Surviving Institutional Racism In Academe

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). The author is a Black woman professor at a small liberal arts college. She was strongly encouraged by IHE to remain anonymous for fear that her colleagues or university would retaliate against her for calling out the racism that she has experienced at work.

Readers, I will be honest with you: when I accepted my first tenure-track position, I was excited to formally join the academy. I naïvely assumed the bubble of academe would insulate me from, well, everything. I raced toward my Ph.D. in search of social protection, professional stability and financial freedom. Instead, I found early-career emotional, physical and mental exhaustion.

Upon joining the professoriate, I thought I was joining a group of people committed to a similar end goal. I imagined college faculty members as collective change agents transforming the lives of future generations. I was wrong. Colleges as manufacturing plants for little liberal soldiers is a fairy tale created by political conservatives to reconstruct classism around education rather than political affiliation. I have found few liberal “havens” in academic spaces, and I am not sure that there is a happy ending here.

I am sure none of what follows is unique to my experiences as a black woman faculty member at a HWCU (or historically white college or university). The ordinary nature of racism in the academy encourages its growth where it seemed, to me, least likely. A small segment of faculty of color experience extreme harassment, receiving death threats and sometimes termination for their public discussions of white supremacy and privilege. Most of us, instead, experience professional death by a thousand cuts. We spend our days ducking microaggressions, hurdling stereotypes and navigating emotional distress. Most of us will be denied tenure, and many will be too exhausted to protest if we managed to land a tenure-track job at all.

When I went to work mobilizing support for change, I had no idea the toll institutional racism in this setting and academe more generally would take on my physical health, my spirit and my passion for educating. I led poorly attended workshops on “othering” in the classroom. I proposed noncomparative research on black student communities, but reviewers suggested white subjects were imperative to create valid data. I came to the academy to create platforms for change. Instead I found an institution where skepticism permeates discussions of inequality and willful ignorance of prejudicial rhetoric perpetuates discrimination.

Here are some lessons about surviving academe’s institutionalized racism that I have learned the hard way.

The job of a professor is physical work. In graduate school, I rarely heard discussions of the physicality of academe. I did not expect to feel the work so viscerally. The constant tension is a byproduct of the inherent conundrum of my role on the campus. I am expected to exert power where it is not assumed. Fellow faculty and administrators challenge my fit while also thrusting me into the limelight. Students test my steadfastness and institutional authority. My body language is constantly surveilled and therefore must be managed. “Stand taller, take up space, remember you belong here” is a mantra I repeat often to myself. Tenure won’t change this, and publications won’t, either. A short critical comment in faculty meeting requires brute force to momentarily pause my shaking hands as I stand to address fellow faculty. There is no alternative action in this example. To allow my hands to shake would undermine the little power I’ve amassed, but the physical exhaustion I feel afterward is palpable.

You cannot always be the counselor. The impact of white supremacy on campus is often silent in its devastation. Coupled with low levels of student trust in faculty and staff, marginalized students have few spaces where they can speak openly and without fear of recourse. So I opened my door. I let students unload their experiences on me, but it is difficult to maintain emotional distance when we are angry about the same things. What would you tell a black student who has to attend class with a peer who yelled racist epithets at them last weekend, or a survivor who has to eat in the same dining hall as their rapist? I listened to them, tried to console them, to temper the anxiety and frustration plaguing them. I met with anyone with institutional power to plead my case. I lost sleep, I cried. I want to give these students a voice but almost lost mine in the process.

People will try you. I joined the academy because I love to explore, teach and write. I expected to feel at home, but instead of like-minded peers I found antagonists. Instead of solidarity, I found cynicism. I endure affirmative action jokes from white colleagues and passive digs at my inability to “look like a professor.” Students of all races challenge my syllabus, threaten to go “over my head” to their white man professor of choice and reject social inequality discussions in the classroom.

Administrators are happy to use my efforts to promote institutional diversity initiatives but routinely ignore my recommendations for effective structural and cultural change. They ask: Why are you so sensitive? Perhaps it wasn’t their intention to offend you? Who else corroborates your story? What could you have done differently? Have you reviewed the institutional policy on this topic? Perhaps you should discuss with unreachable person X. Many students and staff members regard me as a member of the liberal elite pushing overwrought theories of social inequity on the next generation. I am an outsider. Therefore I can be openly challenged, admonished and ignored at the whim of those around me.

