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Does tenure increase or decrease racial diversity in the faculty ranks? The question is imbued with fresh urgency on the heels of recent controversies involving Nikole Hannah-Jones and Cornel West.

Pose the question to some scholars, however, and they tend to bristle, but for starkly different reasons.

Peony Fhagen, senior associate dean of equity, inclusion, and faculty development at Colorado College, thinks it’s somewhat insidious to ask the question now, just as a critical mass of diverse academics are making professional progress. “You’re going to take this away when we come on board?” she asks.

In contrast, Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, cringes at the question because he doesn’t think it’s relevant. “Racial diversity should have no bearing on tenure decisions,” says Wood, a former tenured anthropologist, associate provost, and president’s chief of staff at Boston University. “Anyone who owes his or her tenure to such considerations has advanced in the academic world via racial discrimination and is rightly to be looked upon by colleagues as having vitiated academic standards.”

Some observers look to statistics for an answer.

“Based on recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, it appears tenure may be a potential barrier to accelerating the pace of greater diversity,” says Bob Atkins, chief executive and founder of Gray Associates, a higher-education software and consulting company. “Among full-time professors, a whopping 80 percent are white and 53 percent are white males.” But, the data show, Black males, Black females, and Hispanic males each account for only 2 percent of full-time professors, and Hispanic females even less. Given that, Atkins says, “tenure makes it more challenging to create open positions for new faculty of any type, including underrepresented groups.”

A number of scholars said in conversations with The Chronicle that while tenure offers valuable protections of academic freedom, however porous those protections may be, the way tenure is practiced is in tension with efforts to diversify the faculty.

“It’s not tenure per se but a host of other factors that are contributing to an excruciatingly slow rate of progress in terms of Bipoc faculty earning tenure,” says Fhagen, referring to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. Candidates regularly “seem to have all their ducks in a row,” but then aren’t awarded tenure, she says. “That speaks to the process, not tenure itself.”

“If we got rid of every system that was broken and imperfect, we’d have no systems,” says Tabbye Chavous, director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “Just like any process, the execution and implementation matter.”

Professors of color “often do research that’s controversial, that pushes buttons, that’s uncomfortable,” says Fhagen, and the academic-freedom protections ostensibly offered by tenure are particularly important for those scholars.

That point was underscored in a 2021 study by the American Association of University Professors that looked at the targets of the conservative-activist website Campus Reform during 2020. “It is noteworthy that while African Americans make up 6 percent of full-time faculty nationally … they make up 14.6 percent of the predominantly full-time respondents in our study and thus are disproportionately targeted,” the report’s authors wrote.

But how much freedom does tenure really accord, and are scholars of color competing for tenure on a level playing field?

“The concept of academic freedom is a key feature of tenure, yet because academic freedom is subjectively interpreted through the lenses of whiteness and maleness, racially minoritized faculty remain in a precarious situation,” says LaWanda W.M. Ward, an assistant professor of higher education at Pennsylvania State University.

She cites, as an example, when, in 2015, Larycia A. Hawkins, an associate professor of political science and the first Black female tenured professor at Wheaton College, an evangelical institution in Illinois, was placed on administrative leave for a Facebook post with a photograph of herself wearing a hijab. Hawkins wrote that “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” The post, Hawkins explained, stemmed from conversations with students about how best to show solidarity with Muslims subjected to acts of bigotry.

Tenure should have protected Hawkins, says Ward, “but her social-media posts were considered egregious.” Hawkins left Wheaton soon after the incident.

Joan Wong for The Chronicle

One longstanding problem in seeking tenure is that underrepresented-minority faculty members perform the often-unrecognized “invisible labor” of mentoring minority undergraduate and graduate students. “Until invisible labor can be made visible, tenure could be a barrier to racial diversity,” says Kimberly R. Moffitt, interim dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, known as UMBC. “I wholeheartedly support tenure. I just think that a configuration that acknowledges that work and its overall contribution to a university campus will need to occur or faculty of color will be adversely affected.”

“When I walk into a classroom, and I’m a Black woman teaching this course, there are students drawn to me and what I do,” says Moffitt, who in addition to her interim deanship is a professor of language, literacy, and culture, and an affiliate professor of Africana studies.

The very presence of minority professors can help attract minority students to a major, she says. A more-diverse faculty can change students’ perspective on what they previously considered a “white discipline,” says Moffitt. But, she adds, mentoring students takes time and energy, and it usually goes unrewarded when a professor is up for tenure.

That worsens already-alarming paucities within paucities. According to the AAUP:

  • Seventy percent of the academic labor force was employed full time in 1975, compared with only 48 percent in 2019.
  • Within that pool, in 2018, whereas 17.5 percent of adults ages 24 to 64 identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino, only 5.2 percent of full-time faculty members self-identified as being in those categories. Only 6 percent of full-time faculty members self-identified as Black or African American, whereas 12.7 percent of the broader population self-identified as being in those categories.
  • At four-year public colleges, in 2018, 50.3 percent of faculty members were tenured or on the tenure track. That year, at four-year private colleges, 36 percent of the faculty was tenured or on the tenure track.
  • Within the diminishing ranks of the tenured, which are within the shrinking number of full-time faculty members over all, in 2018, Black professors held only 5.3 percent of tenure-line positions.

