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Inside Higher Ed

It’s been an exceptionally rough few months for Black women in higher education. With the resignation of Claudine Gay from the presidency of Harvard University and the untimely passing of Antoinette “Bonnie” Candia-Bailey, vice president of student affairs at Lincoln University, it’s made many of us wonder, “What’s the fine line between holding steady and submitting our exit tickets?”

Black women often recount stories of people loving them when they get hired, but the moment they express concerns, push back or walk in the fullness of their power, that love grows cold and they become a threat to the status quo. Now more than ever, we must talk about the delicate dance of what to do when we go from “office pet to office threat” simply because of our very existence—of unapologetically owning our identity, brilliance and expertise. Owning one’s Black womanhood, speaking truth to power and confidently displaying our depth of knowledge and expertise can subject many Black women to the institution-sanctioned violence outlined by Lori Patton and Nadrea Njoku.

The recent firing and mistreatment of Claudine Gay and the death of Bonnie Bailey reopen the not-yet-healed wounds of Black women still trying to process losing college presidents JoAnne Epps and Orinthia Montague in a matter of days in 2023, as well as the alleged pushing out of four women of color faculty at University of Colorado at Boulder. These incidents, taken together, reminds us of Joy Gaston Gayles’s work on the disposability of Black women faculty in higher education. Rather than directly address anti-Blackness, misogynoir, harassment, inequitable compensation and the psychological violence that causes a number of Black women to resign, some leaders at predominantly white institutions seem to remain committed to the status quo of a revolving door of Black female leadership.

With the spotlight on how to support Black women in higher education, we must seize the moment to normalize talking about one of our most powerful tools: our exit tickets. Those tickets sit on the other side of Black women determining how long to hold steady, how much resistance is too much, how to handle insurmountable internal and external agitators, and how to use our exit as a lever for forcing postdeparture institutional change. Let’s revisit Claudine Gay’s story as a case study.

As a Black woman educated at Harvard, I too felt the sting of the public bullying and lynching of Gay. Her words, “What just happened at Harvard is bigger than me,” reverberated off my heart like the sounds of the broken bells of justice.

In her New York Times opinion piece, Gay thoughtfully laid out the carefully curated attacks on her character, competence and capability to lead: “It is not lost on me that I make an ideal canvas for projecting every anxiety about the generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses: a Black woman selected to lead a storied institution.”

She recognized what many Black women in positions of authority realize when the people who hired us for our intelligence, competence and innovative ideas for social change turn on us: we have to know when to hold steady and when to submit our exit ticket. A leader’s ability to hold steady is a crucial task of exercising conscious leadership in adaptive contexts. Equally important, we have to know when holding steady is no longer productive and the ability to influence change has been stymied. Unless institutions become willing to stand firm behind Black women in leadership, we must normalize Black women making graceful exits as a way to preserve their lives.

As a Black woman whose work centers on building faculty and staff capacity to teach and lead for equity and justice in higher education, I believe holding steady is essential for creating long-term, sustainable change. Leading change in higher education takes time, making it essential for Black women to develop a robust political skill set to stay the course. Offering more mentoring programs, addressing racism and sexism, protecting Black women, and fixing broken rungs toward upward career advancement can create improved conditions for Black women’s sustainability and decisions to hold steady in higher education.

All that said, however, we can no longer operate with holding steady as our default position. After we’ve tried all the strategies for navigating the politics of change, exit becomes an effective next step when people both within and outside our higher education institutions stage repeated, dehumanizing attacks. Sometimes, a temporary exit in the form of a sabbatical or extended vacation provides a much-needed break to recharge and tap back in. And sometimes toxic work climates warrant a permanent exit from the role.

Our Black woman exit tickets remind society—both the people who love us and those who attack us—that they can never steal the power of our choice. No degree of anti-Blackness and racist, sexist vitriol will steal our power to say, “We’re done” or “I need a break.” Both actions represent an act of love and trust and require bravery—qualities that I name in my book, The Power Within Me, as essential to reclaiming our personal power.

Exiting as a high-ranking Black woman from an institution with deeply entrenched values and structures that support the supremacy of whiteness brings its own set of nuanced challenges. As Sara Ahmed noted in Complaint, whether by choice or as a result of being pushed out, leaving highlights the dysfunction of institutions that try to bury the truth of Black women’s departures in confidentiality clauses and announcements of interim appointments. But while we may not be able to control every aspect of our exits, we can prioritize the preservation of our physical, mental and spiritual health. Our exit tickets keep us alive and preserve our energy to stay in it for the next mile of the race in our lifelong commitment to the marathon of justice.

Perhaps our exits will elicit much-needed change that will challenge higher education institutions to honor and support bold and courageous Black women’s leadership—not only when it’s easy but also when it gets hard.

Even if it doesn’t, the national outcry against the racist and sexist dehumanization of Claudine Gay demonstrates the collective support of those who stand against the racist bullying, witch hunts and dehumanization of Black women. Similarly, the outpouring for Bonnie Candia-Bailey demonstrates the growing majority of people who believe Black women deserve wellness breaks.

What gives me hope is the multiracial, multigender, multigenerational and multisector solidarity that mobilized rage toward action to say, “We’re not going to be silent in the face of public lynchings, suicides and dehumanizing Black women.” This level of solidarity in support of Black women is refreshing and representative of a changing tide. It’s a fresh wave that says, “We must stand in support of each other. Black women’s lives do, indeed, matter.”

In closing, I say to every Black woman who still feels the heaviness of what women like Claudine Gay and Bonnie Candia-Bailey endured, keep using the power of your choice to know when to hold steady and when to submit your exit ticket. Either choice is yours to make and do so unapologetically.

Annice E. Fisher is the inaugural antiracism pedagogy scholar at the American University School of Education, where she partners with faculty and staff to build their capacities to teach and lead for antiracism and other forms of equity. She also designed the Exercising Conscious Leadership class for the school’s first doctoral program. She is the author of The Power Within Me: The Road Back Home to the Real You and the founder and CEO of Developing Capacity Coaching, an organization focused on coaching people to effectively lead for equity and justice.

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