12.
Middleton says he grew up in difficult circumstances. His parents were at one time both addicted to drugs and as a result, he spent time in foster care. He eventually became involved with gangs, after which he served four years in a penitentiary for a felony.
“[Mercer] is the last institution who would take me for who I am despite…what I’ve faced,” he said.
Hoping to move forward from his past, Middleton has sought for role models and confidants on Mercer’s campus.
“There are very little black role models, growing up…watching TV, you don’t see a lot of your own type of people…and when your father is not there, and your mother is strung out on drugs…who do you turn to? So for many years in my life, because I didn’t have that stability, that instruction, I always turned to the best qualified black male I could find,” he said.
Middleton cited Prof. Watson, along with Mercer Prof. Alvyn Haywood, as being such individuals. “Me and Prof. Watson engaged in [personal] conversations [about my past], which is why this incident is also more hurtful.”
Rogerson shares a similar opinion. During a follow-up interview on Monday, April 16, he said, “I mean… I went through some bad things and Prof.Watson would help me with them… I guess I’m just disappointed.”
Despite the recent allegations against Watson, there are still many students who speak highly of Watson and his teaching style.
Second-year education major, Irvel Jean, who once attended Watson’s African-American History class, said, “He was really laid back, like… he got his work done and like he was serious when he had to be, but at other times he would make us laugh before class….I feel like he puts in the extra effort.”
In an article from the Trenton Times on April 6th, Watson said of his own teaching performance, “the college obviously thought that my contributions to the institution were enough that they offered me tenure.”
Recent articles in The VOICE as well as the Trentonian and Trenton Times have examined everything from the fact that Watson presented himself as having a Ph.D. when he had not yet completed that degree, to the fact that Watson had plead guilty to a felony and had had two restraining orders, including one at Northeastern University.
With regard to these revelations and Watson’s continued presence on campus, Mercer President Dr. Patricia Donohue told The VOICE on April 12, “The severity and currency drives the speed of our actions. This is America, so we are all entitled to due process. He has been given an opportunity to speak to the charges.”
Watson later spoke to the allegations, specifically those concerning his credentials, as documented by the Trenton Times article “MCCC professor faces inquiry.” In response to questions raised, Watson said, “My transcripts are all filed in a human resources department…So if it’s on the human resources website, obviously they’ve accepted them.”
Dean of Liberal Arts Robin Schore made a similar comment when asked at what point a person earns their Ph.D. He said, “a person can say he has completed a Ph.D. when it is officially documented on his transcript.”
Jose Fernandez, Executive Director for Compliance and Human Resources, said he could not comment on Watson’s transcripts because the college is “bound by confidentiality.”
According to Prof. Knight, “At a department meeting it was announced that Eric had completed his Ph.D…[it was] not this year , and I was on sabbatical all last year, so it must have been before then.”
However, as reported in the VOICE’s April 5 article, John Bracey, Watson’s thesis advisor at UMass Amherst, told the VOICE that Watson has not completed his Ph.D., but is scheduled to in May of this year. In fact, the UMass Amherst website lists Watson as a current graduate student.
The VOICE also spoke to Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute, an organization that promotes diversity in the media, on Friday, April 13. Prince wrote an article on Watson’s current situation that appeared online Friday, April 20. He has been following Watson’s story since writing the article “Ex-Editor pleads guilty to larceny,” published December 18, 2006. In order to complete that article, Prince exchanged several emails with Watson.
When asked what effect individuals such as Prof. Watson have on the field of journalism and education, Prince said, “I just think his case points out the need to be vigilant on who is training our students.”
Note: As of Monday, April 23, Prof. Watson is still teaching as usual at Mercer.
Additional reporting contributed by: Kellie Rendina, Matthew Arnold and Ken Napier