By ELISSA GOOTMAN
Published: October 12, 2007
In Madonna G. Constantine’s classroom at Columbia University’s Teachers College, emotions can run high. “People have cried in class,” said Dr. Constantine, 44, a professor of psychology and education who specializes in the study of how race and racial prejudice can affect clinical and educational interactions. “Uncovering those issues, students often get to a place where it can be painful.”
In an interview in her office, a suite peppered with academic tomes and mugs from psychology conferences, Dr. Constantine said she remained mystified over who could be responsible for leaving a noose dangling on her office door at Teachers College this week.
“I really don’t have any idea of who could have done that,” she said. “Is there anything that I’ve experienced that’s close? I would say no.”
As she gave a round of interviews yesterday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice joined the investigation into the noose being conducted by the Hate Crimes Task Force of the New York Police Department.
A police spokesman, Paul J. Browne, said yesterday that there were still no suspects.
College officials and the Police Department sparred publicly yesterday over the department’s request that Teachers College turn over hours of video from a number of security cameras. But college officials said there was no camera in the hallway by Dr. Constantine’s office.
In a separate case, the president of Columbia University, Lee C. Bollinger, reported that an “anti-Semitic smear” had been found yesterday in a bathroom in a campus building, Lewisohn Hall. The police said a swastika and a caricature of a man wearing a yarmulke had been drawn in black ink on a stall door.
In the noose case, Mr. Browne said yesterday that the police were “disappointed and surprised” that Teachers College had refused to turn over its security camera footage without a subpoena. “It is always important to get information as soon as possible,” he said. “You don’t want to give the perp time to concoct a story or cover their tracks.”
But Susan H. Fuhrman, the president of Teachers College, said she was “surprised and distressed” to learn of the police criticism. She said the subpoena policy was standard for educational institutions, adding, “We have students here whose privacy we try to protect.”
She said that the college was committed to cooperating with the police and that by the time the police arrived with the subpoena early yesterday evening, the college had already downloaded the video to hand over to officers.
“There’s been open communication all along with the Police Department,” she said.
As for Dr. Constantine, Dr. Fuhrman said she had heard “nothing but accolades” from her students. “She’s well respected in her field,” she said. “Probably her work engenders passionate debate, but I could name 100 other people here who you can say the same thing about.”
In the interview, Dr. Constantine described growing up in Lafayette, La., the third of five children. Her father works as a bartender at a private club for people in the petroleum industry; her mother was a teacher’s aide working with special education students.
Her parents, who attended college but did not graduate, saved their money to send their children to Catholic schools.
Asked how she became interested in psychology, Dr. Constantine joked about growing up watching “The Bob Newhart Show.” But she also noted, “my personality is naturally one that helps people.”
When Kolone Scanlan, a doctoral student, popped by Dr. Constantine’s office yesterday with a bouquet of flowers and a card, it was Ms. Scanlan who broke out into tears and Dr. Constantine who offered words of comfort.
As an undergraduate and master’s student at Xavier University in New Orleans, Dr. Constantine noticed that psychology textbooks tended to lump women, poor people, black people and disabled people under the umbrella “disadvantaged populations.”
“It was written in a very condescending manner, as in these people do dah dah dah dah dah,” Dr. Constantine said, which made her think, “I want to be able to change some of the text.”
She earned her Ph.D. in counseling psychology at the University of Memphis, and spent five years working in the counseling and mental health center at the University of Texas at Austin before going into academia, first at Temple University. She came to Teachers College in 1998 as an associate professor and earned tenure in 2001, with, she said, more than 30 published articles under her name.
“Most people may go up with 15 or 20,” she said. “I figured as a black woman, I needed to at least double that.”
“Your scholarship is evaluated differently,” she said. “People think that I and other black scholars are studying issues of race because we’re black and because it’s personal. But if I’m studying racism, that’s not about me, right, that’s often about white people, who have certain types of attitudes about people of color, and so forth.”
Dr. Constantine was promoted to a full professor in 2003. But her time at Columbia has not been conflict-free. In May, she filed a defamation lawsuit against another professor in her department.
No detailed complaint has been filed in the case, and Dr. Constantine, who was accompanied during the interview by her lawyer, Paul J. Giacomo Jr., declined to elaborate on the case.
One key concept in Dr. Constantine’s scholarship is “racial microaggression,” which she explained as the often subtle ways in which racial differences can plague relationships between even well-meaning therapists and their clients, or supervisors and their trainees. For Dr. Constantine, colorblindness is neither possible nor desired.
“We have some of the most well-meaning, well-intentioned students I have ever met, and I really enjoy working with them,” she said. “Well-meaning and well-intentioned doesn’t mean effective.” Proclaiming oneself to be colorblind, she added, “is not a helpful perspective in counseling and therapy.”
Does Dr. Constantine think her work could be connected to the noose, hardly a microaggression, but, in her words, “a very, very aggressive act?”
“I haven’t ruled it out that it’s connected,” she said. “I teach courses on racial and cultural issues.” She added, “There are things that I say that have pushed people’s buttons, because it challenges the status quo.”
For now, Dr. Constantine says she is done with the interviews and ready to return to her private life. She was eager to attend her boyfriend’s daughter’s wedding this weekend, she told friends she encountered in the hallway.
And upon arriving at the office door where the noose recently hung, she did not flinch but reached for the doorknob with confidence, saying, “I’m just a nerdy academic who likes to be in her office and do research.”