Faculty of Color . . . But Why?

You may have noticed that one Professor Black Woman has been a Senorita Cranky Pants for a while now. My reasons stem from some dismal statistics surrounding the hire, mentorship, and retention of faculty of color, particularly women faculty of color. These statistics include a recently published Chronicle of Higher Education study that shows the number of PhDs of color far outmatch the number of hires for PhDs of color. (look here for some of the stats w/out a subscription.) Others come from a random sample carried out by me of the breakdown of race and gender information for faculty provided on college and university web pages. One of the problems with the latter is that often the stats are guilty of recreating the same old paradigm: women faculty equal one group and faculty of color equal another, leaving us women of color unable to prove statistical that we are sorely lacking in both counted groups.

I recently spoke to a college doing a diversity hire about how to be successful. The conversation consisted of repeated questions about the research and teaching interests of credentialed faculty of color despite a myriad of sources already outlining these issues for the panel. It soon became clear that the issue was not a failure to understand the research and pedagogy but rather a failure to recognize it in the Merleau-Ponty sense of the word. This failure was not seen as the problem of the panel who had clearly followed an accepted intellectual trajectory in their prospective fields that excluded all but the most oft-cited (or misquoted) intellectuals of color, but as a failure on the part of the faculty of color to meet the minimum requirements of competency in their fields. The alienation I experienced at coming to this conclusion about the disconnect with this college was interpreted as hostility. My repeated attempts to explain the difference in the knowledge base between established white faculty and their potential junior hires as the very diversity the college was claiming to seek out made the college both uncomfortable and frustrated. Both emotions stem from supremacy, as the discomfort was the recognition that the disconnect was racialized and yet they were unable or unwilling to move past it, & the frustration came from an increasing need to reestablish order through the agreement of all parties that the existing canonical way of doing things was the best (read only) way. When I refused to simply fall in line and reaffirm the canon and the barriers it placed before candidates of color, I became the hostile figure in the room.

Switching tactics, I pointed to the statistics of hires of color over the last 10 years. The numbers have either staid constant, despite an increasing number of PhDs of color, or declined. The decline represented the number of women of color PhDs hired and speaks to a racialization of sexism that was far too complicated for them to address given they were still stuck at the “I don’t see the books I teach here” phase of the conversation. The introduction of the statistics elicited two responses: shame and denial. Shame stemmed from the understanding that they had failed to recruit or retain faculty of color but it led to very little real action to change it as evidenced by our failed exchange on the diversity initiative. Denial was expressed either by pointing to the plan for the new hire, with no subsequent support for or understanding of diversity to ensure its success, or by stating that the particular small town atmosphere and lack of cultural amenities was not counted as part of the retention problem. The former was the issue I was trying to address with them, ie, that you cannot simply look around and say “Gee we have no black faculty, I guess we should hire one” and then when it comes time to do so, ask that black faculty to recreate what indigenous theorists of pedagogy and academe call “white think.” Instead, you must be thoughtful about the hire, its goals and purposes, and how as a department you will support the success of those goals and purposes. The latter, lack of cultural amenities, is a real and true problem for many schools located in small towns or close to supremacist hotspots (defined as places where Klan activity is readily visible and or rampant) & it is not counted in the question of retention. That being said, I provided two ways to get around this issue.

As an undergraduate, I went to a school in an exclusively white, small, new england town. Several of the bordering towns were known for having police forces that would escort people of color to the city limits and advise them not to return. At least once, I found myself trapped at an establishment while a klan rally took place within eyesight of where I was, not because I was there but because I clearly wasn’t tapped into the klan events calender for the area. Despite this hostile environment, I never felt socially or intellectually isolated at my university. I had faculty of color who were strong mentors, gifted educators, and caring people. I also had white faculty who were the same, many of whom were especially invested in the success of multiple marginalized groups on our campus. The school administration had made a concerted effort to recruit both students and faculty of color, to provide on campus cultural events including festivities, theme housing, and intellectual activities and forums. As a result, I may not have had anywhere to stock up on natural hair products without driving forever but I did have a strong sense of community both with poc and white people and an equally strong sense of myself as an important scholar of color. Had I not gotten that sense then, I can say honestly I would never have gone to graduate school and certainly not survived it if I had.

The college applauded this original example as forward thinking. They were awed and patted each other on the back for wanting to do the same thing. However, when I asked them how they responded to the sense of social isolation that students of color expressed about the school and the dwindling numbers of student of color enrollment, they had nothing to say except the now expected refrain of “that is what this hire is for.” The concerns of students of color had resulted in a study and so-called action plan being implemented 10 years ago, but this year’s hire was the solution?

The second example I gave them in response to the surrounding community issue was a faculty perspective. I told them a memory of a hiring committee at a college that had had serious race problems the year before. The town in which it was located was extremely homogeneous by most standards and had several indications of having once been and potentially becoming again a klan hotspot. The white faculty involved in the hire were well versed on these problems and ready and willing to discuss them. They had also thought considerably about how to support the success of a new hire in such an environment, by creating safe and supportive spaces for them on campus and as part of a social circle of academics. At least one white faculty person, took the candidate around the town as part of the interview process and pointed to the few places where diversity was readily visible as well as suggesting safe places to live and socialize. The message conveyed was that it would be hard to live there and many cultural activities would have to be done in a neighboring (2 hours away) town, however there were support networks and outlets.