You are not alone. I dreamed of rallying a group of like-minded thinkers to the same table so that we could make a plan to save the world. But that never happened. At first, my colleagues were happy to help champion issues of marginalization on campus, especially when catchy buzzwords were involved. Increase diversity! Improve inclusivity! But the excitement faded quickly in the face of constant administrative resistance. I also found it difficult to use cultural support, once a dependable savior, as a scaffold. I thought myself a burden to those struggling through their own fatigue. I watched from the outside for too long, wondering if other marginalized faculty felt similarly alone and disappointed. I wish I had known sooner that they did.

You can decide your success. I would love to be awarded tenure when the time comes, and I would like to publish social justice research in peer-reviewed journals, but I realize now that may not be my path. The difficulty to produce in this environment, to maintain creativity amid the emotional, physical and psychological strain of this job, cannot be overstated. I have dedicated hundreds of hours to improving the academic experiences of the marginalized at my institution. It hasn’t made a difference, but I will not stop fighting.

Instead, I stopped using institutional change as a marker of success. I prioritize my stability, health and happiness. I don’t need to create a more liberal environment to experience success. Sometimes a day maintaining collegiality far above what I receive is success. Continuing to raise my voice is success. Providing support for those who need it, even when it is difficult to find myself, is success. And most days that’s enough, for now.

Campus Sexual Violence And The Adjunctification Of Higher Ed

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Alexis Henshaw is a visiting assistant professor in political science at Miami University. She is the author of Why Women Rebel: Understanding Women’s Participation in Armed Rebel Groups and conducts research on gender and armed conflict.

Adjuncts as Allies?

In the United States, a major push to deal with sexual assault on college campuses has coincided with another significant change in the higher education landscape: the adjunctification of college instruction. In 2011, a study by the American Association of University Professors estimated that 70 percent of all faculty members were contingent faculty, with over half of all instructors being part-time adjuncts.

In this environment, it is increasingly important that institutions bring non-tenure-track faculty into the fold when developing responses to sexual assault. Yet that calls into question our assumptions about the role of contingent faculty members, who are often seen as a transient presence in campus life.

I have spent 11 years teaching in contingent positions: as a graduate student, an adjunct and, most recently, a full-time visiting professor. I have also experienced sexual violence. And as someone specializing in the study of gender issues in international politics, I teach and research in areas related to gender-based violence more broadly. As such, I have noticed the conflict between an academe that is increasingly populated by term faculty and one that pledges to do better by the victims of sexual violence.

The paradox of contingency is that those of us who work in these positions often find ourselves drawn into campus life beyond the classroom, even as we are simultaneously kept at arm’s length. Contracts that emphasize that we are instructors only — without research and service obligations — belie the intertwined nature of these concepts, especially for those of us whose teaching connects with the complex social issues that our students face outside the classroom.

For me, the challenge of being contingent is not simply that I want to be an ally to students who have experienced sexual violence but also that students at times look to me to play that role. One factor that is often lost in debates about the adjunctification of higher education is that students do not distinguish between tenure-stream and non-tenure-track faculty in the same way that administrators do. This means that the go-to resource for the student who needs someone in whom to confide will probably be the person they trust — not necessarily the person with the most seniority or who has long-term job security.

For full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members especially, lines become blurred when students look to us for informal advisement. More than that, as the ranks of contingent faculty grow, some of us find ourselves counseling student groups, overseeing independent studies, even chaperoning student trips. Such responsibilities take contingent faculty above and beyond the “instructor-only” role. They also potentially place contingent faculty on the front lines, setting us up to be the authority figures that students will look to in a crisis situation.

Being an ally to students in such cases is an aspiration fraught with challenges for contingent faculty. Making non-tenure-track faculty aware of the resources on the campus for those affected by sexual violence — and keeping them updated on relevant changes to campus policies and personnel — should be essential, but this may not always happen.

