Scholars discuss what it’s like to be a Black professor in 2020, who should be doing antiracist work on campus and why diversity interventions that attempt to “fix” Black academics for a rigged game miss the point entirely.

By Colleen Flaherty//October 21, 2020

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As colleges and universities issued statement after statement this year affirming that Black lives matter, many Black faculty members remained unimpressed with mere words of support — at once dubious and hopeful that this moment might lead to real, lasting change for themselves and their Black colleagues.

“There has never been a golden age for Black faculty in the United States,” said Douglas M. Haynes, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion and professor of history and African American studies at the University of California, Irvine. “Too often people assume that there was after the Civil Rights Act, that the door was opened, that there was no more resistance. On the contrary, there has been and will likely continue to be resistance.”

Richard Reddick, associate dean for equity, community engagement and outreach in the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, said, “I’m an optimist, but I am very skeptical about permanent change.”

That said, Reddick added, if an institution “fixes its mouth to state that they are committed to a diverse faculty, they’d better bring the resources, mentoring, releases, grant opportunities and senior-scholar partnering that will make these scholars viable for promotion and tenure.”

In interviews with Inside Higher Ed over the past several months, Black scholars, including some who study race, expressed dissatisfaction with diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that Black people often are expected to lead — without compensation, on top of their already disproportionate duties mentoring students of color — and often without their recommendations being adopted.

Scholars said they are sick of institutions hiring Black faculty members to reach diversity goals and then ignoring issues of racial climate and social isolation when these professors arrive. And they’re more than tired of the casual and structural anti-Blackness reflected in everyday conversations, resource and funding allocations, personnel decisions, and more.

‘You’ve Already Set That Person Up for Failure’

Ayana Jordan, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University, said she was once the lone Black female psychiatrist on the faculty, and that a colleague once realized that this was the case and said so out loud. To Jordan, who was always keenly aware of being the only Black woman in so many rooms, the professor’s realization came off as a perverse “luxury.”

“The absence of Black faculty in institutions of higher learning is a national crisis,” Jordan said. And like other national crises, this one requires a national response, or at least a coordinated effort among groups of institutions and a national repository for effective practices and interventions. Yet institutions generally continue to address the problem — as they do so many things — individually, Jordan said.

Many institutions, especially well-resourced ones, launched faculty diversity initiatives in the wake of the student protests at the University of Missouri at Columbia in 2015. And while some institutions report subsequent gains in their number of Black faculty members, the national outlook didn’t budge between 2015 and 2018, the latest year for which data were available from the National Center for Education Statistics. Now, as then, just about 5.5 percent of full-time faculty members are Black, compared to about 14 percent of their students.

The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, launched an ambitious faculty diversity plan in 2011, even before the Mizzou protests. The number of underrepresented minority faculty members at Penn has increased by 46 percent since that time. Those hires pushed the overall proportion of underrepresented minorities on Penn’s faculty from 6 percent to 8 percent by 2018. Climate surveys show similar levels of faculty satisfaction in 2011 and 2016, with women, minority and LGBTQ faculty reporting somewhat lower levels of overall satisfaction with their work environment, however.

Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religion and Africana studies at Penn, said, “These individual campus diversity initiatives are not tackling the structural issues behind what happens to faculty when they get to these campuses.”

Beyond climate issues, Butler said the service and mentoring demands on Black professors are extreme, disadvantaging them off the bat in tenure and promotion processes that don’t value this kind of labor.

“In my own personal experience, we don’t have enough people to go around to help with diversity work,” Butler said. “You have an issue, you bring it to a nontenured faculty member who is a person of color, or a woman, and they have to do all the heavy lifting because they teach race or some related issue. Everyone’s calling them all the time, they can’t get enough work done and you’ve already set that person up for failure.”

Butler proposed a two-year moratorium on expectations for this kind of service work for new hires on the tenure track, to protect their research and teaching time and give them a real shot at succeeding.

Jordan said that all-white promotion and tenure committees are fundamentally problematic. She advocated mandatory antiracist work for all faculty members, group hires for people of color to avoid social isolation and compensated service work around issues of diversity. No budget for this work means it’s a not a priority, she said.

“I’m still not convinced, based on the actions of higher education, that there is a true commitment to making sure that there are Black faculty who are not only representative of the national population in which they serve, but who are also happy and have what they need to be successful.”

A narrative within predominantly white organizations — including universities — is that there is will to hire more Black employees, but they simply don’t exist. Haynes called this one of several “uninformed myths” about Black faculty members. Other beliefs are that they’re not a “good fit,” that they’re “too expensive” and that they’re “a risk,” he said.

