Everybody on the electrical and computer engineering graduate Listserv got an email Wednesday morning promoting the National Society of Black Engineer’s club fundraiser at Outback Steakhouse.
Everybody on the Listserv also got professor Victor Skormin’s response.
“Please let me know about a dinner of the National Society of White Engineers,” Skormin wrote in the email. “Thank you.”
The email has since been called inappropriate by Binghamton University students, faculty and administration. Douglas Summerville, professor and chair of the computer and electrical engineering department, sent an email at 3 p.m. on the same day to students in the electrical and computer engineering program.
“Earlier this afternoon a potentially offensive reply to an email message promoting a National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) fundraising event was sent to all ECE graduate students,” Summerville wrote. “Safeguards should have been in place to prevent unauthorized use of that medium for anything but official department communications.”
Although the email did not address Skormin, a distinguished service professor of electrical and computer engineering, by name, it said his language is not representative of the department.
“The language that appeared in that email is contrary to the values of the department and would never be tolerated in any department venue,” Summerville wrote. “We strive to foster a respectful and educational environment at all times. The department is committed to diversity among its faculty, staff and students and I sincerely apologize for this unfortunate breach of that commitment.”
BU President Harvey Stenger and Provost Donald Nieman issued a joint statement on Thursday condemning Skormin’s comment and voicing their support for NSBE.
“Clearly, this is neither the level of professionalism that we expect from members of the Binghamton University community nor is it compatible with the University’s commitment to diversity and inclusion,” the statement read.
In his email, Summerville stressed that the department is taking steps to ensure that this will not happen again. Many, however, feel that this incident is not isolated.
While she was taken aback by the comment, Siaki Tetteh-Nartey, a member of NSBE and a senior majoring in computer engineering, said she was not surprised to see inappropriate language coming from a professor. According to Tetteh-Nartey, organizations like NSBE were created in response to exclusion in the engineering community.
“If you look at the history of why these organizations were started, it was because we weren’t welcome to these regular engineering establishments,” Tetteh-Nartey said. “That’s why we had national societies for black engineers, Hispanic engineers, woman engineers. It’s because the industry norms did not allow us or make us feel welcomed.”
This semester, Skormin is the only professor teaching EECE 361: Control Systems, which is a major requirement for students majoring in electrical engineering, and EECE 517: Adaptive Control Systems. He is set to retire next year. According to Anna Domagala, a senior majoring in electrical engineering and former student of Skormin’s, the professor is known for intermittently discussing his conservative values in class, particularly on issues like President Donald Trump and minorities in the United States.
“He would always make awful comments in class and would always have the worst attitude, not even toward the students, but toward society in general,” Domagala said. “You’re supposed to feel safe in class. It’s not supposed be that kind of environment.”
On Friday evening, Skormin sent an apology to everyone on the electrical and computer engineering graduate student Listserv, stating that his reply was not done under his “best judgment.”
“I left room for the misinterpretation of the statement, and consequently the statement was grossly misplaced,” Skormin wrote in the email. “I did not intend to offend any of my past, present or future student recipients, nor any of my colleagues. Please rest assured that the impact of the message did not reflect my intent. To any and all who have been in receipt of the email, please accept my personal and professional apologies.”
He also remarked on the nature of his humor, which he said is meant to increase students’ attentiveness in class.
“As the subject I teach is not an easy one, I often make funny and sarcastic statements,” Skormin wrote. “People who know me personally, can testify that such statements are never offensive, sometimes funny, and the most important, do enhance the learning experience.”
While many students have called for Skormin to be fired, Tetteh-Nartey said coordinating a conversation between the professor and his supervisors on race and appropriateness might be more productive.
“If he gets fired, he gets scorned by a ‘hyper-politically correct university’ and he just has his bias, he’s going to continue on,” Tetteh-Nartey said.