To the credit of the institutions I have worked with, responses to sexual violence have always been a part of new faculty orientations that I have attended. However, that may not be the case at all colleges and universities, and especially not for adjuncts or part-time faculty members, who sometimes receive little or no formal orientation at all. Even when contingent faculty members are aware of resources for victims of sexual violence, they may not be given the full picture of campus climate. As of 2016, the U.S. Department of Education was investigating nearly 200 colleges and universities for their (mis)handling of sexual assault reports. Since higher education institutions have a vested interest in keeping such investigations low-key, faculty members who are part-time or temporary may lack valuable insight into systemic issues that contribute to the overall campus climate.

That has a potentially negative impact on students, for multiple reasons. First, surveys on campus sexual assault have generally highlighted an elevated incidence of sexual violence during the so-called red zone between the start of the fall semester and the Thanksgiving break. During this time, new women students in particular are considered vulnerable to sexual violence. At the same time, non-tenure-track faculty members increasingly teach the high-demand introductory courses that new students tend to take. If new students affected by sexual violence are not referred to proper care (including both short- and long-term care) and if they do not receive meaningful accommodations from their instructors, the result can be that victimized students feel overwhelmed, ultimately transferring or withdrawing altogether. In this sense, preparing faculty members to be allies takes on a sense of urgency.

Beyond the red zone, campus climate studies have also found that there are other high-risk periods for sexual assault that vary by institution. At some colleges, reports of sexual assault are higher during rush periods for Greek organizations or during winter terms when students take fewer classes and engage in more high-risk behaviors. These connections to student life are the type of issues that contingent faculty are likely to be unaware of, given their limited time on the campus. But having the full picture can help faculty members recognize when the student who is suddenly struggling in class could have something more urgent going on.

The debate over mandatory-reporter status is also particularly thorny for faculty members without the protection of tenure. In recent years, tenure-track and tenured faculty have also raised objections to the idea of making faculty members mandatory reporters — largely out of concerns for privacy, respect for the victim’s willingness to report and struggles over the ethical choices between keeping students’ trust versus carrying out an administrative mandate. While these are hard questions for all faculty members, the stakes may be particularly high for those of us without guarantees of long-term employment. What is a lecturer, visiting professor or adjunct to do when approached by a student who has experienced sexual violence but is not yet ready to report? Should they keep that student’s trust, knowing it may possibly cost them their job? It is a risk tenure-track faculty members may be more apt to take but one that could lead to termination for contingent faculty.

Adjunctification in higher education is a concern for many reasons, but the concerns associated with putting contingent faculty in the position to become mentors to students are seldom considered. That is a shame, since many of us stay in academe not just because we love publishing or standing in front of a classroom. We stay because we also want to be a positive force in the lives of our students. In my case, being an ally has meant attending a faculty reading group on sexual assault, attending events organized by student groups focused on sexual assault awareness and making many calls to administrators asking for guidance on how to deal with a student in crisis — even when I do not know the particular nature of the crisis involved. But I am aware that such efforts are above and beyond what is expected of most visiting faculty members. I also know that some contingent faculty members would struggle to take on this sort of unpaid labor at every institution where they teach.

These are the types of concerns that administrators should take seriously. A system that encourages us to demand the best of our students without also fully preparing us to be there for them in their worst moments is a flawed system. It fails to meet the needs of both faculty members and students, and in the long term, it endangers the goal of better serving students affected by sexual violence.

On Solving The Tenure Problem

jamieNote: This blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Jamie J. Hagen is a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, researching gender and security. Her most recent article is “Queering Women, Peace and Security.” She is also an independent journalist and writes about queer politics and reproductive justice.

Why Most of Us Won’t Get Tenure

The academic job market is bleak, as most certainly all of you reading this are well aware. Over the summer, Gawker gathered some personal stories to highlight just how bad things are out there. One adjunct wrote about how they work at Starbucks to make ends meet, while another realized the janitor at their institution makes more than they do.

This conversation in popular media reveals how out of touch those with tenure often are regarding the future of their students in the academy.

I work in the field of international relations, and a couple of pieces published over at Foreign Policy made the rounds a few months ago about what those of us on the other side should do on our journey to the ever-elusive tenure-track job. First was the piece about how to get tenure. Then some women academics pointed out how gender also factors into the experience of seeking tenure in the academy.