UC Irvine is busting these myths. This year it hired 13 Black faculty members onto the tenure track, across fields — something that Haynes said “never happens” in U.S. academe at one campus in one year, because there’s a perception that it can’t or shouldn’t. Haynes said thinking outside the box in terms of hiring is especially challenging in California, where the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke originated.

In that case, the court upheld affirmative action, including the consideration of race in admissions. But it also came down against reserving a specific number of seats for minority candidates, or racial quotas. Haynes said Bakke reflected and contributed to a backlash against racial justice in the U.S. This has had long-term, unintended consequences for higher education, especially faculty hiring. In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, a state law saying that public employers many not consider race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in hiring.

Next month, California voters will decide whether to repeal Prop 209, in the form of Proposition 16. If passed, Prop 16 would allow public entities in California to develop affirmative action programs, including, perhaps, faculty hiring programs that consider candidates’ race. Last month, in anticipation of this vote, and reflecting where the U.S. Supreme Court stands on this issue, the UC system’s Board of Regents approved a policy to prohibit the use of racial quotas or caps in admissions and hiring across its campuses. At least in admissions, though, the university has reportedly said it would consider gender in admissions as part of a larger set of criteria.

UC Irvine, which seeks to become the top choice for Black California college applicants, recently announced its Black Thriving Initiative. It’s a universitywide effort to establish UC Irvine “as the nation’s leading destination for talented Black people to thrive,” Haynes said. “It involves changing the culture, leveraging the research mission and linking UCI’s future to the success of Black people.”

The idea came together relatively quickly, but Irvine’s success with respect to diversifying the faculty can be traced back to 2001, when it became part of the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE: Organizational Change for Gender Equity in STEM Academic Professions program. Irvine has doubled its share of female scientists, who now account for 27 percent of the science faculty.

Building on ADVANCE strategies, Haynes has led similar efforts to hire more faculty members of color.

“We’ve looked at the pipeline and identified each of the critical milestones and customized specific interventions that led us to this record year,” Haynes said. “And this new initiative expands these efforts to build a culture where Black people thrive as undergraduates, graduate students and faculty.”

Admittedly, that’s the “hardest part — changing the culture,” he continued. “The responsibility rests with the entire institution.”

When the Game Is Rigged

Among non-tenure-track instructors across academe, Black professors are overrepresented. They’re also overrepresented in lower-paying disciplines and underrepresented in the sciences. Institutions generally consider tenure decisions private personnel matters, but there is anecdotal and empirical data suggesting that Black professors face hurdles their white colleagues don’t in advancing their careers.

In one example from this year, all-white tenure committees at the University of Virginia denied tenure to two Black assistant professors who were engaged in diversity work within their respective fields. Both cases involved procedural errors on the part of evaluators. In the case of Paul Harris, a human services scholar who studies Black students and athletes, a tenure committee accused him of publishing a paper in a “self-published” journal that was actually peer reviewed. Harris also faced questions about the representativeness of his work just as he was about to go up for tenure — what some say is code for scholars of color and their work being too centered on issues of identity.

The university eventually overturned Harris’s negative bid, but the majority of cases like his never get a public airing.

A recent study of faculty “fit” found that candidates’ diverse social identities transformed from competitive advantages when they applied or were courted to apply for a faculty job, to a “non-factor” during the review phase, with “many faculty members having different — albeit still color-blind — perspectives on considering identity.” Put another way, the paper found that hiring typically privileges perceived research impact and runs on reproduction, or cloning bias, even when hiring committees are supposed to see diversity as an asset.

Another paper on “presenting while Black” found that the majority of Black faculty members interviewed reported being regularly advised by white colleagues to be “more entertaining,” to “lighten up” and to “tell more jokes.” Black women in particular reported having colleagues bring up their clothing choices and hairstyles and being told to suppress their “passion” and “smile more.” Most interviewees reported hearing more overtly racist comments about their presentations.

Studies too numerous to list here conclude that Black professors face disproportionate challenges in the classroom, as well, in the form of student bias. One paper based on an experiment at a predominantly white research institution in the Southeast found that students rated Black professors’ teaching significantly lower than that of white and other minority professors, including on survey items that influence personnel decisions (Black women face a double bind, based on additional research on students’ gender biases). Professors of color report bullying and discriminatory comments on their appearance and qualifications in open-ended responses.

In another example, students have been shown to find professors of color less credible than white professors. Other researchers have found that students rated a hypothetical Black professor less favorably than a white professor, and that students trusted the Black professor more when he was pictured in formal compared to casual clothing. Meanwhile, the reverse was true for the white professor.

