WVU cashes in on Katherine Johnson’s success.

Ever since Hidden Figure’s incredible commercial and critical success West Virginia University has made it its mission to let everyone know that Katherine Johnson, one of the black mathematicians the movie centers on, attended WVU. The university has time and again tried to take credit for Johnson’s achievements, despite the fact that she only attended for a session.

Blatant misinformation has caused people to think that Johnson graduated from WVU. The WVU Admissions account tweeted this.

katherine johnson lies admission

Johnson was also the first woman to desegregate the WVU graduate school. This DA article mentions the racism faced at NASA but nothing about WVU. Being the first black woman attending graduate school it isn’t far fetched to believe that she faced some sort of racism during her short time here.

Back in February two students created a tribute to Johnson on campus. I got in contact with one of them, Morgan King, and asked them a couple of questions.

Did you know that Johnson was only here for one session (aprox. a semester today)?

Yes, I did know she only attended the university for a semester. It mentioned in the Hidden Figures novel that she had to leave for personal reasons related to her family, whereas it was difficult for women of that time to pursue higher education, especially a graduate degree, given the expectations of society on women in the household.

How do you feel about WVU taking credit for Johnson’s success (constantly featuring her on social media as a WVU product) despite her short time here?

I think it is important to feature Johnson’s successes as a West Virginian. Though she was at WVU a short while, she grew up as a child in the state. West Virginians are all mountaineers at heart whether they attended the school for four, 1 or no years. As the land grant institution of the state, it is important for WVU to recognize the success of West Virginians. Whether the university should treat her as a WVU product to the extent they may is less of a concern than not raising her up before. She contributed so much and received so little recognition for so long, that her features through the university is long overdue.

You said in the WVU Today article that “Honoring Ms. Johnson in the department where her male peers would have studied has a lot of symbolism in it.” What kind of symbolism do you mean? Is her success and value measured conditionally to men?

The short time she was here she studied mathematics. Though that department is not in the engineering college, there is a NASA office within the building along with a field Aeronautical Engineering, that can be directly linked to the type of work she and her peers did. Her supervisors were primarily engineers, and she faced adversity in gaining respect from them. She deserved to be honored in the department where it was so difficult for women, particularly women of color, to gain access to classes. Her success and value, I would argue, is measured separately. The adversity she faced while accomplishing such incredible work takes her to a much higher level of success and value relative to her male peers.

You seem to relate to Johnson because of your backgrounds as women in STEM, but you can’t divorce the fact that she was a black woman facing an extra layer of discrimination that you do not. How do you feel being white and being the face of this tribute to her?

She undoubtedly faced discrimination I could never know. Being white and a “face” to this tribute has been conflicting, because too much attention has been brought to myself and Vannah who initiated the tribute. The purpose behind doing it was to honor her for her under recognized contributions in the face of adversity, then in turn too much focus turned to us straying from the project’s initial purpose. Our goal was to open the dialogue about her on campus, because it was astonishing that there was nothing significant for her here.

Only recently has WVU been attempting to reclaim its ties with Johnson. WVU gave her an honorary doctorate in 2016. The website states that “Recipients are not necessarily graduates of the awarding institution; rather, the school often views the degree as an opportunity to establish ties with a prominent person.” Just last week it was announced that she was one of the four people inducted into The Academy of Distinguished Alumni. The article states that it’s “one of the highest honors awarded to graduates of West Virginia University.” 

These all feel like attempts to cop diversity points off a black woman’s success that had little to do with the university. Undoubtedly, Johnson deserves all the recognition she is getting, but when we look at the circumstances of some of this it seems to be more about looking superficially diverse than genuinely celebrating her achievements.

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11 comments

  1. I agree with your views in this post. I am not against the uplifting of the great and triumphant things Katherine Johnson has done during her brief time at this school. However, why does all this recognition only occur when this highly successful movie is released? Where was all the recognition five or ten years ago? Were her accomplishments worth no merit back then, or did they not provide a way to glorify WVU at the moment? I feel like the easiest and most used route is the “better late then never” one but you can’t ignore the fact that it does seem like she is being used solely to promote WVU and the “praise” and “dedications” she’s been receiving are just an attempt to cover up the true motives of this sudden spur of interest. Just my opinion though. Great post Laura, nice info.

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  2. mglamastro · · Reply

    Hi, there!

    Super interesting topic! I feel this is something many people on campus (both students and faculty) do not really know about, so it is really great you used your position as a blogger to cover it; I definitely applaud you for that.

