Incoming leader of Arizona PBS accused of racism, homophobia by current and former students

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Officials at the university licensee of Arizona PBS in Phoenix are looking into claims that Sonya Forte Duhé, who was appointed in March to lead the station, made racist and homophobic comments about students at another university.

Duhé is scheduled to replace Christopher Callahan in July as CEO of Arizona PBS and dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, the station’s licensee. She currently serves as a distinguished professor and director of the school of communication and design at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Duhé

In a statement Thursday, ASU EVP and Provost Mark Searle said he and university President Michael Crow were made aware of “concerns about her past treatment of students, and in particular, students of color, at Loyola University in New Orleans,” adding “We will be looking into the concerns brought to our attention. I will share developments when appropriate.”

An ASU spokesperson told Current that allegations of racism did not come up when the school first vetted Duhé and that it will thoroughly review the claims. Duhé is still scheduled to enter the new role.

News of the accusations was first reported by the Phoenix New Times.

The university announced its review after Whitney Woods, a class of 2015 Loyola graduate and former staff member for the campus newspaper, tweeted Tuesday that Duhé made racist comments to her when she was one of her students. Woods, who is black, was responding to a tweet in which Duhé had said “For the family of George Floyd, the good police officers who keep us safe, my students, faculty and staff. Praying for peace on this #BlackOutTuesday.”

The tweet, which has since been deleted, also included a photo of intertwined black and white hands, according to the State Press, Arizona State University’s student newspaper. Woods and other students were critical of the post and said they had multiple negative experiences with Duhé.

Duhé did not respond to a request for comment, but in an interview with the State Press, Searle said Duhé was remorseful about her tweet. “I think she has a considerable regret for the way she framed it and didn’t mean it to express any kind of statement that was meant to be harmful to others,” Searle said to the State Press. “I think she feels that she’s got a very good record of working to advance minority interests.”

Woods tweeted that Duhé once told her she wasn’t black “because I didn’t act black.” The former student also said Duhé told her she didn’t have the look to be a newscaster and that her hair was “messy” and not appropriate for TV. Woods wears her hair curly and said Duhé said it should be straightened.

Woods also alleged that complaints she and other students filed with the university against Duhé were disregarded because of Duhé’s status.

A Loyola spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics of Woods’ accusations due to privacy mandates but said the institution “is committed to racial equity and does not condone behavior that does not live up to our values. We encourage our community to come forward with such complaints, and we thoroughly investigate and act upon those findings.”

Additional details of the allegations against Duhé were reported in the Arizona Republic, which noted a June 2019 blog post from another former Loyola student who said Duhé “singled out black students in my class to make sure their hair was ‘presentable.’” The newspaper also reported that because of her experience with Duhé, Woods decided not to pursue journalism after graduation.

The State Press also found more than 20 current and former students who felt Duhé had acted inappropriately toward them.

Andrew Ketcham, a gay student who attended Loyola in 2015, said Duhé criticized the sound of his voice. “I’ll never forget her advice to me that my voice was too theatrical and that I should stick with print,” Ketcham told the student paper.

Edward Wroten, a 2016 Loyola graduate, said he remembers cases in which Duhé would “blatantly compare black and white students” and tell students of color to change their looks and voices.

Wroten, a gay man, said Duhé’s criticisms caused himself and others in the class to alter their behavior when she was present. “I felt the need to change myself in front of her,” Wroten said. “I would lower my voice. I would not be flamboyant.”

Other former students said Duhé body-shamed them, suggesting in separate cases that Caroline Gonzalez, a graduate of the 2017 class, should get a nose job and breast implants.

When Duhé was appointed in March, Searle said in a statement that “the school will transition to very capable hands” with her at the helm. “Dr. Duhé brings a wealth of leadership, academic, and professional experiences to this position, and I am confident she will be a strong leader for [the] school, leading it to a bright future,” Searle said.

Duhé said she hoped to “bring to the Cronkite School a little bit of spice” and said it was “an incredible honor and opportunity because the job carries with it an awesome responsibility to uphold the values of the school’s namesake.”

Duhé has served as an anchor, correspondent and reporter for several radio and TV stations, including WVLA, an NBC affiliate in Baton Rouge, La. She has also held several positions with the University of South Carolina, including communications assistant to the president, associate VP in the office of research and health sciences, and special assistant to the provost.

‘Cronkite News’ chastised online

Meanwhile, the Cronkite School’s student-produced TV program Cronkite News recently faced criticism from its audience and former and current students after it posted a Twitter poll Wednesday asking how people viewed law enforcement’s response to the recent nationwide protests against police violence. One former Cronkite News reporter, Keerthi Vedantam, tweeted that the poll in particular glossed over law enforcement’s tactics to disperse protestors. Cronkite News subsequently deleted the poll and apologized for posting it.

The Arizona Republic also reported that Cronkite News deleted a Q&A with an ex-police officer who commented on the protests. Critics said the story “didn’t hold the source accountable for his comments,” the newspaper said.

After both incidents, critics said the school’s approach to journalistic objectivity prevented students from sharing their personal views publicly and stifled diverse perspectives.

Daria Yazmiene, a journalism student at the university, said on Twitter that she had to ask permission to get box braids, a popular hairstyle worn by black women. She also said she had to ask permission to tweet about someone her family knew who died in an incident of police brutality.

Aída Chávez, another former student journalist at the university who is now a reporter for The Intercept, said last year that a former Cronkite School professor reprimanded her for tweeting that her father is an immigrant when then-candidate Donald Trump gave a speech in Phoenix about immigration laws.

The former professor was Kevin Dale, then Cronkite News’ executive editor and now executive editor at Colorado Public Radio. Dale tweeted that Cronkite News had a clear social media policy in its syllabus that aligned with how professional newsrooms handle conduct on social media. He added that he couldn’t be happier for students like her who have had successful careers. Chávez replied with an image.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Cronkite News is overseen by Arizona PBS. It is produced by the Cronkite School.

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