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Inside Higher Ed

Across the nation, we continue to see proposed legislation that directly targets higher education and scholars. In the coming months, at least 14 states will grapple with bills that impede faculty members from performing their usual work by, for instance, banning the teaching of certain topics or circumscribing how the faculty goes about hiring and retaining people in their own departments. Such legislation could significantly hinder the work of faculty members as well as their recruitment and retention.

These bills primarily impact faculty of color or those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Many of them seek to restrict or remove diversity hiring initiatives that work to create a more level playing field for applicants who might not have been previously afforded the same educational, professional development or advancement opportunities due to lack of access to resources and networks.

While some bills proposed over the last year have failed—like HB 7 in Alabama, which would have directly targeted classroom content—others have passed that use vague, overly broad language to restrict how faculty can create classroom environments where everyone feels welcome. Such is the case with SB 17 in Texas, which is now in effect as of Jan. 1. And even when these bills do not formally become law, faculty members of color still feel pressured to make changes, and many are leaving their institutions or higher education altogether because of it.

Yet most people are unaware of what’s truly at stake for all of us in higher education when faculty members of color make the difficult decision to depart. It is not just students of color who lose out. We all lose out.

Faculty members of color provide many benefits to all students, the institution and the broader society. For starters, the mere presence of faculty of color on a college campus can increase the sense of belonging and academic success among students of color. Faculty members of color are more likely to include classroom content that recognizes the knowledge and experiences of various racial and ethnic groups. And after engaging with such content, white students are more likely to work to help resolve racial and cultural issues. Such outcomes are crucial for sustaining our democracy, particularly as state populations become increasingly racially and ethnically diverse.

Additionally, through their teaching, research and university service or volunteering, faculty members of color cultivate critical thinking and innovation, encourage civic engagement, and intentionally engage all students in meaningful conversations about how to redress national and global societal inequities. Compared to other faculty members, faculty members of color are also more likely to intentionally include diverse perspectives in course content, use student-centered teaching approaches and interact more with all their students to ensure they get the most out of their classes to be successful leaders after graduation.

Those contributions are integral in fulfilling university goals. Most university missions focus on problem-solving and critical inquiry, intended to create prepared citizens who make society better over all. More so than other academics, faculty members of color facilitate these desired outcomes through their research, teaching and service. Ultimately, without faculty members of color, colleges and universities can’t fulfill their missions.

As a former fellow for the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, I interviewed many faculty members of color who have had to make difficult decisions about their employment. From September 2022 to May 2023, I spoke with more than 20 faculty members who teach courses or conduct research focused on race and, of those, 13 were people of color.

One of them was Ralph (a pseudonym), who was untenured when we spoke. Ralph felt that many administrators and faculty colleagues were not taking the legislative bills and their consequences seriously. He felt gaslighted, as many people were making light of and brushing off his very real and serious concerns. Ralph saw this especially to be the case among white administrators and faculty members, as they were the ones most likely to not be as directly impacted. Many of them didn’t have any formal responsibilities related to fostering racial inclusion or didn’t teach courses that touched upon race or racism, so they didn’t see the need to speak up or push back against the bills.

This silence among the university president, provost, deans, department chairs and white colleagues spoke volumes to the faculty members of color, like Ralph, whom I spoke with. In part because of this lack of support that left them feeling disregarded, nine of the faculty members of color told me they were actively looking for other jobs, had secured a job at another university or had ultimately decided to leave higher education altogether.

Many of those faculty members are passionate about the work they do at their institutions, so such decisions were not easy or simple for Ralph and the others to make. Ralph ultimately decided to leave his institution for another, and his work environment and leadership were large factors in that decision. Many faculty members made these choices as a way to survive and prioritize their own well-being and the well-being of their families during a time when some had received death threats just for teaching a class with the word “race” in its title.

Despite the very serious circumstances that faculty members of color like Ralph currently face, most college presidents and senior leaders remain quiet and refuse to speak out in support of their faculty members, especially those of color. Many leaders are probably fearful of going against what state officials are directing college and universities to do, so as not to draw unnecessary attention that could lead to negative consequences, such as a loss of funding. Other leaders, like those in Utah, have stayed silent to “refrain from taking public positions on political, social, or unsettled issues that do not directly related to the institution’s mission, role or pedagogical objective,” as directed by the Utah Board of Higher Education.

But the relentless assault on faculty of color does, in fact, directly relate. Senior university leaders should be speaking out in a way that centers faculty members of color and the many contributions they bring to their higher education institution and the broader society. This is one tangible way to support retaining them amid all the external political pressures. Colleges and universities already struggle with recruiting and retaining faculty of color, and the proposed bills, if passed, will only make matters much worse.

Without leadership support and mission-driven institutional responses, faculty members of color will most likely continue to be dehumanized and neglected, forcing many of them to leave academe. It is vital for higher education leaders to acknowledge and speak out about the importance of faculty members of color. They not only make their college or university more effective, but they also help to transform society for the better. At this crucial time for higher education, we need presidents and provosts to step up and publicly acknowledge and support faculty members of color and affirm their important role. Otherwise, the exodus of faculty members of color will only continue to increase, and we will all be worse off for it.

Jackie Pedota is a doctoral candidate in educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin and a former fellow for the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.

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