Some institutions have moved away from using student evaluations of teaching in promotion and tenure decisions for these reasons. Many colleges and universities continue to use student ratings of teaching in high-stakes personnel decisions, despite all the evidence of their vulnerability to bias.

Research funding is another area of concern. One study published in June, controlling for career stage and other factors, found that reviewers consistently rate Black researchers seeking Research Project Grants from the National Institutions of Health lower than white applicants. This contributes to a persistent, overall funding gap between white and Black researchers even under the NIH’s Enhanced Peer-Review process, which was supposed to bring more transparency to the process: from 2014 to 2016, the award probability for black applications was 55 percent of that for white applications (10.2 percent versus 18.5 percent).

The study’s authors found that topic choice, including community-based work — such as studies that look at the disparate impact of diseases on minorities, including the coronavirus — along with researchers’ network size may explain some of the funding gap. But not all of it. The authors expressed concern that instead of mitigating bias, the first stage of enhanced peer review may “absorb” bias, or make new room for it to creep into the process.

An NSF analysis of its own data from 2009 to 2016 found that applicants and awardees from underrepresented racial minority groups were growing in number — and that their funding rate remained “substantially lower” than that of majority applicants.

As for the salaries of researchers, a national survey of 1,160 U.S. biologists and physicists found that white scientists reported earning higher salaries than nonwhite scientists, despite no significant differences in productivity, funding or institutional status. Black respondents reported earning the lowest pay. Even in science, “a field characterized by explicit overtures of tolerance and inclusion,” there is still “reproduction of a racial order,” the researchers wrote.

A group of scientists — including Tyrone B. Hayes, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, who recently detailed his many experiences with racism in a letter to his colleagues — cited some of these data in a separate Science letter on systemic racism in higher education last month.

The “false dichotomy of ‘excellence or diversity’ must end,” Hayes and his colleagues wrote. “Diversity results in better, more impactful, and more innovative science, and it is essential to building novel solutions to challenges faced by marginalized and nonmarginalized communities.” Catalyzing culture shifts in the academy, meanwhile, “will require making tenure dependent on excellence in research, teaching and service that centers on equity and inclusion.”

Reddick said his own research and experience demonstrates that Black scholars are more likely to have positive experiences in their departments and programs than they are away from campus, and that institutions are “woefully neglectful of what it is like to live” in the surrounding environs.

“What is it like to buy a house in the community? How do local schools affirm Black children? Where can Black scholars find a critical mass to listen to music, appreciate the arts and otherwise build community?” Reddick asked. He recalled a professor he once met who realized there were no Black barbers in his rural university town, so he hired one from the nearest city to cut Black students’ hair at his home. It became a community for those students — what Reddick said scholar and author bell hooks would call a “homeplace.”

“Something as seemingly simple as having relationships with community partners in education, services and entertainment would go a long way” toward faculty satisfaction, Reddick said. Paraphrasing what an unnamed colleague of his has wondered, Reddick said, “We sometimes have exit interviews when faculty leave institutions. Why aren’t we engaged in stay interviews, and learning why our faculty choose to work here and live in our community?”

Beyond Band-Aids: Breaking Down Barriers

Akil Houston, an associate professor of cultural and media studies at Ohio University, said he had three different chairs during his pretenure period and an ever-changing list of expectations and requirements. His faculty mentor was not supportive. Now that he’s got tenure, Houston tries to give out the guidance that he didn’t get. But there could still “be a stronger university culture that says to Black faculty, ‘We want you here, and we want to position you for success,’” he said. Some ideas: writing workshops, cohorts and grants targeted at underrepresented minority faculty members.

Kimberly Griffin, professor and associate dean of graduate studies and faculty affairs in the College of Education at the University of Maryland, College Park, recently reviewed decades of research on the challenges facing academics of color, including those that make them leave academe altogether. Among the roadblocks: a hostile climate and unwelcoming colleagues, students who challenge their authority in the classroom and question their expertise on teaching evaluations, lower levels of scholarly productivity given more intense service loads, and difficulty publishing work that may be perceived as “unconventional” for the field.

Griffin, co-principal investigator for the NSF-funded Aspire program to develop an inclusive and diverse national science, technology, engineering and math faculty, said many diversity strategies propose training, professional development and mentoring to help Black faculty look more like an “ideal” candidate and “conform to institutional expectations.” All those strategies ignore “the systemic and individual racism Black faculty face,” she said, “and are based on conforming to norms that privilege white cisgender men.”

