Incoming Cronkite dean has alleged history of racist, homophobic comments toward students

More than 20 of Sonya Forte Duhé’s current and former students came forward with allegations during a State Press investigation into the claims

Sonya Forte Duhé, the incoming dean of the Cronkite School, has an alleged history of racist and homophobic remarks, according to former and current students and records obtained by The State Press.

Her repeated behavior, which has been reported and confirmed by 23 Loyola University New Orleans students who attended the university between 2013 and 2019, included telling Black journalists their appearance, specifically their hair, was not appropriate for television as well as criticizing the voices of gay students. 

Duhé, who has spent the past 11 years as director of the School of Communication and Design at Loyola, is set to take over as dean of the Cronkite School and CEO of Arizona PBS on July 1. 

Questions surrounding Duhé’s treatment of Black students began circulating on Twitter Tuesday after she posted a photo of Black and white hands intertwined with the comment “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.”

Former students found Duhé’s tweet upsetting because of her treatment of Black students as well as its reference to police officers and George Floyd’s family in the same sentence.

Her former students said they were surprised by the post, replying to it with criticism based on personal experiences and the police brutality discussions nationwide. Duhé did not respond to the student’s posts, and some shared screenshots showing that they had been blocked. 

Duhé’s original post has since been deleted.

In an interview with The State Press Thursday morning, ASU President Michael Crow and University Provost Mark Searle said the University will “look into” the claims against Duhé. 

Crow and Searle both said the alleged claims against Duhé did not come up during the University’s vetting process. Later in the day on Thursday, Searle sent an email to Cronkite faculty and students saying that the University is aware of the allegations and will be looking into them. 

The Cronkite School directed The State Press to University media relations, which responded with the same message from the provost’s office.

Duhé was one of four candidates for the position who visited faculty and students on-campus. Each of the candidates gave vision presentations explaining their past experience, hopes for the future at Cronkite and answered questions from students and professors. Duhé was also a finalist for a dean position at the University of Missouri in 2015 and at Elon University in 2018. 

In the interview with State Press, Searle said he spoke to Duhé and she expressed regret for the 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. “I think she feels that she’s got a very good record of working to advance minority interests.”

Duhé’s criticisms of student’s appearances

All 23 students who spoke to The State Press said it was well known within the School of Mass Communication and Design that Duhé made microaggressive comments that touched on race, sexual orientation and body weight toward students who went “against the grain.”

Whitney Woods, a 2015 Loyola graduate with degrees in journalism and English, who tweeted the initial critical response to Duhé, said in an interview she doesn’t think Duhé ever had the intention to recognize wrongdoing or apologize. 

“It was proven by the reaction (from my peers) that I got on Twitter,” Woods said. “It was something I couldn’t let live any longer because to speak specifically to Black lives and call out good cops in the same sentence, and then to say I hope my students are doing well, that never translated to compassionate feeling.”

Woods said she was deeply involved with the school and thought she’d created a very close, open and honest relationship with Duhé. But in various classes discussing the appearance of Black women in broadcast television, Woods became more aware of Duhé’s behavior.

“Not once was she, or did I ever feel like, she was a genuine POC ally,” Woods said. “She never advocated for any students of color, not a single one. She never took any of them under her wing. She never mentored them. And to have her be a dean of students in our current climate in 2020 would be a disservice to their education.”

While at Loyola, Woods and others said Duhé openly showed affinities for conservative news outlets, including the image of white, blonde hair, blue eyed anchors. 

In a classroom setting and privately, Woods said Duhé told her that her hair was messy and admitted after years of schooling, she didn’t know Woods was Black because Woods didn’t act like it. 

“I don’t think she should be in a classroom ever,” Woods said. “I think her narrative, her views, her obviously predisposed opinions and thoughts based on her background does not make her a suitable fit to teach a diverse range of students.”

Andrew Ketcham attended Loyola in 2015, but did not complete his degree at the school because of the loss of a grant. Ketcham, a gay student, said Duhé was very critical about 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 said.

Ketcham also recalled hearing Woods tell students about Duhé’s comment on her natural hair. 

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

Wroten said Duhé’s criticisms caused himself and others in the class to alter their behavior when Duhé was present. 

He said as a gay man he was particularly self-conscious around Duhé because of the tone of his voice. 

“I felt the need to change myself in front of her,” Wroten said. “I would lower my voice. I would not be flamboyant.”

Zinsule Bonner, a friend of Wroten and fellow 2016 graduate of Loyola, remembers Wroten felt he could not be his true self with Duhé, and added that everyone avoided being themselves while with her “because at that time we felt she held the keys to our careers.”

While earning her degree, Bonner was a student worker at the office at the School of Mass Communication during her first two years at Loyola. At work, Bonner said Duhé would yell at others and make inappropriate comments.

Bonner said Duhé’s comments included telling a student they should have their mole removed to be more presentable for television and that during events Black students should not have “natural hair.”

