Stop Blaming Faculty of Color

Colleges should make good on the promises they have made about diversity, equity and inclusion and actually do the work of making real change, Sydney Freeman Jr. writes.

August 19, 2022
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As we begin another academic year, calls for increases in recruiting, retaining and advancing faculty of color abound. People are admonishing predominantly white institutions to live up to the promises they made in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests to diversify the racial composition of their faculty. Unfortunately, two years after such public declarations, few institutions have appreciably made good on those promises. And Black faculty members in particular have been on the receiving end of much of the whitelash of many PWIs’ lack of investment in real change.

Some examples include Harvard University not offering Cornel West a tenure-line position, Paul Harris being denied tenure at the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill initially denying one of its most distinguished alums, Nikole Hannah-Jones, tenure. The irony is that these are just examples of high-profile cases at elite research institutions, and each took place in the past two years.

Many accounts have been written recently about how faculty of color continue to be mistreated at all types of institutions. Faculty members like Kimberly Harden, who left Seattle University in March, say they are exiting the academy because they are overworked, undervalued and underpaid. Her views align with the scholarship of Naomi Nishi, who has identified factors such as lack of recognition, hostile climates, lack of networks and racialized tenure and promotion processes as the types of abuse that cause faculty of color to leave. And when scholars of color decide to stay, they are often retaliated against: their complaints are ignored, their work is discounted or diminished, they aren’t promoted if seeking administrative positions, they are tokenized, undermined and bullied.

Yet institutional responses continue to suggest that the issues faculty of color face in being recruited, retained and advanced rest with them and their own agency. For instance, the use of the term “quality” is often weaponized when faculty of color don’t hold degrees from particular elite institutions or engage in scholarship that centers communities of color.

Excuses and deflections also abound that not enough faculty of color are in the pipeline, that such faculty are unprepared for the rigors of the profession and that they don’t succeed because of lack of mentorship. But scholars like Marybeth Gasman, Samuel Dewitt Proctor Endowed Chair in Education at Rutgers University, have debunked much of that rhetoric and anecdotal reasoning. Gasman writes in Doing the Right Thing that, in contradiction to their pronouncements, PWIs seem to not really want to hire or promote faculty of color, as they often just make excuses for why they can’t do so rather than work to identify ways they can. And considering the snail’s pace of the recruitment and advancement of faculty of color at many institutions, that seems to be the case.

If PWIs want to fix the problems of what Pamela Newkirk, New York University professor of journalism, calls the billion-dollar diversity industry—specifically, recruiting, retaining and advancing faculty of color—they must take significantly more intentional actions.

I am often confused, for instance, when PWIs in rural and remote locations state that they are unable to recruit faculty of color to their institutions. Those same institutions somehow find ways to recruit Black athletes from urban locations. In fact, they need to learn from their athletic department colleagues and go beyond passive approaches (e.g., targeted postings of faculty positions on faculty message boards) by going out and actively recruiting faculty of color and then rolling out the metaphorical red carpet when they visit the campus. Search committees should also be required to engage in unconscious bias trainings and use rubrics to avoid the common pitfalls of differential treatments that faculty of color often receive. Some of the other strategies that PWIs underutilize are target of opportunity hiring and cluster hiring.

Those are just the initial steps. Once faculty of color are recruited, colleges must do much more to encourage them to stay. It’s most crucial that they educate and train white faculty and administrators how to create an environment that supports them. The context for faculty of color to succeed is often not in place because their white colleagues have not learned about the distinct cultures of their underrepresented colleagues, they have made negative stereotypical assumptions and they have believed that equitable and equal policies and practices are the same thing. I advocate for equitable policies and practices that center the needs of the most systematically disadvantaged and excluded over equal decision making, which often just reinforces the status quo.

Too often, faculty of color are recruited into racially hostile environments that are not prepared to properly support them. Deans and department chairs must make it clear that racial diversity is a core value within their units and set expectations for what that might look like in practice. In addition, human resources officers and legal counsel must understand that racial diversity is a key priority and assist in finding ways to further those goals of equitable hiring and support for faculty of color.

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To better recruit, retain and facilitate the advancement of faculty of color, PWIs should also make the following efforts.

Provide mentoring and coaching programs. While a diversity pipeline can be an issue in some disciplines, it is often surprising where faculty members will go if they feel valued and supported. Providing a robust seed funding program for research that advances the scholarship of faculty of color, along with culturally informed mentoring and coaching programs, can help attract them those faculty to predominantly white institutions.

Build an infrastructure that supports current and potential faculty of color outside work. A starting point could be establishing and funding faculty-of-color affinity groups, as well as crediting the people who serve as leaders of such groups when considering promotion and tenure. Other approaches could include creating a directory of services that support faculty of color—such as churches, barbershops and salons—and developing a strong spousal hiring program.

Actively support faculty of color’s scholarship. Faculty of color often want to engage in peer-reviewed and public scholarship that leads to solving concreate problems that impact their communities. Institutions should have and continue to implement a strategic diversity plan that includes valuing public scholarship in tenure and promotion cases and amplifying the work of faculty of color.

Strengthen diversity offices and faculty development centers. Chairs, deans and program coordinators should have diversity leadership training, as they are key to recruiting, retaining and advancing faculty of color. Strengthening and investing in diversity offices and faculty development centers is also vital. Institutions should also consider creating faculty diversity success positions and units within provost offices to promote DEI issues throughout the campus.

View diversity work from an equity perspective. This means considering the distinct needs of each individual and thinking about how best to support their growth and advancement. The focus should be on what the needs of the faculty member is to be successful over time. PWIs should design professional development initiatives and activities that support and guide faculty of color as they progress in their careers from assistant to full professorship and perhaps advance into academic leadership.

Hire and promote faculty of color into executive leadership roles, including those of dean, provost and president. The initiatives that I’ve described won’t work without the leadership of top institutional administrators. It is important that they see the link between having racially diverse senior-level leadership and developing a pipeline of future diverse leaders. Many PWIs are comfortable allowing people of color to advance as faculty members, particularly those who are perceived as superstars, but they often aren’t committed to promoting them into leadership. They are OK with faculty of color being front-line workers and middle managers, but they can shy away from encouraging and supporting them to lead and shape institutional policies and practices over time.

These are just some of the strategies that PWIs should pursue if they are serious about racially and ethnically diversifying their faculty. Ultimately, they must stop blaming faculty of color for the lack of progress and instead actually do the challenging work of transforming their institutions.

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Sydney Freeman Jr. is a professor of adult, organizational learning and leadership at the University of Idaho. He is the founding director of the university’s Black History Research Lab and the recipient of the 2022 Carlos J. Vallejo Memorial Award for Exemplary Scholarship, awarded by the Multicultural/Multiethnic Education: Theory, Research and Practice group within the American Educational Research Association.

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