When it comes to gaining tenure, are minority professors held to higher -- or even shifting -- standards, compared to their white colleagues? That’s the question asked by numerous challenges to negative tenure decisions nationwide in recent years. It’s also the premise behind a new book that’s attracting attention for articulating what some see as a longstanding but heretofore unspoken rule of academe.
Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure (University of North Carolina Press), was edited by Patricia A. Matthew, an associate professor of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She begins the volume with her own story: she was initially denied tenure at her own institution at the provost’s level with no prior warning, even after she won the approval of her faculty peers. She and colleagues spent the Thanksgiving holiday of that year scouring the faculty manual about what they could have missed in her application, and communications with colleagues turned up a similar cases involving scholars of color elsewhere -- including that of Andrea Smith, then of the University of Michigan. Smith, who has said she is Cherokee (something that has since been disputed), held positions in the American culture program and women’s studies, but only the former recommended her for tenure, so she lost her bid to stay at Michigan. Due in part to her popularity with students and her credentials, the case drew national attention -- and Matthew’s.
“It was the beginning of my understanding about how capricious the academy can be,” Matthew says. "[Smith] had authored two books and co-authored one, with her more recent book due out from Duke University Press. She had edited or coedited three books and two special issues of journals in her field. She matched this scholarly output with the kind of service and activism that faculty of color regularly take on. I couldn’t keep track of all she had done, even though it was right there in print for me to read.”
Matthew burst into tears. She’s admittedly sentimental but says that the feeling was about more than her own denial or Smith’s. It was sadness at the realization that “as faculty of color we can never be good enough to gain tenure if someone (or an institution) simply decides we don’t belong,” and frustration at the opacity of “academic judgment.”
In time, Matthew’s president overturned the provost’s decision and she was granted tenure; the basis of her appeal was that she was never told she’d be judged only by publications already in print, not those forthcoming. After she won tenure, she swore to someday study what was happening to faculty members of color in the appointment, promotion and tenure system: Were cases like hers anomalies, and, if not, what structural forces and unwritten codes -- formal and informal -- were driving them?
She’s had subtle reminders to return the project along the way, she says, such as being confused with secretaries or being asked to submit extra updates on her research agenda than white peers.
Matthew’s return on her promise is Written/Unwritten. It’s a collection of essays and interviews from minority scholars in different fields answering a broad set of questions about their careers in relation to diversity. And while each story is unique, the common thread is how they -- in Matthew’s words -- “started, stumbled and survived” shifting expectations, even when they had been hired with an eye toward diversity.
More than malice, Matthew says, “what I’ve found is that there are codes and habits that faculty of color don’t know about because those unwritten practices are so subtle as to seem unimportant until something goes wrong, and then the assumption is that the person of color is incompetent, lazy or lying. In my case, the assumption was that I was dishonest or disorganized, though neither of those things is true. The fact that I am a black woman played some role in that tangled-up process, and I still see the same patterns that were in play in my reappointment and tenure reviews whenever I am assessed. More important, I now know that those patterns are at work all over the country. It’s not just me. It’s not just us. This is happening everywhere.”
Of course, there is no national database on tenure denials. But most racial and ethic minority groups are underrepresented throughout the professor ranks, both in terms of reflecting the makeup of the students they teach and the population at large. According to 2013 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, just 6 percent of full-time faculty members were black and 5 percent were Latino. Within the academy, minority professors are also overrepresented in the non-tenure-track ranks, something some critics have said reinforces what’s been called a “presumption of incompetence.” (The 2012 book Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, reviewed for Inside Higher Ed here, raises similar themes as Written/Unwritten.)
Recent anecdotes put a face to the problem. Aimee Bahng, a popular assistant professor of English at Dartmouth College was denied tenure last year, despite strong backing from faculty colleagues, for example, and her supporters said another professor of color was denied tenure the year before under similar circumstances. Other faculty members of color have left Dartmouth of their own accord, leaving one instructor there to declare that “temporary, precarious and disavowed labor of people of color at Dartmouth is their purposeful and intentional diversity solution.” Dartmouth has acknowledged that it has trouble retaining minority professors but denies claims of racism in personnel decisions.
More recently, Lafayette College denied tenure to Juan Rojo, an assistant professor of Spanish, despite positive recommendations from his peers. The president, Alison Byerly, based her decision on some negative student evaluations of teaching. Yet Rojo and others have argued that such evaluations -- which research suggests are highly subjective and especially disadvantaging to women and minorities -- should not be the basis for personnel decisions.
Written/Unwritten is divided into thematic chapters with several interview or essays in each. The “Foundations” chapter, for example, includes an interview with Cheryl A. Wall, the Board of Governors Zora Neale Hurston Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers University at New Brunswick. Written by Rashida L. Harrison, a non-tenure-track instructor of African and African-American studies, the piece quotes Wall explaining why diversity matters in the first place.
Citing demographic shifts in the student populations, Wall says, “It will be less and less tenable for those people to be taught by a faculty that is 90 percent white.” Regarding her discipline in particular, Wall says that diverse faculty members have positively influenced the way American literature is taught. “Now, when we hire a 19th-century Americanist, the expectation is that they will teach Harriet Jacobs as well as Frederick Douglass and maybe David Walker. And [the presence of black faculty] has changed the field’s understanding of itself.”
Keys to success, Wall says, are finding a good mentor -- not necessarily of one's own gender or race -- and balancing one's obligations to act on the mentor's advice.