There’s additional underappreciation of how much institutional diversity, equity, and inclusion work minority faculty members are called upon to do for committees, says Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana, an assistant professor of sociology at the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York. Even when it’s counted, it’s usually undercounted, she says. Of research, teaching, and service — the three legs of a tenure evaluation — research is sovereign, and “you can’t get tenure because you’re stellar at service.”

Beyond uncredited “invisible labor,” some scholars see unjustified standards for the journals in which they must publish to meet tenure requirements. Minority scholars often study marginalized populations and have trouble publishing in the generalist journals that are considered most prestigious, says Rucks-Ahidiana. Instead, those scholars publish in journals that focus on their subfields.

In sociology, for instance, tenure committees are impressed by bylines in the American Sociological Review or the American Journal of Sociology. But Sociology of Education and Sociology of Race and Ethnicity also have high standards, and high rejection rates, Rucks-Ahidiana says. Why aren’t articles in those publications given equal weight?

The same issues come up in selecting external reviewers in tenure cases, says Michigan’s Chavous, who is also associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and a professor of education and psychology. Well-regarded reviewers of a tenure file might not be grounded in the theory and method behind a subfield, particularly a diversity-oriented one. It might take a little more time and effort to find appropriate, more-specialized reviewers. “But those scholars are out there,” says Chavous. “They are not unicorns.”

Community-based research and advocacy, says UMBC’s Moffitt, should also be rewarded in tenure considerations. Her college, she says, has done so for several years. Faculty members in American studies, for instance, have helped Baltimore residents organize networks to counter food scarcity and resist eminent-domain “land grabs,” she says. UMBC shouldn’t be an institution in a vacuum off the Interstate 695 Beltway, says Moffitt. It wants “to close the gap and be part of the community.”

Bear in mind, says Irene Mulvey, president of the AAUP and a professor of mathematics at Fairfield University, that publishing, research, and other criteria to earn tenure are ladders created by each institution. They are not inherent in the idea of tenure itself. By that fundamental standard, she argues, reforms like widening the scope of relevant journals or rewarding community-based research don’t violate any sacrosanct rules.

Recruiting for and encouraging teaching geared to increasingly diverse students is a good way to better serve a college’s mission and help diversify the faculty ranks, says Michael Benitez, vice president for diversity and inclusion at Metropolitan State University of Denver, known as MSU Denver. That is particularly true at minority-serving institutions, he says, pointing to the university’s designation in 2019 as a Hispanic-serving institution.

In his previous job as dean of diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at the University of Puget Sound, Benitez says, he worked closely with the provost at the time to help increase the percentage of tenure-line faculty of color from 19 percent to 27 percent between 2013 and 2019. Part of that progress resulted from hiring committees’ asking job candidates about their inclusive-teaching practices. “That’s not to say that there aren’t white faculty who do well with that,” he says. But often, faculty of color, because of their experiences, will have given the matter more-extensive consideration.

Sharing those practices and experiences is important to make faculty of color feel comfortable, included, and supported, says Benitez. It also helps white colleagues gain a better appreciation for the societal challenges faced by minoritized faculty members, staff, and students, an appreciation that should be factored into recruiting, retention, and tenure-and-promotion decisions.

That sharing needn’t be overly formal. MSU Denver, for example, organizes a quarterly Tenure Track Supper Club. It’s not mandatory, but usually several dozen faculty members attend, along with the president, the provost, or a professor with expertise in inclusive teaching. The attendees, Benitez says, are about half faculty of color, half white, and the gatherings — which have continued virtually during the pandemic — allow participants to discuss difficult topics and build allyship.

Expectations around publishing venues, community-based research, and inclusive pedagogy are too often hazy, say critics of tenure practices. Unclear guidelines and moving goalposts, says Colorado College’s Fhagen, allow “for white supremacy, racism, power, and privilege to enter in and influence and impact decisions.” She says that “precise terms and conditions of every appointment should be stated in writing, and in possession of both the institution and the teacher.”

But, says UMBC’s Moffitt, it’s a balancing act. Reducing tenure decisions to a simplistic formula — exactly X number of articles or monographs, Y courses taught, Z committees served on — can undervalue and undermine passion and commitment. “I do think there has to be more transparency, but rubrics aren’t the answer,” she says.

Recruiting, retaining, and developing minority faculty members require long-term commitment and leadership, says Michigan’s Chavous. At her college, during four hiring cycles since 2017, 36 of 37 postdoctoral fellows — mostly faculty of color — were recruited to Ann Arbor in a process that included consideration of diverse research and pedagogy, and now they are on the tenure track.

Emphasizing mentorship for those fellows has increased nurturing of junior faculty members generally, Chavous says. And the program has been incorporated into the college’s overall hiring plan, as approximately 15 percent of the budget for faculty lines that would have been filled in any case. It’s not, she says, a diversity “add-on” that requires a separate source of funding.

The college is embedding diversity in its culture, Chavous says. The message to the new hires is that “we’re not utopia, but we want you to be part of the change process. You’re a citizen and a part of your department.”

In ways like those, critics say, tenure can be adapted to a diversity mind-set.

“The tenure process is probably not immune to the same kind of biases that we see in every aspect of society,” says Mulvey, the AAUP president. The answer, she says, is to fix it to make it more just, not to throw it away.

“What,” asks MSU Denver’s Benitez, “would the Constitution look like if we rewrote it with the people that make up the American fabric today?” The same question should be asked in reforming tenure, he says. “I am in favor of reform, but only if reform is totally representative.”

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