What’s a better way to support Black faculty members? Griffin said it’s not an “either-or” between offering professors professional development opportunities, resources and support, and tackling deeper structural racism. The Aspire program, for instance, pushes institutions to consider how they engage in recruitment and hiring, strategies they use to promote acceptance of offers, how they onboard and welcome new faculty to campus — and whether and how they address departmental and campus climates.

Donathan Brown, assistant provost for diversity and inclusion at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, also said Black faculty members face clear barriers with respect to recruitment, student evaluations and devaluation of their research interests. Search committees often begin their work with conversations about how they can’t expect diverse candidate pools because they’re not, say, in a given metro area, Brown continued. With respect to teaching evaluations, he said, “The scholarship already exists. We all know it yet continue to place full reliance upon student evaluations as an unadulterated indicator of teaching effectiveness.”

Failing to address these aspects of institutional culture and climate means “you are inevitably placing Black faculty members in compromising positions from the very beginning.”

Who’s Doing the Diversity Work?

Robert Head, president emeritus and the first Black president of Rockford University in Illinois, tells a story in his new book, Playing From Behind. In 1994, when he was serving as a vice president at a Chicago-area institution, the university brought in late civil rights legend C. T. Vivian to lead discussions on campus and work with a committee on campus climate. Head was appointed chair of that committee, which he said did not surprise Vivian in the least.

“When I was first introduced to C. T., he broke out in a wide grin and said, ‘I knew it! Let a race situation occur on a majority campus and they will send in a Black person to deal with it,’” Head said recently, summing up the incident — and academe’s propensity for calling on people of color to fix racist systems they didn’t create.

In any case, Head said, “I find the delegation of antiracism work to Black faculty, in many cases, to be an act of minimization.” The Black faculty members get all the work, with limited influence to change things, while the institution gets to say it’s “doing something.”

Instead of pushing antiracist and diversity work to one person, group or committee, Head advocated a shared governance approach, where many voices share in the discussion.

Meanwhile, he said, the growing reality is that antiracist work is truly everyone’s concern, in that majority-white institutions have experienced significant growth in enrolling students of color, “to the point that in a few years, the enrollment of students of color will exceed the enrollment of white students on several campuses.” Therein lies the “crucial business purpose for engaging in antiracism work as a system and not merely delegating it to Black faculty.”

“We must attack the problem with the same commitment and resources as we would any issue that is required to sustain and grow the institution,” he said.

Head also said that this service work must be counted in tenure and promotion decisions, just like other kinds of participation in universitywide committees. Cutting-edge solutions that end up as publications should be counted as scholarship, too, he said. And engagement in antiracist work beyond routine meetings should be considered for stipends or teaching load reductions.

Brown agreed with a shared governance, strategic planning-style approach, saying that institutions must publicly affirm that neither Black faculty members nor chief diversity officers are the “panacea for all anti-Black ills on campus.”

At the same time, Brown said, institutions must abandon the vague idea that “everyone is responsible” for addressing antiracist work, since not everyone is held accountable for it.

Mentoring students of color and doing everyday diversity and inclusion work is often referred to as “invisible labor” and, as it falls disproportionately on some groups, “cultural taxation.” Numerous studies, including a survey-based one published last year in Nature: Ecology and Evolution, have found that those academics most likely to be doing invisible labor are nonwhite and nonmale.

Terza Lima-Neves, chair of political science at Johnson C. Smith University, a historically Black institution in North Carolina, said conversations about Black faculty members must address the intersection of race and gender. Administrations at both HBCUs and predominantly white colleges and universities “seem to be out of touch with reality, with the actual amount of work Black women are doing,” in particular.

Case in point: Lima-Neves was recently encouraged to join an initiative about slavery, linked to a predominantly white institution, even though that does not fall within her area of expertise, and she’s juggling many other responsibilities. She said no.

Black women teaching at HBCUs often have heavy teaching loads and service and research expectations and are “expected to be mentors, advisers, therapists, et cetera” to their predominantly Black students navigating an extremely challenging time, Lima-Neves said. With women’s already disproportionate caring loads at home and a pandemic thrown in, it’s “ridiculous.”

Yet when Black women “do say no to additional projects, we are seen as anti-team player, unwilling to be collegial,” Lima-Neves said, and “when we speak up and address our concerns, we are bitter and angry.” In actuality, “We are tired, emotionally and physically tired.”

Lima-Neves’s comments are similar to those of Lesley Lokko, dean of the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at City College of New York, a part of the City University of New York, who resigned publicly this month after 10 months on the job. Even previously living and working in South Africa didn’t prepare Lokko, who is Scottish and Ghanaian, for being a Black woman in the U.S., she said in a public resignation letter and subsequent interview.

