I originally intended to write a biographical sketch about Dr. Jeremy Levitt, Canada’s first Black male law dean. A leading international legal scholar, Jeremy Levitt is only the second person of African descent to be appointed a law dean in Canadian history. What peeked my interest is that, to my knowledge, he is also the first African-American to be appointed a dean in any discipline in Canada and one of a handful of professors from a Historically Black University and College (HBCU) to become a dean at a majority White university. Dr. Levitt was appointed Dean of Law and Vice-Chancellor’s Chair at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in 2014, likewise making him UNB’s first Black law professor.
Once I began conducting research for the sketch I was deeply troubled to learn that Dr. Jeremy Levitt voluntarily resigned and returned to Florida A&M University after one year of service, so I decided to investigate. What I learned disturbed me. I’ve known Jeremy Levitt for over 25 years. He is the salt of the earth who has spent his life representing disadvantaged people and advocating for women’s rights in Africa and the US.
Dr. Levitt has strong connections to Canada. He lived there for several years and returned as a distinguished legal scholar after being selected as the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Human Rights and Social Justice at the University of Ottawa in 2012. When I called him to discuss his abrupt departure from UNB he was reluctant to discuss it, but did say: “Google me and ask whether you would allow yourself and your family to be victimized by months of highly racialized sham journalism.” He went on to say that “for nearly three months I was subjected to over 75 false, xenophobic and racist stories in print media, radio and television. My daughter reads the paper!”
I found several articles, particularly from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC), to be very disconcerting. Like Dr. Jeremy Levitt and noted journalist-advocate Shaun King, I know first-hand what it feels like to be accosted and unjustly stripped of my humanity by members of the media. After reading Glenn Greenwald’s article in The Intercept titled, False Plagiarism Accusation Against Shaun King Shows Dangers of Online Mob Journalism, I decided to write this exposition on “mob journalism” that victimized Jeremy Levitt in Canada. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemies let alone a distinguished American jurist at the height of his career. Don’t get me wrong, I admire journalists and have worked with several great ones over the years, but I question whether the old craft that mandated impartiality and due diligence as core ingredients to good journalism is all but gone. It appears that Dr. Levitt was subjected to a political lynching, which happens all too often to dynamic and confident Black men.
Dr. Jeremy Levitt and his family moved from Orlando, Florida, one of the most desirable destinations in the world, 2000 miles north to Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, for less pay to serve a community in need of talented and diverse leadership. Was it all for nothing? I was mortified by the vicious and TMZ style coverage of Dr. Levitt that was highly personalized and devoid of any balance and concern for his humanity. As a historian and justice advocate, I am compelled to address the horrible treatment that influenced Canada’s first Black male law dean to escape repression in the “progressive” North for freedom in the American south. Even the legendary civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was denied a 1960 vacation to New Brunswick because of his race, which when taken together, may indicate that the former slave-holding province needs to confront its lingering inhospitable culture towards people of African descent.
Is balanced and compassionate news coverage becoming extinct? Is objectivity and fairness out of style? Is investigative journalism, with no axe to grind, a dying art? Virtually everything I read about Dr. Levitt is biased, relentless, salacious, and cruel. Jeremy Levitt is a real person with a real life and one biased and neglectful story led to a journalistic feeding frenzy that wreaked havoc on Dr. Levitt’s hard earned reputation and professional life. When empathy and thoroughness wane, we all suffer.
The famed American Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner stated that “fiction is often the best fact.” On February 5, 2015, Jacques Poitras, CBC New Brunswick’s provisional affairs reporter authored, in my opinion, a woefully biased, piecemeal and defamatory article titled, Jeremy Levitt faces allegations of sexism, harassment by Florida colleagues that regrettably embodies Faulkner’s catchphrase. The problem is that Faulkner was a Pulitzer Prize winning writer of fiction, whereas Poitras is a relatively unknown journalist whose reporting about Dr. Levitt propagates fiction as fact, and arguably follows a sullied form of “Gonzo journalism” where objectivity, balance and truthfulness take a back seat to sensationalism. Poitras’ reporting and apparent inexperience writing on legal issues, particularly in foreign jurisdictions, is apparent. He literally wrote his stories based on two legal complaints, while profoundly ignoring thousands of pages of case history that vividly show the claims were contrived and bogus, not excluding the material fact that Court records reveal that Dr. Levitt was not even a defendant or witness.
While I understand that Fredericton, New Brunswick may not be a hot bed of exciting news, I take issue with the highly racialized obsession with Dr. Jeremy Levitt. Dozens of stories about him in print, on television, and in radio broadcasts, by one journalist, seem to be more fixed on aiding and abetting clandestine political agendas and racial stereotypes about Black men than fairness and truth. Poitras correctly believed that sensationalized stories about a Black male law dean from America, who looks more like an NFL defensive end than Indiana Jones, would capture the local imagination. His reporting on the discredited law suits in Florida were entirely unrelated to Dr. Levitt’s role as Dean of Law at UNB and seem to amounted to an unjust form of character assassination.