"Identify somebody who really knows how the institution works, who knows whom you need to meet, who can answer questions that come up about when you should take a sabbatical or around receiving a competitive fellowship. They can discuss publishers that the appointments and promotion committee will respect. It is invaluable to have that kind of information," she says. "[T]here's no flexibility anymore on the tenure clock. You have to balance your sense of social obligation with, 'Well, at some point, if I'm going to continue to serve my students and profession and my area of scholarship, I really need to still be in the profession." Sometimes people have served so much, then they are gone and there is a huge void left in the lives of their students. It is a very difficult balancing act."
In a chapter called “Manifestos,” Sarita Echavez See, now an associate professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside, says that she knew she'd have to work twice as hard to earn tenure in a dual appointment to the English and American cultures departments at Michigan, yet endured comments from colleagues that she was a “shoo-in” because she’d be able to play the “race card.” But she was denied tenure by the English department, something she seems to attribute, in part, to choices she made early in her career that left her out of the "social economy" of the university -- turning down colleagues' dinner party invitations to attend student meetings or performances, for example. The department's decision was later overturned by the college, but See still describes the experience of going up for tenure as "fundamentally humiliating" and, in many ways, as subjective as trying to gain entry to fraternity or sorority or country club. She compares it to hazing.
Other essays discuss navigating academe’s margins as a person of color, in terms of sexuality and being off the tenure track. There’s heavy emphasis on activism and making visible the work of mentoring and service that many faculty members of color and their advocates say falls disproportionately on their shoulders.
"Many minority and underrepresented students approach me after class to say I am the first black professor they have ever had, that they are so happy I'm here, and that because of me they have thought about going to graduate school for the first time or that they will be the first in their family to go to graduate school if I can help them," wrote April L. Few-Demo, an associate professor of human development at Virginia Tech, in a chapter called "Activism(s)." How, she asks, "do I, as an assistant professor, tell such students that I do not have time to contribute to their professional growth? How I say 'no' to a black community organization or church that asks for my time after I return home from campus? Why would I want to decline the chance to provide voice to the values I hold?"
In a nod to the power of mentorship, Few-Demo says her department head's advice is to "write about these life-giving experiences -- to make them part of my scholarly work[.]" At the same time, the book acknowledges that engaging in scholarly work that is personal can subject a faculty member of color to undue criticism in the tenure process. And Few-Demo says she experienced surprising hostility from students, and white women in particular, when she co-taught a course on gender and family diversity before she earned tenure.
"Our collective 'blackness' and 'woman-ness' challenged students' expectations about of race, class, gender, education and power and angered them when we expected more work and commitment than many were willing to give black professors," she said, noting she refused play the role of "mammie." The experience "fed a transformation in my vision of myself as part of the department, the college and the university. I also understand now that I am defined as a projection of what my students think I will be. Part of my role as an activist teacher is to modify those projections and help students understand the intersectionality of race, ethnicity, culture, class and gender, and that this knowledge tells them about themselves and the world, not just about me."
One essay, written by Matthew, explores the pressures faculty members of color have felt in taking part in the Black Lives Matter movement. Matthew says that nearly all the contributors to the book are engaged in activism of some kind but usually refer to it as some kind of community building or “engagement.” They may “resist labels by not calling it anything at all,” Matthew says. Yet all are “rooted in the understanding that their research and teaching need to have a material impact on the world outside of the work the academy recognizes.”
The book includes a discussion of how some of that work is happening on social media -- and the inherent risks of being an activist in full view of the public, and one’s evaluators. Indeed, there have been a number of social media skirmishes involving junior faculty members of color speaking on social issues.
Matthew concludes that the gap between the written and unwritten rules of tenure will never be fully closed, but she does highlight campuses with initiatives aimed at advocating for or ensuring minority faculty members’ success. Duke University’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender, for example, hosts the Summer Institute on Tenure and Professional Advancement, which pairs new faculty members on the tenure track with senior faculty members in their fields over two years.
In an interview, Matthew said that structural inequality, invisible labor and the need for meaningful community appeared again and again throughout the accounts she collected. Asked why faculty members of color remain so disadvantaged on the tenure track when so many institutions have devoted so much money and effort to the goal of faculty diversity, she said, “Part of the disconnect is that once a person is hired, the question of fit gets trickier.”
“The academy can be very cliquish, and there's a sense that people are hiring friends instead of colleagues,” she said. So “social ties that seem optional often aren’t. Those informal exchanges build a network that, sometimes unwittingly, excludes faculty of color, and it means they don't always have access to the information they need.”
Kiese Laymon, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi who has written about what it means to be a black professor on a predominantly white campus (he was formerly at Vassar College), is a fan of Matthew’s new book. “I’d never seen the experiences of accomplished academics of color at American institutions of higher learning written about with such passion and intellectual vigor,” he said. “We've all heard or experienced these kinds of terror in institutions, but it was different to see them explored. The book, in many ways, told a secret too many of us knew to be true.”
As to how Written/Unwritten fits into ongoing research on faculty diversity, Kimberly Griffin, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Maryland at College Park who studies the topic, said there’s evidence to suggest that “fuzzy, subjective criteria associated with tenure and advancement are perceived differently for faculty of color.”
While there are “certainly things like number of publications or averages on teaching evaluations that can be directly compared,” she said, “criteria like collegiality or perceived rigor and impact of research or quality of teaching can be judged in unequal ways.” Much of the work in that area, including Griffin’s own, is qualitative and based on the narratives of the faculty themselves, "who describe facing struggles with tenure and promotion based on the emphasis a committee may place on a poor teaching evaluation, the quality and comments of their external reviewers or where they publish their work," she said.
Tenure and advancement committees may also “minimize the contributions faculty of color make in terms of service to students, departments and their communities, seeing this work as less valuable."
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