“The lack of respect and empathy for Black people, especially Black women, caught me off guard, although it’s by no means unique to Spitzer,” Lokko said. “I suppose I’d say in the end that my resignation was a profound act of self-preservation.”

Lima-Neves said that because of the current racial climate, predominantly white colleges and universities are seeking grant partnerships with HBCUs. While these partnerships look virtuous, professors at HBCUs are expected to “drop their own professional goals and scholarly agendas.”

From a hiring perspective, Lima-Neves also criticized predominantly white institutions for creating fellowships and term positions geared toward “diversity” candidates, instead of more tenure-track lines or long-term commitments. When institutions bring on Black professors as temporary workers only, institutions “bamboozle” students into thinking they’ll have diverse mentors while avoiding giving faculty members of color a voice and a vote where it counts.

Raechele Pope, associate dean for faculty and student affairs and chief diversity officer at the State University of New York at Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education, helped organize the school’s teach-in for racial justice, which took place over two days in lieu of classes last month. She said that every campus “needs to re-examine and reimagine their approach to diversity work,” and that until they do, “the burden will always fall on the shoulders of Black faculty and other faculty of color.”

Campuses need to “examine and understand the ways in which white supremacy culture is baked into the structures and practices of the campus,” Pope said. “Campuses need to prioritize the education of white faculty, administrators and staff and set aside money to bring in consultants in an ongoing way rather than relying on their own staff and faculty to do the training.” If Black professors do want to engage in this work, “then they should be fairly and financially compensated” and given reduced teaching loads to make time for it.

Reddick urged Black academics to hold potential employers accountable — “receipts” included — for investing in Black faculty success before they invest their own “blood, sweat and tears building support for an institution that is indifferent years later.” Institutions should be able to highlight success stories and opportunities, along with readily available metrics on promotion and tenure — and good explanations for any gaps between Black professors and other groups, with concrete plans for closing them.

“I am talking about restructuring these processes and having the institutional fortitude to recognize work that hasn’t been recognized in the past and note its value,” Reddick said. “Institutions can’t sway students and families that they are equity-minded if the Black scholars who work there are the most fatigued and least compensated.”

Signs of Commitment

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the injustices facing Black communities. But it also risks diverting precious institutional attention and resources — time and money — away from antiracist work on campuses. Still, there are some signs that colleges and universities will put actions behind their words of support for Black lives, including those of their faculty members.

While many institutions have halted hiring for the foreseeable future, Syracuse University said that it will proceed with a planned diverse faculty hiring initiative. The Rhode Island School of Design announced that it is hiring a cluster of 10 new tenure-track or tenured professors in multiple disciplines as part of a race in art and design initiative. Stanford University announced that it is hiring up to 10 new scholars who study race in American society. The University of Chicago’s English department said it’s focusing this graduate admissions cycle on aspiring Black studies scholars. The University of California, San Diego, is unfreezing hiring only in a few cases, including for an interdisciplinary faculty cluster of 10 to 12 experts in racial disparities in STEM fields, with a focus on Black communities.

San Diego is providing $500,000 in one-time funding for that effort, along with $200,000 for a related plan to improve retention of underrepresented faculty members through coaching, coalition building and other activities. Makeba Jones, a professor of education at San Diego and a principal investigator for the project, said in an announcement that “at its core, this effort is much more than a cluster hire; it’s a systemic effort to address racial inequities on campus for African American undergraduate and graduate students by creating a cadre of scholars who focus on the African American diaspora in the areas of medicine, health and the environment.”

Faculty members will not only produce innovative research in STEM fields related to African American communities, she said, “they will also be involved in teaching undergraduates through the African American studies minor and major as well as mentoring both undergraduates and graduate students.”

The University of Houston is opening a national research center to address health disparities in underserved areas. Saint Louis University is establishing a new Institute for Healing Justice and Equity. In the chaos of this semester, thousands of academics participated in the recent Scholar Strike for racial justice, co-organized by Butler, the Penn professor. These are just some examples.

Griffin, the University of Maryland professor, said she’s hopeful that pandemic-based conversations about “productivity” will be an opportunity to “consider how we value and reward the unique contributions Black professors make to the academy. And we can then make changes that are substantive and enduring, rather than temporary.”

Doing so will be “critical to retaining this generation and recruiting the next generation of Black scholars,” she added.

Now, when there is “at least some indication to suggest an elevated state of antiracist consciousness,” said Brown at the Rochester Institute of Technology, it’s imperative that institutions move beyond words, to initiatives aimed at institutionwide progress.

“My hope is that our African American faculty both see and feel their worth to an institution, beyond the times where we are called upon to serve on a diversity and inclusion committee.”

Read more by Colleen Flaherty

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