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Word “accepted” with an asterisk written in white letters on a black background

Inside Higher Ed

“Conditionally Accepted” is an advice column borne in 2013 out of the passion of Eric Joy Denise, then an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Richmond, to provide a national platform for marginalized scholars working in higher education. Inside Higher Ed picked up the column in 2016 and has been running it regularly ever since.

Now, the University of Texas Press has published an anthology based on the column, Conditionally Accepted: Navigating Higher Education from the Margins, edited by Denise, who has founded The House of Denise (Speak Truth, LLC), which offers joy-and justice-centered coaching and consulting services to nonbinary, trans, and intersex visionaries, and activists, and Bertin M. Louis Jr., an associate professor of anthropology and African American and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky who has also served as an editor of the Conditionally Accepted column and owns Navigating Higher Education, a consulting firm that empowers students and doctoral-degree holders to find and secure academic positions.

The two co-editors of the anthology assembled the text in the spirit of the column, which is widely circulated and cited among scholars and has worked to create an antiracist, pro-feminist, pro-queer, anti-transphobic, anti-fatphobic, anti-ableist, anti-ageist, anti-classist and anti-xenophobic online community. The new collection intentionally centers voices of scholars of color who are also queer and trans, women, people with disabilities, first-gen or working-class, and/or immigrant.

Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt, professor and director of critical ethnic studies at Linfield University and the current editor of Inside Higher Ed’s Conditionally Accepted column, interviewed Bertin Louis about the book and what it reveals about higher education today and the many people within it who are and feel conditionally accepted.

Q: In the book, you write that “‘conditional acceptance’ reflects the patterns of ‘limited inclusion.’” What are some of the limited inclusions that your contributors have written about and how do those limited inclusions harm people on the margins of the academy?

A: The phrase “conditionally accepted” is more than a play on words familiar to academics who publish in peer-reviewed academic journals. It reflects the feeling of being accepted in the academy only if one does little to challenge the status quo.

The story of Gary A. Hoover (“Hoov”) resonates with idea and lived reality of conditional acceptance in academe. In his chapter, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Economics,” he details how he was marginalized throughout his academic journey—from graduate school to chairing an economics department as a full professor. Hoov was the only Black person in his doctoral economics program and never felt he really belonged. He also describes how one academic department that he applied to for a job after completing his Ph.D. told him he should be in its master’s program as he didn’t have the skillset to succeed in a Ph.D. program. He was also the only Black person in the department where he earned tenure, as well as in a different department that he chaired. Overall, the concept of “conditional acceptance” resonated with him because of the amount of marginalization he has endured within the discipline of economics.

Q: Brittney Cooper, a prominent intellectual voice in Black feminist thought calls the book “essential” and a “call for justice, a reckoning between scholars of color and the academic hierarchies that persist in devaluing and diminishing their work.” What kinds of justice or injustice does the book address, and who should read it?

A: We anticipate that our contributors’ first-person narratives and advice will resonate particularly with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) graduate students, faculty members and administrators, and their white allies. The types of injustices featured in the book include but are not limited to:

  • How to navigate Africana Studies joint positions (N. Fadeke Castor and myself)
  • Experiencing academe as a contingent faculty member who’s been racialized as a passive and quiet Asian American woman and denied space to express anger (Kelly Fong)
  • The invisibilization of indigenous people in academe (Robin Starr Zape-tah-hol-ah Minthorn)
  • Being sexually harassed (Shantel Gabrieal Buggs)
  • Being marginalized because of institutional ableism (Sarah Manchanda)
  • Being denied tenure (Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder)
  • Being treated as a “problem” when you are the person who has actually named the problem and, as a result, the institution feels threatened (Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt)
  • The ways many institutions mistreat senior faculty of color (Amelia N. Gibson)
  • The lack of representation of faculty of color at all ranks (Adia Harvey Wingfield)
  • Achieving diversity goals (Neil A. Lewis, Jr.)

Q: Dozens of articles have been published through the column, but you had to narrow those down and publish only certain ones in the book. What themes and issues did you want to especially highlight and why?

A: At the outset, we decided that the edited volume would feature some of our most popular and provocative blog posts from the Conditionally Accepted column and would be supplemented with original, full-length essays. We tried to incorporate a diversity of BIPOC scholars from across the academy—reaching out to both folx we’ve worked with before and others with whom we have not. Each essay offers:

  • A discussion of the author’s personal experiences related to the injustice that the essay focuses on
  • A contextualization within relevant scholarship on systemic injustice in academe
  • Take-aways for the reader: advice, a call to action or a model for change.

Once we had our submissions, we organized them according to themes which emerged naturally. The book is organized into four parts:

  1. Navigating our way within—or out of—academe: narratives and advice on pursuing a variety of career paths, not limited to the traditional, although increasingly rare, path from Ph.D. to tenure-track to tenured positions. Keisha Blain’s chapter on rising from associate to full professor and Alisha Winn’s interview on moving from the tenure-track to starting her own applied anthropology business are examples.
  2. Disciplinary and institutional betrayals: essays that reflect on the failure of one’s academic institution and/or discipline to prevent harm perpetrated against them by others, such as sexual violence, discrimination and othering.
  3. Diversity rhetoric and empty promises: critiques of the failure of colleges and universities to fully pursue their stated commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion.
  4. Transforming the academy and beyond: calls to readers to commit to pursuing justice in and through academe by redefining what it means to be an academic in the 21st century.

Q: Looking ahead, do you see other themes and issues emerging—new ways people are being conditionally accepted—that will demand more attention in the future?

A: We began work on this edited volume in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Since then, the landscape of academe has radically changed for the worse. Four years ago, higher education institutions were reckoning with anti-Black racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd based on calls from faculty members and students. Today, more colleges are closing. Tenured faculty members are being fired. Politically motivated bans of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices and programs are happening nationwide. Academic programs are being cut at public universities. Shared governance is being eliminated at many institutions. Students and faculty peacefully protesting the war on Gaza have been met with state and vigilante violence.

As a result, people will still need advice on how to find their way within or outside of higher education. Colleges and universities will continue to disappoint and fail faculty of color regarding diversity, even if DEI hasn’t already been eliminated at their institution. And the oppressive conditions that still exist within academe will also force BIPOC scholars to work toward positive institutional transformation, leave the sector entirely and join industry, or become entrepreneurs, as Manya Whitaker details in her chapter on starting your own business as an academic.

Q: Does a book like Conditionally Accepted have the power to transform academe? How optimistic are you that real change can occur?

A: The timing for the release of this book couldn’t have been better. Higher education is literally eroding right before our eyes. Our book should remind you not only what academe was like before the political attacks on it but also that work to make it more inclusive and equitable— especially for BIPOC scholars—continues. It includes contributions from scholars who offer advice and concrete steps to alter the architecture of academe with the goal of making it more inclusive and equitable. For instance, Salvador Vidal-Ortiz writes about dismantling whiteness in academe. Álvaro Huerta offers key lessons and takeaways on becoming a Chicano scholar-activist. Victor Ray argues for the importance of academics writing for the public. Aimee Villarreal calls for the formation of “sanctuaryscapes” to offer decolonized campus spaces that facilitate the liberation of all Latine people.  And Eric Joy Denise encourages embracing scholar-activism as legitimate academic work.

Finally, a subtext and hope we have of this collection is that the reader can find community with us and our contributors. We hope BIPOC folx are inspired to work together to transform higher education into a more inclusive and equitable sector. And if we can’t do that, then at least we can do is build worlds for ourselves that we can exist in, enjoy life in and strategize for liberatory presents and futures.

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