Diligent journalist interested in fairness and truth would have reviewed the case histories of the law suits rather than spin off articles based solely on bogus legal claims for which Jeremy Levitt was unaware and not even a defendant or deposed witness. So why falsely allege that Dr. Levitt was “facing allegations” as if the civil suits against Florida A&M University (FAMU) were criminal complaints against Levitt? The case history reveals something even more troubling. The law suits were gender pay equity claims that had nothing to do with Dr. Levitt. In fact, Jeremy Levitt was and is an outspoken advocate for gender pay equity. Besides, “all two claims” that reference Dr. Levitt and five former law school administrators were dismissed by FAMU and the Equal Opportunity Office five years earlier, something that Jacques Poitras and all media outlets mysteriously ignored.
In my opinion, Court records reveal that the two complainants intended to use their law suits to unjustly tarnish Dr. Levitt’s good name as well as that of several other former administrators because he was the highest paid and the only distinguished professor at FAMU College of Law; no racial group has a monopoly on jealousy, envy or prejudice. Jeremy Levitt’s persecution reflects one of his adages, “if it is true that White folk are jealous—a debatable claim, Black folk must be envious—an unfortunate truism. The former admires and wants what you have but the latter not only wants what you have but is willing to destroy you and it if they can’t have it.” I will spare you the legalese but it is important to note that Court records clearly reveal that not only were the accusations made against Dr. Levitt determined to be suspect and dismissed by FAMU years earlier, the U.S. federal district court in the northern district of Florida ruled that they were prejudicial and baseless and dismissed them with prejudice.
At a time when African-American men are being mercilessly gunned down by police across the United States, Canadian reporters took aim at Jeremy Levitt despite the fact that as Dean of Law he generously served as an expert for CBC radio and television news and was invited by CBC to be a regular contributor to morning radio: http://www.cbc.ca/informationmorningfredericton/2014/12/11/human-rights/. No good deed goes unpunished. Apparently the low hanging fruit of a supposed scandal merited trashing Dr. Levitt’s reputation, deanship and budding relationship with the crown corporation, CBC.
How did the Canadian media learn about law suits in Florida and why did some of them choose to write about them? I wonder if they were sent north by the disreputable professors in the Florida cases? Moreover, why would journalists based in New Brunswick, Canada, be interested in spurious lawsuits in Florida? In my opinion, the reporting intentionally and maliciously caricatures Jeremy Levitt as a misogynist and an abusive administrator. Dr. Levitt, an expert in change-management, is portrayed as solely responsible for the Florida law suits and faculty conflict at UNB despite the fact that its faculty have had five deans in five years in what UNB’s most senior leadership referred to as a “turnstile situation.” Media bias caused Janet Austin, Levitt’s former white female associate dean, to publicly declare that she resigned “in support” of him, something that Poitras seems to have begrudgingly reported.
The term of a Dean in Canada is typically five years. Too many stories openly and actively invite readers to freely dismissed allegations made against FAMU that reference Jeremy Levitt with unrelated events at the University of New Brunswick without any basis for such connections to be made. On a related note, Wendy Robbins, UNB’s leading feminist scholar weighed in on the issue in a what may be deemed a pro-Levitt editorial asserting that “what is authoritative in a racialized minority person may be challenged by non-racialized majority as uppity,” something that Dr. Levitt and even President Barack Obama know all too well. She further stated that over two decades ago a survey on gender-related policy at UNB illuminated the fact that “legal education in New Brunswick has reflected a white, male tradition” and that “Members of Canada’s First Nations and other visible minorities still remain under-represented in the student body and the professoriate.” Dr. Jeremy Levitt joined UNB and was mandated to address this alarming gap 25 years later just months after UNB’s first ever campus-wide faculty strike that was followed by motions of no-confidence against the administration from every faculty department at the university including the law school.
Dr. Jeremy Levitt’s appointment as Dean of Law provided a wonderful bridging opportunity to what Robbins believes is a “long overdue” need “for self-study and public conversation to carve out a path forward.” Despite these challenges, during his first three months as Dean, among other accomplishments, Dr. Levitt diversified the professoriate and student body at the Faculty of Law by taking the job and hiring the “first African-Canadian, Latino, Aboriginal and only the second person of Indian descent” since its founding in 1892. Not surprising, the New Brunswick media didn’t report on any of these historic accomplishments. Will UNB Law retain these diverse hires or become an exclusively White institution again?
Any responsible and credible journalist writing about law suits—let alone those in a foreign country—knows that it is essential to review the case history before publishing a story. It appears that Jacques Poitras and others did not do this raising speculation about whether they were doing someone else’s bidding. In fact, the majority of journalists seemingly based their reports on Poitras’ jaundiced CBC articles. New Brunswick is a small, modest and insular province in eastern Canada. It was one of the few places in Canada that legalized slavery. Its capital, Fredericton, has a population of about 60,000. It’s a small town where everyone knows everyone and outsiders are referred to as people “From Away.” Far too many members of the Canadian media failed to empathize with Dr. Levitt, they did not even attempt to consider what it was like to be one of only a handful of immigrant Black families in the remote town.
