The weeks of controversy over a university’s initial failure to offer investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure shed light on a long-standing problem: the number of Black women in tenured positions across the country remains disproportionately low.
Tenure is meant to protect academic freedom by preventing faculty members from losing their jobs because of their work, said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors. Tenured professors can’t be fired except for cause or severe financial issues.
People of color in higher education have raised the alarm for years that although student bodies are becoming more diverse, faculty are still overwhelmingly white. Experts said the lack of diversity is partly due to a subjective tenure application process and the failure to value labor by professors of color.
Black people make up 13.4% of the U.S. population but accounted for less than 6% of faculty at public and private nonprofit four-year colleges in the USA in 2018, according to federal data analyzed by the AAUP.
Though less than half of faculty members are tenured, Black professors held about 5% of those positions in fall 2018. Black women make up a little more than 2% of tenured professors.
To receive tenure, professors must be hired by a committee of the faculty in their department for a competitive tenure-track opening. Then they have six years to earn the tenure distinction. They amass a portfolio of research, teaching experience and service on committees. The other faculty in the department weigh in on their application for tenure, taking into account how the person contributes to the department’s workplace culture as well. A tenure committee then sends a recommendation to the school’s administration or board of trustees.
“The tenure and promotion process is problematic in a few ways,” said LaWanda Ward, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University who seeks tenure.
“The challenge for Black women is the unspoken academic norms that are still in place that are harmful to them,” she said. “Specifically, how people can use nebulous concepts like fit and quality and collegiality to prevent them from being hired, prevent them from getting tenure.”
A study in 2020 noted that Black women face a wider range of microaggressions in the workplace, have their judgment questioned more often and are less likely to say their manager advocates for opportunities for them than their colleagues of other races and ethnicities.
That may come into play when a professor is considered for tenure.
Tenure is essentially a lifetime appointment that comes with an increase in pay,influence and opportunity within the university. Critics of the tenure system say it makes it difficult to remove professors accused of misconduct, such as sexual harassment.
More than 70% of Black faculty members reported “feeling a need to work harder than their colleagues to be seen as legitimate scholars,” compared with less than half of white professors, according to a report in 2019 from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
This feeling may be fueled in part by a lack of clarity surrounding the promotion and tenure process, the report found.
“The policies aren’t specific. You have to do rigorous work, or you have to do enough work or high-impact work,” said Kimberly Griffin, a professor of higher education at the University of Maryland at College Park who studies faculty diversity.
“It can be very subjective,” she added.
Griffin said many tenure-seeking professors of color report feeling unwelcomed by white colleagues and unable to find mentorship opportunities to help navigate the “really fuzzy” process.
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Minority professors are often asked to participate in their university’s diversity, equity and inclusion work and mentor the growing number of students of color. But during tenure considerations, that service labor is less valued than research and teaching, Griffin said.
Institutions may place less value on research and subjects that Black women teach related to race or social justice, said Ward, who studies tenure denial lawsuits filed by Black women.
“We’re at risk,” she said. “There’s definitely more precarity for those of us who want to emphasize and teach the next generation about equity and inclusion.”
For Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, tenure had historically been offered for the position she was set to fill at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The board offered her the position without tenure this year.
Though it sparked a conversation about inequities in academia, Griffin said, it’s not a typical example of how the tenure process works. It was only after Hannah-Jones retained legal counsel, students staged protests on campus and the university faced national backlash that UNC-Chapel Hill trustees voted to offer her tenure. Hannah-Jones declined and accepted a tenured position at Howard University.
Normally, when professors are denied tenure, it’s because their colleagues didn’t support their case, not a school’s board of trustees, Griffin said.
Professors denied tenure can appeal the decision. If that fails, they may pursue legal action, but most tenure denial lawsuits are “not very successful” because it is challenging to find direct evidence of discrimination, Ward said.
“The litigation process is not only financially cost-prohibitive but also emotionally, psychologically,” Ward said. “Some Black women say, ‘You know what? It’s not worth it. This institution doesn’t want me.’”
Finding another tenure-track position could be challenging for someone without the attention and credentials Hannah-Jones has, Griffin said.
“You’re losing your job,” Griffin said. “When you’re early in your career and still trying to establish your name, it can be really difficult.”
Having a more diverse faculty at the highest ranks would allow institutions to better serve the increasingly diverse student bodies on campuses, Griffin said. Research has shown having diverse perspective leads to better research outcomes.
For decades, universities have touted their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, but in the wake of last summer’s racial justice protests, students have demanded their schools do more.
Griffin said colleges and universities should focus on recruiting and retaining a diverse student body and staff by addressing the stereotyping, bias and marginalization they face. Tenure and promotion practices must be reevaluated, she said, to ensure they recognize and reward the work scholars of color do outside the classroom.
“This is not a problem that’s going to be fixed really quickly,” Griffin said.
Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg