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Retaining Faculty of Color: Costs and Consequences

Michael Johnson Jr. provides some concrete suggestions for how institutions can improve their campus climate and quality of life for such faculty.

August 30, 2019
 
 

The tenure-track system is dying a slow and agonizing death. But as I’ve previously mentioned, we can do some things to treat this chronic condition. As a newly appointed assistant professor, and a cisgendered male of color, one of the most significant factors that I’ve noticed about faculty members at my university is that too many of them seem to be white. I teach at a state institution where the undergraduate population is composed mostly of Latino/a and Asian American/Pacific Islander students. So having a diverse faculty is especially important in terms of who is represented in the classroom for these students.

Research on the underrepresentation of racial minorities in the professoriate goes back decades. Yet despite all those years of research, universities are still struggling with recruitment and retention of faculty of color. And, in fact, I regularly see at universities around the country a focus on recruitment of faculty members of color but little if any commensurate attention on their retention.

One of the most influential decisions when deciding whether to accept my job offer was the presence of other faculty of color and knowing that I would not be alone. Having other faculty of color communicates something about that department’s commitment to the principles of diversity. The racial climate matters. Having faculty of color in one’s department isn’t a panacea, but it certainly can help create the kind of atmosphere where other faculty of color might want to work. Moreover, one measure of racial climate is the ability to keep faculty of color.

A national tenure-track search requires substantial resources. When a department has excellent success hiring faculty of color but repeatedly fails to retain those hires, that turnover can cost thousands of dollars in repeated searches. And it also costs the department and institution’s image in ways that aren’t so easily quantified. How does an institution with a high (retention) failure rate communicate its commitment to the principles of diversity once a mass exodus of faculty of color has damaged that reputation? What are the costs to those faculty of color who remain? We know that faculty of color share a high burden of service and mentorship -- what happens to the innumerable students left behind when they leave?

So how do we remedy this problem? The research says much about the need for institutions to improve their campus climate and the quality of life for faculty of color, but it is sometimes unclear on specifically how to accomplish those goals. Below are my suggestions, building upon scholarship that I have linked to where possible.

Cover moving costs up front. Young faculty of color, are not, by in large, a wealthy group of people. Many have debt from their graduate, and sometimes undergraduate, education. Thus, once institutions hire faculty members, it’s important that they not require those faculty members to relocate without providing funds up front, rather than delaying their reimbursement until after their arrival. While some institutions do this as a practice, it is not universal; only about half cover these costs up front. Adopting this practice everywhere sends a strong message to new faculty of color about how much the institution values them, which in turn encourages retention because of the confidence such outreach efforts convey about the appropriateness of one’s choice of employer.

Hire faculty in cohorts. That approach is inherently better than through single searches -- especially over the long term. Cohort hiring fosters professional and personal friendship. Faculty of color in that cohort can rely on each other, and, over the course of their employment, that friendship may become an invaluable resource upon which they can draw in trying times.

Provide professional development. Such training and development programs for faculty of color would be invaluable for retaining us -- particularly at institutions where we’re demographically outnumbered or marginalized. And while that may already happen at some institutions, it’s not a universal practice. It should be. Pursuing tenure is hard enough, and sufficiently stressful without the added costs of no support. Of course, there’s a cost associated with hiring and retaining senior faculty of color willing to serve in these capacities, but it’s a resource that many institutions undervalue and easily discount.

Reward senior faculty of color for their mentoring efforts. Do so either monetarily or through course release time. Few institutions currently include any compensation for mentoring of junior faculty, much less for newly hired underrepresented faculty of color. Nurturing should be a main ingredient of departmental culture. But it should always be accompanied with some kind of compensation, rather than by simply exploiting our natural tendency to help those who ask for it because of our shared cultural identities and affinity to those whom we know will need our help.

Include more graduate students of color in department hiring and admission decisions. The increase in graduate students of color can help expand the pool of applicants. One of the most rewarding aspects of faculty employment can be the relationships we build with high-caliber graduate students of color in whom we can see our efforts develop. This too will inevitably come with a financial cost, like all graduate admissions and teaching assistant salary expenses. But given the anemic underrepresentation of graduate students of color across almost all disciplines, this should also be an obvious objective.

None of these recommendations are free, and they all require dedicated and visible efforts. Such efforts matter, however, if institutions are going to do more than pay lip service to the ideals of diversifying the professoriate.

Bio

Michael Johnson Jr. is an assistant professor of media theory and criticism in the cinema and television arts department at California State University at Northridge. His book, There’s No Place Like HBO, will be published by Wayne State University Press in late fall 2020.

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