Loyola University New Orleans (LOYNO) has come under fire this month with an open letter protesting the firing of a popular professor who directs the school’s Africana studies department.
First reported by Philip Lewis of HuffPost, the 3-page document—shared on April 13 and endorsed by more than 600 students, faculty, alumni, and parents—preceded a walkout and public demonstration on the front lawn of campus on Wednesday.
Dr. Scott Heath, who has taught at the school on the tenure track since 2019, was informed in October that his contract would not be renewed following the end of the spring semester. The news came shortly after his return from a leave of absence related to the death of a close friend.
Many students received the news more recently, upon realizing his courses were no longer available for the Fall 2023 semester.
“Despite Professor Heath being on his second year of tenure track at Loyola University, informing the English department of his friend’s passing and his own brief absence, and keeping his students up to date, the English department continues to push forward with his termination during this period of grief,” the students’ open letter reads.
“There is a clear lack of support and empathy held for a vulnerable professor, violating the Jesuit principles of Cura Personalis and Cura Apostolica, or the ‘care of the whole person.’”
LOYNO, whose student population is roughly one-fifth Black, has had a Black studies program since the 1990s but currently has few professors who teach in it consistently, according to students. Heath is one of only two Black faculty in the school’s English department, and the only full-time member who is Black.
Heath’s supporters say he is held in “high regard” and a group of his students have noted that his leave of absence did not disrupt his teaching performance. The university attributed his firing to “absenteeism” and “negligence.”
According to the university’s website, Heath’s academic specialties include “African American literature, black popular culture, and speculative race theory.” He has previously taught at Georgetown, Georgia State, and in the Ivy League at Harvard.
Speaking with Lewis, he said his path to becoming director of African and African-American Studies at LOYNO last year was not entirely of his own choosing.
“I was looking at it and there was nobody to teach in it. And it was sort of assumed that I would take over that directorship,” he said.
Heath also helped establish LOYNO’s first NAACP chapter, which is now one of several student organizations fighting for his return to the 119-year-old Jesuit university.
“With the firing of Dr. Heath, Loyola is trying to quietly kill diversity, equity, and inclusion on our campus,” they said on April 17 in a joint social media post with the campus chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
“We demand Dr. Heath be fully reinstated and Loyola commit to protecting and expanding DEI as well as minority students and professors.”
At this week’s walkout and protest, students also requested that the school release a statement on Heath’s situation by Friday, as the school has to date remained silent on the issue.
University officials were not immediately available for comment on Thursday morning.
“It was inspiring seeing this community show up for Dr. Heath and black studies,” the LOYNO DSA chapter posted on social media following Wednesday's protest, which featured handmade picket signs and various student speakers.
As they continue to collect signatures on their open letter, students have called for supporters to contact university administrators—including interim president Fr Justin Daffron, SJ, and English department chair Dr. Timothy Welsh—to express their concern with Heath’s dismissal.
Their open letter also places the predicament within the larger context of anti-Black academic legislation from conservative politicians in recent months. For the upcoming semester, in Heath’s absence, only three courses will be available at LOYNO that fall under the African and African-American Studies program, according to students.
“[This] is occurring quietly and in tandem with nationwide attacks on Black studies across the United States,” they wrote.
“If anything, in response to the political climate, Dr. Heath and Loyola’s African and African-American Studies program should be vehemently supported by our university.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.