Some say that the tenure process at universities is inherently flawed and geared toward white faculty while faculty of color are left behind. According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 70 percent of the academic labor force was employed full time in 1975, compared with only 48 percent in 2019. Of the diminished ranks of tenured faculty, in 2018, Black professors held only 5.3 percent of tenure-line positions.
“What,” asks Michael Benitez, vice president for diversity and inclusion at Metropolitan State University of Denver in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “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 when reforming tenure, he says. “I am in favor of reform, but only if reform is totally representative.” In the same article, Benitez told the author Alexander C. Kafka, that 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. This is particularly true, he said, at minority-serving institutions. His university was given the designation of Hispanic-serving institution in 2019.
The invisibility cloak
Invisible work is what many people of color do at universities – they serve as mentors and models for minority undergraduate and graduate students. Students of color are more likely to join a major where the faculty mirrors their experience.
According to Kimberly R. Moffit who was also quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education article: “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.”
Moffitt, who in addition to her interim deanship is a professor of language, literacy, and culture, and an affiliate professor of Africana studies, continued: “The very presence of minority professors can help attract minority students to a major. A more-diverse faculty can change students’ perspective on what they previously considered a ‘white discipline.’” But this invisible work goes largely unrecognized by tenure committees.
Besides the invisible work, there is another issue that disproportionately affects people of color in academia. Their research is often framed within a minority lens, meaning that their research questions and subsequent community-engagement projects/publications are deemed somewhat controversial. Tenure would be an added protection against being laid off, one would hope. Peony Fhagen senior associate dean of equity, inclusion and faculty development at Colorado College, told Kafka, “’Professors of color ‘often do research that’s controversial, that pushes buttons, that’s uncomfortable,’ and the academic-freedom protections ostensibly offered by tenure are particularly important for those scholars.” And they are exactly the demographic who are not receiving tenure.
Aren’t more diverse faculty being hired, especially in the wake of racially-charged events that have led the cause for inclusive policies throughout all disciplines? Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty reported that “university faculties have become just slightly more diverse in the last 20 years.” According to numbers gathered by the TIAA Institute. “Most gains for underrepresented minority groups have been in the most precarious positions. That is, not on the tenure track,” said Flaherty, referring to the study.
Even reaching beyond the unit for people of color to serve on hiring committees may be necessary. For instance, the University of Colorado Boulder Environmental Studies website on inclusive hiring practices said: “Units in which faculty are predominantly white/male/etc. should consider collaborating with other departments/programs to ensure inclusive and equitable representation on hiring committees.” The site goes on: “Committee members who are familiar with critical race theory, post-colonial theory, whiteness studies, and other tools for identifying and dismantling institutional inequity are best equipped to serve on an inclusive hiring committee … Committee members who have little or no familiarity with such scholarly paradigms must be committed to educating themselves beyond mandatory trainings.”
The Big Idea
Diversity hiring initiatives are an important component of the equation. Many universities have put their money where their mouths are and have started diversity hiring initiatives. UH’s Christiane Spitzmueller and her research show that if you have women and minority faculty on search committees there is a profound impact on the diversity of pools you get applying. “‘Tokenism’ has a bad connotation but even having one faculty of color on a search committee is showing to result in more diverse hires.” As an occupational psychologist at University of Houston, she went on to say: “Women and minorities just have a different and varied network of people. They really do do things differently than white men.”