Hannah Gomez Farias, a 2015 Loyola graduate, recalled an incident during her senior year where she received a failing grade from Duhé on a presentation in part because she “was too tan,” and she did not have enough makeup on. 

“You didn't wear makeup at your presentation, you lost points,” Gomez Farias said. “If you didn't have your hair straight, you lost points, because all of that was unpresentable.”

Chris Gilyard, a senior at Loyola who took classes with Duhé, said she used microaggressive racial comments toward students of color and told Black students they needed to change their hair, speak more “properly” and change the way they dressed.

Mary Kate Hutchinson, a 2015 graduate from the School of Mass Communication who worked at the school for three years, said Duhé's racial microaggressions were directed toward students of color, especially Black students.

Hutchinson knew Duhé well and worked with her often. The tipping point in their relationship came during her junior year, when she missed work due to depression and anxiety and Duhé pulled her aside to ask her what was going on. 

Hutchinson said that when she told Duhé her problems, she responded that Hutchinson had gained a lot of weight, and she thought it would help if she lost weight.

Italia Moore, a senior at Loyola, said she had a positive relationship with Duhé. When Moore needed help, Duhé was often there to assist her even outside of the classroom. 

Moore said she encountered racial issues at Loyola, but she thought they stemmed more from the department as a whole rather than Duhé. 

However, upon further reflection, Moore did note she also experienced many of the racial microaggressions from Duhé that others who have come forward spoke about. 

Duhé had convinced Moore to focus on public relations classes, rather than her initial focus of broadcast, and that Duhé had told her after she had changed her hair to braids that it had looked better before when it was straight.

Outside of the School of Mass Communication building before a school break, 2017 graduate Caroline Gonzalez was with her dad and Duhé who was giving guidance on how she could improve for the upcoming year. 

Gonzalez said the conversation shifted to one about makeup and clothes and Duhé even suggested Gonzalez "do something" about her nose.

“I’m a Hispanic and Arabic woman. My nose is a part of my Arabic culture,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said she took Duhé’s comments so seriously that she scheduled a rhinoplasty, or nose job, consultation that summer. Gonzalez said she never went through with the procedure, and after reflecting on the situation years later, said she had been “silly” to let Duhé’s opinion influence her so much. 

In addition to a conversation about a nose job, Gonzalez said Duhé suggested she straighten her "curly, thick hair" before class and undergo a boob job. 

Gonzalez said she felt defeated after conversations with Duhé because she felt that she would have to change so many things just to be successful in the industry in the eyes of Duhé.

For too long, students accepted these comments from Duhé, but the power dynamic stopped them from speaking out of fear. 

Now that Duhé has accepted a position at the Cronkite School, students are willing to talk, Morgan Ballard, a 2016 Loyola graduate said.

Ballard said national unrest surrounding racial injustices sparking conversation around the country encouraged people to speak up after so much of it has been "swept under the rug."

“I think people are more excited to speak to it because accountability is what we're all seeking,” Ballard said. 

Loyola University bias complaint against Duhé

In a 2019 Loyola bias complaint and investigation obtained by The State Press through a former student, Duhé denies ever commenting on hair and appearance in regard to race, while students and colleagues interviewed in the report said her conduct, including touching others’ hair, was inappropriate at times. 

The report stemmed from an allegation by a Black student in 2019 who said Duhé requested she straighten her hair before taking a professional headshot.

The student who filed the complaint and wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution told The State Press that Duhé repeatedly made microaggressive comments to all students, but especially those of color and members of the LGBTQ community. 

The bias report was filed after the student received multiple complaints from Duhé surrounding three news packages they produced, which focused on issues surrounding the Black community. The student said the criticisms made it clear that Duhé had biases toward students of color.

“To accuse me of telling students of African American descent that I said to have their hair not natural is just ludicrous,” Duhé said in the bias incident report. 

Duhé did not respond to repeated calls, texts and emails from The State Press. 

“I do expect students to follow all professional standards of the news industry,” Duhé wrote in the report. “I do require my students to have professional photographs on their digital portfolios which includes appropriate attire and grooming. That is the professional standard of the news industry and one I adhere to as a journalism professor who has years of experience in the television news industry and a standard I uphold as director of our school.”

A one-page decision letter from the University sent after the investigation says that “appropriate action has been taken,” but the letter did not elaborate on what the action was. 

“We also maintain student trust and employee privacy by not publicly discussing those cases. We do not publicly disclose the outcome of any employment investigations or findings — whatever the outcome — but we can and do participate fully in the vetting of candidates by other institutions,” an email statement from a Loyola spokesperson said.

Riley Katz, a 2019 graduate in communication, was interviewed by the university in its report where he said Duhé made repeated comments on Black students' hair. 

“Everyone got bit if you were around Duhé long enough, but there was a serious bias against students of color,” Katz said.

In an interview with The State Press, Katz said Duhé repeatedly made offensive comments to students. Katz also said Duhé pushed students into career paths she thought would be best instead of encouraging them to pursue their own interests. 