To his credit Poitras did begrudgingly write two articles indicating that Dr. Levitt was “cleared” in the law suits but nonetheless reinforced the false impression that Dr. Levitt was the subject of criminality when again, he was not even a party to the law suits.
Beyond Jacques Poitras’ apparent obsession with Jeremy Levitt is the sad reality that the coverage of his persecution plays on stereotypical portrayals of Black men pervasive in North American news media. Too many journalists struggle to move away from biases that predispose them to writing about Black men as hypersexual, dishonest, violent and inclined to criminal behavior. Such racial biases block Black males’ prospects for success no matter how educated or advanced in their career they may be, not even a Black male law dean is exempt from such behavior. In his widely acclaimed book, The Assassination of the Black Male Image, E. O. Hutchinson, states that “the caricature of black masculinity has long been both the thing that excuses White oppression and stimulates the fear that motivates it.”
The reporting of Jeremy Levitt’s mob-like undoing surgically exploited this unfortunate dichotomy. Too many unfairly, irresponsibly and unjustifiably linked Dr. Levitt to violence and sexual misconduct. This is particularly problematic given that he is a staunch women’s rights scholar and advocate and was not the subject of the law suits, and against the backdrop of UNB’s lack of racial diversity among its faculty and administrators and the long and well-documented history violence against aboriginals, slavery, segregation and apparent tradition of racist attitudes towards Blacks in Atlantic Canada. It’s interesting to note that the law building where Dr. Levitt worked was named after George Duncan Ludlow, the slave owning Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Brunswick whose ruling legalized slavery in the province. Perhaps, reporters should have written about the irony behind the first Black male law dean in Canada literally working in the shadow of Ludlow.
To make matters worse, Jacques Poitras failed to report that a year before the law suits were filed Florida A&M University investigators substantiated serious allegations against the same discredited Florida professors that made false allegations against Jeremy Levitt. Investigators determined that the FAMU professors had initiated “…unauthorized processes to obtain salary increases purporting to come from and/or represent official actions of the College of Law.” Essentially, they tried to unilaterally give themselves unauthorized pay increases by submitting documents “as if the Dean was submitting a salary increase for approval by the Provost.” This vital information was apparently ignored by Poitras, a troubling oversight because it provides the real motives behind why the Florida professors made false claims about Dr. Levitt: professional jealousy and envy. Again, Jeremy Levitt is the highest paid and among the most accomplished professors at FAMU. With this information at hand, any good journalist would tread carefully and question his/her sources as well the integrity of the law suits. Yet, Poitras’ unsavory narrative about Dr. Levitt advanced the aims of persons that were envious and uncomfortable with the change that he represented at FAMU and UNB, respectively.
Why did Poitras believe that his salacious stories served a public good worthy of publication, especially after Dr. Jeremy Levitt informed him that “the Florida lawsuits are largely pay equity claims against Florida A&M University (FAMU) not me…The unproven and malicious allegations were filed by disgruntled former and current employees and contain entirely false, regurgitated, distorted and defamatory claims that were, to my knowledge, dismissed by the university years ago…Plaintiffs in an action, in America as here, can allege anything they want in pleadings, true or not.” It appears that “low-hanging fruit,” racial stereotypes, and sensationalism was far more interesting. The truth of the matter is that the Courts and jury ultimately agreed with FAMU and Dr. Levitt’s position, yet CBC did not make one retraction or reparative statement. This lack of empathy and “mob reporting” in New Brunswick appears to be indicative of a broader cultural problem in Atlantic Canada, or the “Maritimes,” as illustrated in a 2012 government report that concludes that “barriers stemming from negative attitudes and even racism when it comes to welcoming new people into our communities and hiring people from ‘from away,’” still exist in Canada. This point became painfully clear when Tony Secco, UNB’s controversial Vice-President, was forced to resign soon after Jeremy Levitt voluntarily resigned, but Poitras nor any media reported on Secco’s ouster. Why was Levitt’s voluntary resignation worthy of three months of constant media bombardment, yet Secco’s forced resignation not news worthy? Unlike Dr. Levitt, Secco is a White Atlantic Canadian not “From Away.”
It seems that too many who covered Jeremy Levitt’s cold reception in New Brunswick, pursued an unsavory narrative about him that advanced the aims of the discredited Florida claimants and the UNB professors that were resistant with the color and context of change that he represented. As Dr. Levitt has said, “Deaning while Black can be risky.” I have long viewed Canadians as being generally calm and inclusive, and most of them certainly are, but clearly the U.S. does not have a monopoly on “Negrophobes” and xenophobes masquerading as credible journalists and progressive academics. Jeremy Levitt deserved much better and should not be judged on the desperate reporting of racial axe grinders. He is a very good person, a good husband, a good father, a dedicated public servant, a gifted scholar, and leader. He will move on and do great things, but the unjust and racialized nature of his tenure in New Brunswick says more about the race relations in Atlantic Canada than anything else. The Court and jury’s resolute dismissal of the Florida lawsuits vindicate Dr. Levitt and validate my resolute position that those who misrepresented him and his character owe him an apology.