When I questioned the college as to whether they had considered similar action around their diversity hire, the answer came back lukewarm. Some felt that being able to complain openly about a lack of diversity and pointing to their own unsuccessful battles with “the administration” to get things done was enough. Yet animosity and tension are hardly selling points to an isolated faculty of color. Others simply pointed out that they “had no idea where safe neighborhoods would be” or even if there were any. They seemed to think the privilege that ha
d allowed them to live without considering such a question excused their failure to address it when seeking to make a diversity hire. Yet in the example I had given them, it was a white woman who made it a point of finding out which neighborhoods had large populations of color, which areas of town had stores and restaurants catering to ethnic needs, and to make sure she was well versed on them when the potential hires arrived.

At this point in the conversation it was clear to both me and the college that they had considerable more work to do if this hire was going to yield anything more than any other diversity hire they had tried in the past. Worse, as their frustration level grew at the number of things being pointed out to the them so did their resistance to addressing them. At the end of the meeting, one member said it best “Well, we had 400 applicants for this position so clearly we are doing something right.” Another implied that those being interviewed should be grateful, a sentiment I had heard from this same college the week before our conversation. I refrained from pointing out that: 1. the number was small in comparison to similarly rated universities around the country & 2. that the economy was such that the number of applicants measured the number of unemployed academics and the dwindling tenure options much more than it validated any such assertion that black people were a runnin’ to middle of nowhere college b/c of the success of their diversity initiatives.

This is but one example of the conversations I have had of late with universities in North America about their diversity initiatives and/or diversity hires. It represents the middle of the road with some schools thinking more in depth about these issues and others stating outright that they think diversity hires are a waste of time. Worse, when these hires fail the latter will take it as evidence that they are right about not wanting to hire faculty of color. When these faculty endure however many years in these environments and then finally flee, unless they are superstars, they will also have to put up with a myriad of questions about their perceived failures and lack of collegiality, all the while unable to mention whatever acts of psychic, verbal, or even possibly physical harassment they endured at the hands of the students, the college, or the town. So that again the burden of failed diversity initiatives is shouldered all most exclusively by junior faculty of color.

I participated in the process with Middle of Nowhere U for another alarming, though not new, reason: PU’s diversity hire tanked as well. We hired two tenure track professors to replace untenured labor which we felt was demeaning to the women of color holding those positions. The result: we hired two white professors, one male and one female, on tenure lines and let the women of color fend for themselves. One of whom is blissfully (seriously) unemployed and catching up on all the things she couldn’t do while whoring for us and the other is dragging out her dissertation defense so as not to be miserably unemployed all though the cut in her teaching hours makes dragging her feet far more costly than unemployment might be.

As someone who advises primarily students of color and queer students, I am left deeply concerned about their futures as well as my own. Social isolation is crazy making for academics of color and I have seen many of my colleagues and former professors “lose it” over prolonged isolation or exposure to a culture of concentrated oppression. As I look around, I see far fewer faculty of color on tenure track or even on renewables, relegated to commuter adjuncting or visitorships. I also see studies programs being dismantled through under funding, lack of institutional support, or the frightening trend of some academics to dismantle a program to get rid of diverse opinions and the try to reconstitute again. I have witnessed hiring committees actively dissuade applicants of color from applying or accepting a position should they be offered it. Meanwhile HBCUs are closing down and Indigenous colleges are graduating much higher rates of indigenous students than other colleges but failing to impact the larger university system in a large way; as I posted in the summer, some of these schools have been dismantled against heavy protest from faculty, students, and admins.

Hopefully this post and all the other bloggers addressing this issue right now, will move beyond the people of color in the know to the people with the power who can and do want change in academe. Otherwise . . .


3 thoughts on “Faculty of Color . . . But Why?

  1. Why is it that administrators, when asked about recruitment and retention of faculty of color, say the problem is there aren’t any to recruit, they’d bee all over them if they existed, but they need to be created first?The only candidate I liked in our recent search for an upper administrator spontaneously brought this up, did not have to be asked, and said we needed to become a place faculty of color want to be if we want them to stay. A decent answer if incomplete … and much better than what the candidate of color said, ‘they will come and stay because I am of color’ …

  2. b/c it is easier than saying what Blackwomb says a hiring committee said at her uni, “women of color make us feel so white.” & doing what BA said, ie not hiring them b/c as “the only black professor out there” they have all kinds of choices right?While I applaud the white candidates forward thinking, sense that is really at the heart of my post here, I think it is important to remember that the candidate of color does not have the same kind of privilege to speak freely about racism on campus or in academe. I recently spoke with an R1 with some serious problems with regards to recruitment, retention, and (for students) graduation rates. I kept trying to find the silver lining in their numbers so as to set everyone at ease for the harder conversations that these issues would require if I became a consultant there. I think often, the perception of people of color as angry, hotheads, etc. leads many of faculty of color on the job market to put on their “happy face” and try to pretend they do not see nor hear the things that they are seeing or hearing b/c they know they are just one negative comment away from being “too angry,” “too scary,” “too political,” or worse making the committee feel “too white” or “too guilty” to hire them. In my experience when white people mention the problem they are seen as progressive (which they are), when poc do they are militants.That being said, I think it is great that you had a progressive white candidate and that hir contribution could be an important shift in the tide.

  3. Well – neither the progressive white candidate nor the candidate of color made it. We got a good old boy. To the disgust of many faculty but not of the town which appears to believe the good old boy will funnel them university business, or some such thing.But it is true POC watch their words. It is as though they had an “off” button. I envy this skill of some of them, able to see exactly what is happening and not let it erode their own sense of self. Yes – I’ve been on committees where people said versions of the ‘make us feel so white’ thing. And were concerned that the POC candidates would be ‘too political’. And on and on. And it really is amazing that people believe candidates of color have so many choices. You’re right: it is a great excuse not to consider them. Convenient.

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