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Inside Higher Ed

Faculty diversity issues in higher education have always been about not only recruitment but also retention. Colleges and universities remain centered on and structured for the white men, whose numbers are approaching 40 percent of all faculty members at higher education institutions in the United States. White women are the other biggest beneficiary of the system, making up another 35 percent.

Meanwhile, Black faculty members and various groups of other academics of color, such as Hispanic and Asian faculty members, compose minimal shares of all faculty members—7 percent or less each—and, unlike their white counterparts, are more likely to be contingent than tenure-track. And while the numbers of Black and other faculty members of color have increased in the last 20 years, their numbers still don’t reflect the growing diversity of students who now attend American colleges and universities.

Yet, hiring more BIPOC faculty members in order to address the imbalance is only one part of the narrative. The other troubling problem is that even when colleges and universities hire diverse faculty members, they frequently can’t keep them. Why? There are a number of reasons, but a report released last month pointed to a key one: It found that minoritized faculty are less likely to receive counteroffers from their current institution after acquiring offers from competing institutions.

In higher education, promotions in rank on the tenure track and significant raises in salary usually happen six to 10 years apart. A counteroffer, an offer a faculty member receives from their current institution in response to an outside offer designed to hire that person away, is one of the few ways faculty receive raises and promotions outside of that schedule. Counteroffers are pervasive yet discretionary and often haphazard tools to keep popular and productive faculty members where they are and address any inequities and dissatisfaction with their compensation. They are also, importantly, symbols of how much the institution values specific faculty members. That fact that BIPOC faculty members are less likely to receive counteroffers means American colleges and universities are not seriously working to retain them.

Higher education as a system is not built for high turnover. The path to obtaining tenure is supposed to keep a faculty member at an institution for at least five to 10 years or longer. Colleges and universities make a not-insignificant investment in tenure and tenure-track faculty. Beyond the salary itself, start-up funds, relocation money, benefits and training sometimes add up to $200,000 to $300,000 per faculty member.

Meanwhile, by the time a faculty member gains tenure, the deep community ties that they have formed—both personal and professional— encourage even longer stays. If your kids are thriving in school, your spouse is settled in their career, and you own a home with a low interest rate in a community where childcare and support are easily accessible, then changing jobs becomes an even more serious proposition. Both the institution and the faculty member have a vested interest in a long-term commitment to one another.

I’ve seen this scenario play out first-hand. When I accepted a position as associate professor and program coordinator of African-American Studies at a university in Texas in spring 2021, I expected to be in it for the long-haul. I was ostensibly hired to transform a fledgling minor program into a major with a curriculum designed to train an ever-growing group of students in Black Studies research and theory. Upon my arrival, however, it became clear that enthusiasm for the program shown throughout my interview process in late 2020 and early 2021 was an apparition born of post-George Floyd equity promises made by organizations across industries— and not aligned with the reality of administrative interests or focus. In other words, the position seemed to me to reflect increasingly the desire of the institution to achieve performative diversity rather than fulfill any genuine institutional priorities.

Two years of overwork, coupled with administrative over-interpretative compliance of legislation banning DEI initiatives at state-funded institutions in Texas, drove me in search of a salary more in line with the more than 60 hours a week I worked at my institution or a new position. I received both in an offer from a university in Denver—my current one—as a full professor and department chair of Africana Studies. Quite frankly, the offer was a professional dream, but we’d just built a house in Texas, my partner was happily employed, and I had developed a role in the campus community that was making a difference. So when the provost at the Texas institution told me in an email to me that they and other administrators would like to provide a counteroffer in hopes of retaining me, I was willing to hear them out.

This wasn’t my first rodeo. After earning tenure at another institution, a small liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia, I had left for Texas to do work more closely aligned with my research and teaching interests. The university there had seemed like the perfect opportunity. I also knew that most small liberal arts colleges couldn’t compete with a major research university, so a counteroffer wasn’t in question. But this was a different scenario. I believed, perhaps naïvely, that administrators in my Texas university wanted to negotiate in good faith. If not, why offer to counter at all?

The counteroffer they gave barely met the definition. In response to the promotion in rank and title, and a $40,000 per year raise that the new job offered (much more than the cost-of-living increase of moving from Texas to Colorado), the Texas institution countered with a raise of $3,000 per year in salary. That’s it. No promotion, no change in title. The raise was equivalent to the annual merit raises I received the previous two years because of my research and publishing production. There was no request to see an updated CV, discussion of my research trajectory and extensive service obligations, book sales, or upcoming projects. I was told point blank that my CV—again, no one actually asked to review it—did not warrant anything more.

Talk about a slap in the face. All the hours I put in, the program I built, and the community we were developing on campus meant nothing to the administration directly benefiting from my work. Then, as I began to confide in colleagues about my experience, I heard similar stories about Black women and women of color—senior scholars, endowed faculty and award winners—receiving bad faith counteroffers over the years. I’ve learned from them, and now the new report on the topic, that this is a pattern, not a one-off anecdote.

Indeed, it’s a pattern with negative impacts on the profession and the entire higher education sector. When institutions lose BIPOC faculty they also lose our support of minoritized students; our crucial pedagogy that often prioritizes inclusion and equity; and our empirical examinations of the institutions, structures and cultures that perpetuate the very inequalities we experience. No institution is perfect, but BIPOC-POC faculty will continue to look for positions at those that value our contributions.

If colleges and universities are serious about diversifying their faculty, then they’ll have to find more effective ways to retain us—and it starts with competitive counteroffers. Otherwise, they’re doomed to a perpetual revolving door of Black and other faculty members of color with nothing to show for it.

Jasmine L. Harris is the incoming department chair of Africana Studies at Metropolitan State University Denver. Her research examines Black life in predominantly white spaces, including Black students at PWIs, Black football and men’s basketball players at universities in the Power Five conferences, and Black sociologists producing knowledge in a white-dominated discipline. She is the author of Black Women, Ivory Tower: Revealing the Lies of White Supremacy in American Education, published this year by Broadleaf Books.

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