In a meeting with a dean regarding the bias complaint, Katz said it was revealed that Duhé had told a student that they “needed to lose weight.”

That student, who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, said that during a meeting to discuss a project, Duhé said no one would want to hire them because they may have a heart attack at work due to their weight.

The student said Duhé then proceeded to tell them she could be their personal trainer to help them lose weight. The student who filed the complaint confirmed this story.

“Traditionalist” values

Some students and faculty believe Duhé’s background may contribute to her alleged actions. 

“She’s an extreme southerner,” Gomez Farias said. “She wants people to fall in line with the way that the southern values are, and she doesn't want people to speak a certain way. She doesn't want people to look a certain way. She doesn’t want people to dress a certain way, because it's not ‘proper.’”

In a bias report interview with the Loyola investigator, a colleague of Duhé’s said in an interview that students may have misinterpreted her intentions and actions. 

“(The colleague) indicated it was his sense that Dr. Duhé’s being white, southern, and conservative often led students to believe that also meant racist,” the investigator wrote. “But he emphasized he had not witnessed anything he would classify as racially biased during his time in the classroom.” 

The report also states that the colleague said there have been various occasions over the years where a student has complained about comments from Duhé, but after an explanation they often left with a “different sense of what she was trying to say or what the goal was in terms of their learning.”

A history of racism in the news industry

Progress for female reporters of color to obtain a space in journalism has been incredibly slow, as the standard of objectivity prioritized white women’s looks and white men’s voices. 

Rochelle Ford, dean of the journalism school at Elon University who has focused her research on diversity and inclusion, said the first Black women in media were trying to get as close to having white women’s hair as possible. 

Ford said hair was a standard and symbol of whiteness, something viewers at home were comfortable with. The more white a person of color looked, the more accepted they were as a source of information, Ford said.

In the ‘70s, the phrase “Black is beautiful” became the slogan of a movement that encouraged women to dismiss the idea that blackness was ugly and instead recognize the notion as harmful to their progress. While women of color everywhere were accepting their natural selves, journalism embraced whiteness.

Today, Black journalists are still critiqued on their appearance, with what Ford calls “Hollywood expectations.” Reporters, especially female reporters and reporters of color, must be both beautiful and good at their jobs to get paid and have credibility. She said that now people of color feel more comfortable being themselves, but the conversation of natural hair is still discussed in newsrooms across the country.

“Society is not always open to seeing people for who they are,” Ford said.

TV relies on ratings for success and newsrooms can and should stand by their reporters no matter what they look like or how they identify. But not all of them always do so. 

When messages from white professors explain to students how the news industry, especially broadcast, prioritizes looks, their effort to educate is sometimes perceived as racist, Ford said. 

Even if it is true and accepted that educators have a responsibility to teach to historical standards of appearance, Camille Didelot, a 2018 School of Mass Communication graduate, said these kinds of expectations are standard because educators reinforce them, rather than question them. 

“Duhé could have been the one to change something,” Didelot said. 

“Such comments may be perceived as helpful, but they can actually be harmful to the self esteem of women, particularly black women,” Mia Moody-Ramirez, journalism professor and chair at Baylor University, said in an email. 

Moody-Ramirez said professors, mentors or figures of authority in today’s journalism schools should think twice before they give advice to students on changing their physical appearance.

Older graduates also said the idea that forcing students to develop thick skin by commenting about physical attributes specific to their ethnicity without prefacing it with the specific intention to do so is more harmful than anything. 

“What she was doing wasn’t preparation, it was deterring (Black students) from pursuing a career they wanted,” said Topher Balfer, a 2015 Loyola graduate who served as editor-in-chief of the school’s paper.

Nia Porter, 2015 graduate and first Black editor-in-chief of Loyola’s paper, said she hadn’t dwelled on her experiences until now. Porter said Duhé didn’t want to celebrate her achievement, because it would publicize their lack of Black student leadership.

“I don’t necessarily think that she’s a bad teacher. I don’t necessarily think that she’s bad at what she does. But I will say that I believe she has some major prejudices and she often lets them get in the way of mentoring students,” Porter said.

Balfer said, as a white student, he wished he had put himself out there for his peers, like Woods and Porter, who were on the receiving end of Duhé’s actions. 

“Everything they came to school for was ripped away from them,” Balfer said.

He said he hopes Cronkite students hold themselves and faculty accountable, recognizing hostility, dehumanization and calculated, self-motivated behavior by faculty, Duhé included.

Wroten said Duhé told him that students' one goal while in school was to “get a job,” but that the way she taught students how to get a job was problematic. 

“She is so qualified for this position to be dean, but she's too intelligent not to know that what she's doing is wrong,” Wroten said. “The way that she phrased things and the way she treated people is not correct.

"She would be great at this job at ASU in 1970.”


Reach the reporters at pjhanse1@asu.edu and wmyskow@asu.edu and follow @piperjhansen and @wmyskow on Twitter. 

Like The State Press on Facebook and follow @statepress on Twitter.


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