    I cannot believe an official Twitter account associated with the University (in this case, WVU Admissions) did not bother to factcheck their claim about Johnson’s degree. As you stated, she did not receive a degree from WVU, and only attended the University for a short amount of time. You even added a quote of Johnson saying it herself. However, I really do hope this was blatant failure to factcheck, because the other possibility is worse in my opinion.

    That is, that WVU Admissions was trying to save face (or, I guess, make or maintain face, in this situation) by capitalizing on the success of Johnson, a successful African-American woman. If this is the case, it is extremely exploitive and unethical. And in either case, it is extremely unprofessional (to say the least!) to spread misinformation.

    Keep up the good work!

    Best,

    Madalyn

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  3. I saw Hidden Figures and was wondering why I had never known that she went here. You would think that WVU would have made it more prominent from the beginning since she was such an influential woman. Seeing that WVU only started recognizing her in 2016 made this kind of a attention getting action in my eyes. Although I do see where your source, Morgan King, is coming from, I see the other side clearer. Johnson should have be recognized from the get. Unless she was and I just do not know about it, then forget everything I am saying. Overall, I think this article was well done. Showing both sides of the argument is a good way to portray the whole story and let people form their own opinions!

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  4. Hello Hello,

    I have to agree with Madyln that I am a bit shocked that a University account did not bother to fact check before making their claim. I think I have a split opinion on this topic. I feel that the University represents the state so I agree with them that they are recognizing her from being a West Virginian. On the contrary though, she was a student, but was she really? Also it seems that they are just know taking this into consideration with the emergence of the film, so I dont really buy it.

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  5. Cayla R. Nolder · · Reply

    I have yet to see Hidden Figures but I can’t wait for when I actually get to watch it. I never knew that Johnson went to WVU for a semester and honestly, I feel that WVU was grasping/taking credit for helping her become the amazing woman she was when that really wasn’t the case. Perhaps, as someone mentioned earlier, it was mishap fact-checking; yet, I find it hard to believe WVU would make such a mistake. I agree on the points you made as well as enjoyed how you showed both sides of the story. Having Johnson’s interview stating the truth was good use of evidential backing to your claims. Overall, well-written post. A real pleasure to read.

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  6. Ashley Conley · · Reply

    Laura,

    I actually wasn’t aware that she only attended for a session because I’ve seen all kinds of stuff on Facebook and Twitter that led me to believe she graduated from here! This is obviously an important topic because, as you can tell by my misunderstanding, a lot of people aren’t super informed about this. You did a really great job on the interviews and you asked some fantastic questions to get exactly the answers you needed from the person you interviewed, who seems to know a lot about the topic. I also really liked how you kept this post short and to the point, you didn’t drag it on and add a lot of unnecessary information. Nice work!

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  7. I had to click on this! You are saying what needs to be said. Katherine Johnson deserved recognition long before she actually received it! She can be honored as part of the state and even part of WVU, but it’s important not to spread misinformation. And yes, it looks bad on WVU’s part that they did not give her recognition until she became famous. It seems they are more focused on getting diversity points than honoring a former student. Good interview as well.

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  8. Love this post! WVU did not even want to recognized Katherine until she became famous. The University did not want to even check to see if she actually graduated from WVU before putting out the information. You did a great job with the interviews and quotes. You have really good links as well !!!

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  9. This post is great. I love that you actually interviewed students and showed both sides of the argument. West Virginians love to claim famous West Virginians as their own no matter how long they lived here or went to WVU. Forever a Mountaineer.

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  10. This is a great post and interview, Laura! I suppose since I work for the University, particularly in the marcomm office for the Eberly College which houses the Department of Mathematics, I’ll play devil’s advocate for a second. Before I do that, I should mention that I completely agree that Johnson should have gotten recognition a long time ago, and there’s a lot of evidence of universities celebrating the success of people who briefly or some even did not attend that institution. Because the mathematics department is within the Eberly College, one of the things that I was assigned to promote was Hidden Figures and any news about Johnson on social media. We were very careful about making sure that she was not a graduate, so I wish the communicators at Admissions had done a bit more research. I also agree with what Morgan King said about promoting the successes of all West Virginians, as this is part of the University’s 2020 Strategic Plan.

    I actually think there’s a better example of another W.Va. college leeching off of Johnson’s success that I read a few months ago. Have you seen this article? http://www.wvgazettemail.com/ae-arts/20170225/wv-colleges-plan-tribute-statues-for-nasas-katherine-johnson

    Two colleges are erecting statues honoring Johnson. As an HBC and a college Johnson actually attended, it makes sense for West Virginia State University to recognize her. But West Virginia Wesleyan College? In everything I read about her, I could find no connection between Johnson and WVWC. I’m interested in your thoughts on this.

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  11. […] Morgantown Diversity (post 1, post 2, post 3) […]

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