Do the Work

Jia Zheng and Jalah Townsend share some key strategies to help higher education institutions retain faculty who are Black, Indigenous and women of color.

May 14, 2021

Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) women faculty are often overworked, overlooked and overstressed. In a series of comments collected by “Conditionally Accepted” editor Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt in “In Our Own Words: Institutional Betrayals,” it is evident that higher education institutions are failing in their efforts to retain this group.

A BIPOC faculty member remarked that they “left because [their] workload was much heavier than [their] white colleagues’ and [they] received two-thirds the pay of the male white colleague who came in next.” This comment illustrates the “double-bind” inequity this group often experiences -- discrimination compounded by both racism and sexism, resulting in lower job satisfaction and attrition. This discrimination and a struggle for legitimacy push many BIPOC faculty members to permanently exit their institutions and even the academy entirely.

To retain BIPOC women faculty, higher education institutions must begin implementing different interventions, such as family-friendly policies and implicit bias training. They should also restructure the tenure process so as to reward the service and mentoring responsibilities that BIPOC women faculty shoulder, as well as establish affinity spaces for BIPOC women faculty that validate, empower and connect them within and across departments.

However, many institutions continue to tout the diversity and inclusion of their campus environments without moving from “equity talk to equity walk,” as several higher education leaders in diversity and equity have titled their book. Harvard University’s tenure denial case of Lorgia García Peña reflects how racism and sexism permeate in the tenure process despite the academic and service contributions of BIPOC women faculty and the mentoring they provide students of color.

As Kiernan Mathews, Todd Benson, Sarah Polsky and Lauren Scungio wrote in their analysis, “Presidents, provosts and deans know by now that traditional evaluation criteria value the kind of work done by white faculty (especially white men), particularly scholarly productivity, over the work that faculty of color are more often asked to perform, including teaching, mentorship, and other departmental service work.” So, they continued, if these leaders are really “intent on institutional transformation, they will work with faculty to reward in tenure and promotion all of the contributions that faculty from diverse backgrounds make to the university.”

Now is the time. It is time for institutions to protect and provide equitable experiences for BIPOC women faculty who give measureless support to students and colleagues and whose publications are responsible for many universities’ success.

To do this, we recommend that institutions implement the following strategies:

Put your money and time behind your talk. We measure what we value. Call in experts and consultants to conduct equity audits to uncover the social, physical and financial disparities that exist within your institution. Disaggregate data according to the intersection of race/ethnicity and gender, and make the disparities that BIPOC women faculty experience visible.

Based on that assessment, diagnose what and where the problems are and propose change initiatives. Those initiatives, including interventions and policy changes, should specifically address the experiences of BIPOC women faculty. For example, if financial disparities are discovered, institutions should implement a pay increase for BIPOC women faculty.

After carrying out these initial changes, invest in retaining BIPOC women faculty by investing money, time and energy in conducting equity audits and organizational assessments on an annual basis. Create various opportunities for BIPOC women faculty to discuss their issues -- what they want to see by way of campus initiatives or efforts focused on them specifically, and how the institution and/or their departments can best support them.

Set and assess public goals. Do more than just talk about these issues; show that you are committed to improving BIPOC women faculty’s experiences by walking the equity talk. Set goals and benchmarks for your department and institution and publish them on their websites or in your department’s office.

Engage BIPOC women faculty in conversations about setting these goals and benchmarks. After engaging in this process, discuss strategies to achieve those goals and provide a timeline for when each aspect of the process will be completed. Institutional dashboards are an effective way to make the goals, benchmarks and timeline transparent and easily accessible.

Departments and institutions should also hire experts and consultants to conduct pre- and postassessments and adjust their strategies based on the outcomes. You should use external consultants as an accountability mechanism by having them create annual reports on any changes and progress toward institutionally defined goals, and then provide feedback on how to move toward an equity-minded organizational culture.

Remember that the responsibility is yours, too. Validate, affirm and highlight the contributions of BIPOC women faculty within departments and the institution. Even more important: incentivize and reward BIPOC women faculty who intentionally engage in diversity, equity and inclusion work by writing these services into tenure and promotion guidelines as well as performance reviews.

Furthermore, move away from placing the responsibility of diversity, equity and inclusion work on a sole individual or group “liaison,” many of whom often identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color. Involve each individual in the department by rotating the responsibilities of diversity, equity and inclusion services among all faculty and administrators, and explicitly communicate expectations for each team member, as they are all vital to progress. Ultimately, make diversity and inclusion a part of everyone’s job, and hold everyone accountable.

We hope that by implementing the above strategies, institutions will see some positive changes in the experiences of BIPOC women faculty. However, as we know, people naturally tend to resist change, so the ideas we’ve proposed will inevitably face some opposition. Certain stakeholders, for example, may not see the value in making incremental changes due to pervasive and systemic racism and sexism. And without social buy-in from leaders, faculty and administrators, change will not occur. Therefore, institutions should provide educational opportunities for all faculty and administrators to understand the need to retain BIPOC women faculty. To dispel the “illusion to inclusion,” everyone must pull their weight and be involved in the change process.

Implementing these changes is the first step, if not a pivotal one, toward transforming institutions, structures and systems. The push for positive changes will be particularly effective when different institutions and organizations form partnerships and seek collective efforts.

The fact is that, for too long, BIPOC women faculty have experienced copious amounts of discrimination that have negatively impacted their experiences within academe. While many institutions are experiencing budget cuts due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic has further exacerbated the precarious condition of BIPOC women faculty, not only as a result of budget cuts but also various other factors -- such as caretaking, childcare and financial stressors, to name just a few. With the ongoing global pandemic, many institutions have put the type of strategies we’re recommending on the back burner. But it’s finally time to change that and start doing the work.


Jia Zheng is a doctoral student in the higher education, student affairs and international education policy program at the University of Maryland, College Park. Jalah Townsend is a master's student in the higher education, student affairs and international education policy program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Read more

We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Back to Top