Colleges Must Change to Retain BIPOC Women Faculty

They must remove the major roadblocks such academics face, writes Chavella T. Pittman, who provides some key recommendations for doing so.

April 30, 2021
 
 

In a previous piece, I described overlooked ways that higher education institutions sabotage their retention of BIPOC women by assigning heavy teaching loads, allowing students and colleagues to resist the often-transformative teaching of those academics, and establishing tenure practices that amplify gendered and raced oppression. In this article, I place the responsibility to address such retention threats squarely on those institutions.

To preclude the typical excuses and protestations against action, I can state that none of what needs to be done requires a major overhaul, drawn-out self-studies, climate surveys, governance battles and/or a huge financial investment. And I know each action that I recommend can be enacted relatively quickly, as I have been teaching institutions how to do so for over a decade.

Here are some relatively easy ways that colleges and universities can reduce BIPOC women’s often heavier teaching loads. They can:

Monitor and adjust course assignments. BIPOC women’s publishing productivity is often threatened because it is difficult to publish (and thus be retained) when you are constantly preparing a new course, teaching high enrollments or navigating a heavier load. In their research, KerryAnn O’Meara, Dawn Culpepper, Joya Misra and Audrey Jaeger found that teaching assignments are often made “haphazardly [and] without data.”

To address that issue, higher ed institutions should keep track of the distribution of course loads of faculty. In addition to the total number of courses, they should monitor the distribution of new course preparations, service courses and enrollment sizes. Institutions should then adjust teaching loads and provide course releases so that BIPOC women faculty don’t have heavier assignments. This tracking information should be readily accessible so that everyone’s teaching workload is transparent.

Colleges and universities should also protect BIPOC women from inappropriate resistance from students and colleagues. To do so, they should:

Establish a policy for disruptive student classroom behavior. That behavior includes challenging BIPOC women’s authority and questioning their expertise, as well as various forms of harassment. BIPOC women often have no institutional recourse when they face raced and gendered challenges from students. Instead of leaving them to fend for themselves in a hostile climate, each institution should establish a policy for disruptive classroom behavior. It should highlight that policy at the institutional level -- for example, in student and faculty handbooks -- to make it clear certain classroom behavior is inappropriate and that students who harass BIPOC faculty in the classroom will face consequences. At a minimum, the policy should include a nonexhaustive list of behaviors that disrupt the learning environment and the procedure for addressing those behaviors.

Promote faculty development opportunities and reward effective pedagogy. The teaching of BIPOC women frequently involves transformative pedagogies that produce beneficial outcomes for students, universities and society at large. Such transformative teachings are often rooted in a pedagogy of discomfort, where issues of racism and racialization, white supremacy, structural oppression, imperialism, and the like are taught. Unfortunately, that is the very feature that causes colleagues -- who are often not trained on effective pedagogy -- to punish BIPOC faculty as deviant outliers.

To thwart those uninformed attitudes, institutions should promote faculty development as well as reward effective pedagogies like inclusive teaching and active learning. Raising awareness and taking that approach at an institutional level could at least prioritize and inform all faculty about such pedagogies, increasing the odds that BIPOC women’s teaching is recognized, rewarded and treated as innovative and effective. It can also increase the practice of those pedagogies by making it more normative for both students and colleagues.

Colleges and universities must also abandon tenure practices that amplify gendered race oppression in teaching. They should:

Provide training on how to interpret student ratings. Many professional organizations have spoken out against using student ratings in reviews due to race and gender bias. Yet the people who conduct those reviews often have not been educated about how best to use them in evaluations. Training should focus on the ratings’ benefits and limitations, their role among other methods of assessing teaching, the course and professor features that may influence them, bias in student ratings, and proper data analysis. This training would be beneficial for all faculty members by providing the proper context for the effective use of ratings. And it should be required of faculty serving on tenure and promotion committees so that their practices are in line with the current research and guidance.

Implement sound practices to evaluate teaching for tenure and promotion. BIPOC faculty are disproportionately disadvantaged in reviews by the improper use of student evaluation and classroom observations. While most faculty handbooks describe different types of evidence for teaching effectiveness, most institutions give most (if not all) weight to student ratings. This runs counter to the evidence-based practice of reviewing teaching effectiveness by using multiple lenses and methods. Many institutions seem to cling to the student evaluations because that is how it has always been done and they are unsure how to do it differently. But if they want to retain BIPOC faculty, institutions must establish an evidenced-based process to assess faculty’s teaching effectiveness. And the time to do so is now.

Allocate resources for faculty to get teaching support off campus. The reality is that, given the particular challenges they confront from institutional practices and processes, BIPOC women faculty often need teaching support that might not be available on the campus. Institutions should provide course release time and money for BIPOC women faculty to access off-campus conferences, workshops, training, coaches, consultants, mentors or teaching communities. This support is especially important on campuses without a teaching and learning center or where the teaching center is already overloaded with other campus priorities (e.g., pandemic shifts) or has limited expertise and experience supporting BIPOC women faculty.

Conclusion

BIPOC women faculty frequently tell me they are blamed for students’ race-based “incivility,” perceived as bad teachers by colleagues resistant to their teaching and dismissed when making justified claims of race and gender oppression in their student ratings and observations. They have shared with me that their institution’s response to those obstacles is, far too often, to relegate them to the teaching center to be “fixed.” Or worse, a number of institutions may force these faculty members out of the institution through unsuccessful tenure bids. These women -- sincerely committed to teaching students well -- spend an inordinate amount of time, emotion and energy dealing with classroom racism, sexism, classism and the like, often to the detriment of their research productivity, health and work-life balance.

Currently, BIPOC women faculty are unfairly burdened by the reality of these obstacles and also by the need to find solutions to navigate them. It is not their responsibility to fix the teaching burdens and barriers that institutional action or inaction has created. Rather than continuing to focus on learning, studying and talking about racism within higher education, institutions should take the actions I’ve recommended, which are based upon the decades of already-existing (and still relevant) research on the obstacles for BIPOC women’s retention.

None of these suggested actions require a year to enact or immense resources. For the most part, all that’s needed is for institutions to get out of their own way, stop doing things the way they’ve always done it and put an end to defending “traditions” that do nothing but maintain inequality. And if many choose instead to continue along the same path without taking new actions, they should simply admit that they actually don’t want successful BIPOC faculty at all.

Bio

Chavella T. Pittman is a professor of sociology at Dominican University and received a Ph.D. in sociology and a master's in higher education from the University of Michigan. Her research interests include higher education, oppression and methods/statistics. As a Black woman academic, she is a long-standing and successful protagonist in removing teaching obstacles that hinder diverse faculty success.

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