Yet both of these pieces focus on individual actions rather than looking at the larger institution granting tenure. In her response, which Foreign Policy opted not to publish, Laura Sjoberg, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, wrote in a blog pot for Relations International:

“One the one hand, this advice is solid — after all, to an extent, we all navigate the existing system individually. On the other hand, from a feminist perspective, I have two serious concerns about the advice provided. First, I am concerned that providing advice for navigating the gendered system of achieving tenure without strategizing to change the system as a whole puts the primary responsibility for overcoming bias on the victims of the bias. Second, I am concerned that a significant number of the strategies provided are only available to a small percentage of those who might seek professional success as political science faculty, narrowing the spectrum of those to whom tenure might be available.”

I, too, am concerned about the lack of a larger strategy for institutional change. But I am most troubled by how the conversation seems to keep missing the biggest question. This query was raised in a post for Ducks of Minerva by Annick T. R. Wibben: “Why do we keep focusing on getting tenure when most junior academics will never be on the tenure track?”

Indeed. And I would add: Why is it that those in the most precarious position — doctoral candidates and adjuncts — are seemingly left to make a living, and discuss and resolve this tenuous academic landscape on our own, barring a few vocal feminist tenured professors?

Rather, the prospect of a tenure-track future hinges on departments renegotiating institutional infrastructure, creating a new landscape of possibilities for adjuncts and students alike. With this in mind, I offer five ways to address the reality of the tenure track today. I offer these tips primarily for tenured and tenure-track faculty, although they may be useful to graduate students and other members of the faculty as well.

  1. Tenure-track faculty must recognize openly that as the system stands, tenure is not a possibility for most Ph.D.s, regardless of merit or method. Daniel Dreznor reflected on the academic job market in Foreign Policy back in 2013, noting, “The job market is brutal. The academic job market has been abysmal for as long as I can remember, but things have only gotten worse recently. Just click here and make sure that there are no children in the room, because the numbers are so horrific they should be rated NC-17. If you’re not going to a top-20 school in your field, well, those numbers are even worse.”
  2. Talk directly with doctoral students about adjuncts, acknowledging how the labor force has shifted at your institution as well as in the field as a whole. Even a cursory Google search reveals the extent to which the university system has steadily been corporatized, class sizes have increased and the adjunct labor force has exploded. The Adjunct Project of CUNY offers a number of ways to Bring It to Class, including blurbs to put in your syllabi, ideas for class lessons, a video to show and articles about adjuncting. Directly acknowledging adjunct labor creates a safer space for doctoral students to discuss the issue with faculty members as well as other students.
  3. Know that the route to the tenure track is not an equal playing field. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, the class, race and gender dynamics of tenure denial — to say nothing of getting a tenure-track job in the first place — have continued to make headlines this year. A great resource for understanding this is the book Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González and Angela P. Harris. One of the editors explains, “Existing academic structures facilitate different realities and rules of the game for members of historically underrepresented groups as compared to those of their white, heterosexual colleagues.” The book concludes with a chapter of recommendations and lessons, including a section on tenure and promotion.
  4. Departments should gather data about their work force and practices in the field to share with faculty members and students. They should make information about average class size readily available, as well as how this number has changed over the past five or 10 years. Departments should also make clear the number of tenure-track positions in the department versus part-time or adjunct positions. They also need to gather data about job placement of students in the department and field, especially for Ph.D. students. That information should be gathered and distributed as part of best practices for the department — not something that precarious faculty members, administrators or students are expected to investigate and report on their own.
  5. Senior faculty can use their bargaining power to address low pay, inadequate health care and a lack of job security for most of their department’s work force when negotiating contracts. Placing the impetus for change on the backs of the most vulnerable people within the system is unreasonable. As Jennifer Gaboury wrote in a Facebook status update about the recent contract negotiations at the City University of New York, “When pay was deprioritized as an issue in the last two contracts, what gets said is: that’s too big of a fight, and the support isn’t there among ladder-rank faculty — a minority of the faculty but a majority of voting members in the union. Yes, more adjuncts need to become members of the union and push for pay. So many adjunct activists that I know, having worked on these issues for years, feel alienated from this work and burned by the union.”

During the time I have been part of a doctoral program, a number of colleges and universities have negotiated contracts for adjuncts. We no longer need advice for individual faculty. We are overdue for attending to real institutional change. Hope for most young professionals in the academy relies not on following tips for obtaining a tenure-track job but rather in the solidarity from those with job security when it comes to tackling the growing insecurity of the majority of the academic work force.