Written by: Laura Pollack and Noelle Gilman
Mercer President, Dr. Patricia Donohue, confirmed for The VOICE on May 1, 2012 that English Prof. Jamal Eric Watson had tendered his resignation effective the day grades must be submitted, May 18.
When asked if Watson is to be paid for his summer classes that he will no longer be teaching, Dr. Donohue told The VOICE: “The college is meeting its obligations in his Fiscal Year 2011-12 contract.” Donohue would not specify if those contractual obligations include the approximately $6,000 in summer classes that Watson was scheduled to teach.
In an interview with The VOICE on May 9, Watson refused to respond to questions concerning his resignation.
As originally reported in an article published by The VOICE on April 4, Watson’s problems began in early January of this year when the chair of the English Department, Prof. Sharmila Sen, received an email from a dean at The University of Delaware. The letter revealed that Watson had been scheduled to teach classes at both schools at overlapping times during the fall 2011 semester. The dean also noted that students had complained because Watson was often absent for class.
Later investigation by The VOICE found Watson had, in fact, been scheduled to teach 17 different classes for five different colleges in fall 2011. Some of those classes were scheduled for identical times even though they were held at different locations, sometimes even in different states.
This past January, the board of trustees voted for Watson to receive tenure, effective this coming August. However, by mid-March both the college and the West Windsor Police had begun investigations into Watson that went beyond questions about his outside employment and a problematic teaching schedule. Additional concerns were raised about Watson’s professional credentials and his past criminal record.
The VOICE discovered that Watson had presented himself as having completed his Ph.D. when, in fact, he had not yet received the degree (according to his thesis advisor, Watson is supposed to graduate from UMass Amherst later this month). Watson told VOICE reporter Kellie Rendina, “I have a Ph.D.” in a video interview conducted March 29, 2012.
Watson later spoke to the questions about his credentials. In an April 7 article by Alex Zdan of The Trenton Times, Watson is quoted as saying, “When your dissertation is done, when it is written, you are a doctor.” He continued, “If you’re talking about a conferral of a degree, that’s just walking down the aisle.” But Watson’s dean at Mercer, Dr. Robin Schore, told The VOICE that a person can “say he has completed a Ph.D. when it is officially documented on his transcript.”
In addition to questions concerning his credentials, Watson also had a long history of legal troubles. He plead guilty to a felony in 2007 for pocketing more than $1,700 in checks intended for summer interns at The Amsterdam News, the historic African American newspaper in New York City, where he was the Executive Editor. The VOICE obtained copies of the court filings from the Amsterdam News case. Apparently, Watson did not report that he had plead guilty to a felony when he filled out his employment application for Mercer. This fact was confirmed for The VOICE by English Department Chair, Sharmila Sen.
At the same time as Watson was dealing with the felony charges, the woman with whom he had been residing took out a restraining order against him. Three years earlier, another woman, who was a former student of his, had also gotten a restraining order against Watson as confirmed by security records at Northeastern University where Watson had been an adjunct instructor.
In an interview conducted by The VOICE on April 12, President Donohue said, “The severity and currency drives the speed of our actions,” apparently indicating that Watson’s legal issues were not recent and so did not prompt the college to act with any great haste to remove him. Donohue told The VOICE that this is America and that Watson has due process rights.
A source close to the police investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for job security reasons, said the Mercer County prosecutor’s office, which had initiated an investigation of Watson, is no longer pursuing the case because the college is not interested in bringing charges. However, the same source says, it appears that the prosecutors in Delaware do intend to pursue the matter and a case could be brought against Watson at either the state or federal level in the future.
Watson’s current students, however, have lived in a state of uncertainty as Watson’s situation has unfolded throughout the semester. Sociology professor Denise Ingram, who has acted as a faculty advisor to many of Watson’s students, told The VOICE in a recent interview that “students…have expressed concern over whether or not they will receive credit for his class.” Ingram explained that students were worried about Watson’s frequent class cancellations because they knew a certain number of classroom hours are needed in order for a course to bear credit.
According to Ingram, not only was she contacted by students at Mercer but also by former students who have transferred to William Paterson and TCNJ. Of the students’ worries she said: “It seems all the campuses have had the same approach to dealing with this…which is to give as little information as possible…That is my major concern. It leaves students to manufacture their worst fears.” She went on to say, “There is a general sense of: ‘we don’t know what’s going on,’ and that is unnerving for students. In fact, one student said [to me], ‘we entrust our eduction to you people and we need to feel like we can rely on you.’”
Photography major Tiffany Austin told The VOICE, “This is my school. So, to have a teacher like that represent this school, it just makes a bad impression. Why did [Mercer] even hire him if he’s not just focused on us?”
Other students, however, are upset that he will not be here in the fall. Asjenae Morrison, a second year Criminal Justice Major, said, “Personally I’m mad because I was gonna have his class, and I heard he’s a great teacher so I was like, dang, now I have to pick somebody else.” Morrison continued, “I feel bad for him. I wish he would come back and teach…because all of the students love him.”
According to Ingram, like the students, Mercer’s faculty has been told little concerning Watson. “It has created a very, sort of, I guess the best way to put it is: LA (Liberal Arts) is a wounded division. There is a perception of betrayal, being let down by multiple people, most certainly by our colleague…It seems as if everyone can’t wait to get out of here, and that’s unusual.”
Professor Craig Coenen, who substituted for Watson’s HIS 109 and SOC 209 classes on April 25, said, “The administration has been, and I think rightfully so, very cautious in how they deal with this very delicate situation. You want to do the right thing for the students, the right thing for the faculty members, and the right thing for the college.”
According to Coenen, the circumstances surrounding Watson have had an “underlying presence in the classroom.” He said, “There were a few moments in the [SOC 209] class where students said things about the situation, not directly but they sort of referenced the problems that Prof. Watson is having, and it elicited a response by some that was sort of supportive and some against it as well.”
Despite the different opinions concerning Watson’s situation, Coenen says the students remained “very professional the whole time.”
Brandon Lee Rivera, a Liberal Arts & Science Major who had two classes with Watson and who is also his advisee, said, “I try not to get involved in it as much. [It’s] just a lot unnecessary stress. I don’t want to worry about it.”
Watson is still scheduled to teach through William Paterson’s program at Mercer next fall, according to their website. The VOICE contacted Patrick Noonan, Director of Transfer Programs and Special Sessions for William Paterson, but he was unable to respond by the time the VOICE went to press.
Mercer is not the first college from which Watson has resigned. In 2007, Watson left SUNY Old Westbury three weeks into the spring semester. Three years later, Watson resigned from Philadelphia’s Lincoln University.
Prof. Ingram believes that, “There is a generalized cultural shift in America that is very skeptical of higher ed and the people who teach in higher [education]. There is some resentment that they are elitist or aren’t useful and all those sorts of things. When things like this happen it reinforces this idea that schools abide by different rules and no one is policing them, ….I’m afraid the backlash will be more intense public scrutiny…and a very regimented school system, which is problematic for higher [education] because there’s been a tradition of integrity.”
Additional reporting contributed by Ken Napier and Matthew G. Arnold.