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Black woman sits in front of her shadow, which is a ghost-like figure

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The 2022 film Master was set on the campus of a fictional small liberal arts college called Ancaster. One of the subplots centers on the tenure application of one of the Black junior faculty members, Liv Beckman (Amber Gray). In a scene very similar to the article “An Inconvenient Presence” published by Inside Higher Ed the same year the movie was released, it looks as if the committee is going to deny Beckman’s candidacy for tenure because of her public-facing scholarship. Another Black faculty member, Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) sticks up for her, and convinces the committee to reconsider their outdated criteria. In the end, Beckman is granted tenure, but upon discovering that her own role on campus has never really changed, Bishop flees in horror.

Master is a film about ghosts, but it’s not quite clear by the end if the ghosts are the white characters who have always occupied and ruled Ancaster or the Black characters who work so hard to convince themselves and others that they are really there.

For many of us, the film Master is not fiction. It is the experience of trying to exist as flesh and bone rather than as an apparition.

In addition to tenure, one of the other ways that colleges and universities demonstrate the value of faculty members is by providing sabbaticals. While many people may think those on sabbaticals sip mai tais on tropical beaches on the company dime, such experiences are, as W. Carson Byrd put it, “invaluable opportunities for faculty members. They allow them to complete projects that can substantially aid in seeking tenure and promotion, for example, by eliminating teaching responsibilities during a specified time to support research and writing.” For many faculty of color working at predominantly white institutions, the sabbatical can often be a much-needed respite from the frequent challenges and indignities of life on a campus.

Writing in the context of the pandemic and protests over the killing of George Floyd in 2020, Byrd observed that “as colleges promise to diversify faculty in the current moment of resurgent racial justice movements, they must also ensure that faculty of color have the same opportunities and resources to support their careers—such as sabbaticals—that their white colleagues have always enjoyed.” As the pandemic continues to wane, the tide has turned on DEI in many states across the country. Those “lucky” few faculty of color who have landed tenure-track jobs and played the game well enough to get tenure may be surprised to learn that the university may dangle professional opportunities like the sabbatical to keep them in line afterward, as well.

As I begin the final few weeks of my own sabbatical, it occurs to me that many of us who are marginalized faculty do not experience professional perks like tenure and the sabbatical the way others on our campuses might. Faculty members who are not from marginalized communities may experience little to no difference between how they work before and after tenure. Tenure is almost redundant for them, because if one looks the part and produces knowledge that affirms the stories those in positions of power want to tell, then they are unlikely to ever need the protection of tenure. It merely provides peace of mind knowing their jobs are secure as long as the institution exists.

In contrast, outspoken faculty members, particularly those from marginalized communities, may experience tenure differently. As all scholars in higher education know, the cost of being outspoken too soon can result in the denial of tenure. Thus, like other scholars, many Black and BIPOC faculty members keep their heads down until they have attained tenure. But the threat doesn’t end there. Even after they have gained tenure, the college or university can deny sabbaticals, grants, institutional awards and leadership positions to outspoken faculty who engage in public-facing scholarship critiquing the institution.

In addition, while the word “sabbatical” literally means “rest,” faculty members from marginalized communities may wonder if they will be recharged by the time they resume classes. For example, some may run into epistemic exclusion, which is the devaluation and delegitimization of work by faculty of color, by sabbatical committees that may subject their work to excessive scrutiny. These faculty members may come back still weary from the effort it took to get the sabbatical in the first place.

Refusing to Be Caspers

Some marginalized faculty, including myself, decide to serve in leadership, particularly in faculty governance or on committees of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). We see that as an opportunity to give back to the ideal of liberal education that had inspired us by challenging the status quo. We believe that this kind of leadership should allow marginalized faculty to be validated as scholars and productive citizens of any college or university, while creating enough distance from our institutions to offer a critique.

After all, to be the face of diversity to simply promote a false narrative of antiracism on campuses by merely “embodying diversity,” as Sara Ahmed calls it. It is a form of cultural taxation. The work is exhausting. We are pressured to be pleasant apparitions, Caspers who go along to get along, not flesh and bone beings who make demands on the institution rooted in our own hopes, dreams, and the knowledge we bring to bear.

For example, I have always been proud of my eagerness to challenge people in positions of authority. I could never understand why other faculty members seemed so willing to follow orders that did not make sense simply because someone in a more senior job gave them. In my experience, forcing those in positions of authority to justify themselves was rewarded in higher education all the way to the Ph.D. (I have written elsewhere about the student loan debt I also accumulated as I went along.)

So, soon after earning tenure, I accepted the opportunity to serve on the executive committee of our advocacy chapter of the AAUP. Under my leadership, we pushed back against policies that posed a threat to faculty autonomy and academic freedom, such as a civility policy (and its recent reincarnation as an anti-bullying policy), efforts to discipline and dismiss colleagues, a presidential search that did not include enough faculty, and other policies and procedures. Since our chapter does not have a newspaper or any other ways for faculty members to communicate with each other outside of the email system, which is monitored, I created a blog and published posts that questioned various administrative decisions. We are not a union, but we have had some success acting like one.

At the same time, however, when we stand up against administration, some members of the faculty and administration often brand us as a “troublemakers” and, to cite Sara Ahmed again, complainers. Rather than address the issues we raise, they deny our legitimacy to do so. They deny our existence. It’s inconvenient that we have tenure.

As the only tenured faculty member on my campus who identifies as a non-Hispanic Black man, I used my tenured position to make space for critical faculty as a whole and marginalized faculty in particular. But I was rewarded with sabbatical denials two years in a row, and I can’t help but suspect my activism had something to do with it. The first year my sabbatical request was denied, they didn’t even bother to give a reason. The provost just advised me to consult someone with “research expertise.” The second year, I was told that I failed to include enough details about things that I had thought were irrelevant to my specific project yet that I could have easily added once requested. But again, my proposal was rejected, and I was simply advised to consult with someone with research expertise. I’m on sabbatical now, but that is because I fought for it all last summer. I believe I prevailed in the end only because a senior colleague and ally, who happens to be a white man, made sure that I got the due process I deserved.

I know that this story rings familiar to those who have dared to go bump in the night. Even after tenure, acceptance remains conditional.

Mark S. James is an associate professor at Molloy University in Rockville Centre, New York. He teaches American and African American literature, and his research interest focuses on how institutions of higher education serve as sites of both oppression and resistance for some members of marginalized communities and their allies.

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