Strained relations with white colleagues. Constantly having one’s credentials questioned. An unwieldy workload. Job insecurity. Lack of respect from white students. Cultural, social and professional alienation.
Many Black professors who teach on predominantly white campuses face these problems and more. Too often, the result is low morale, occasionally resulting in poor performance and, in some cases, the abandonment of the profession altogether.
Efforts to understand faculty morale are relatively new to higher education. This is because, to a partial degree, the problem of widespread low morale at colleges and universities is a recent phenomenon. In the past, although scholars never enjoyed the financial rewards of their corporate counterparts, they were at least accorded a high degree of public esteem and enjoyed the benefits of job security, autonomy, sabbatical, and summers off. Small numbers of disgruntled faculty could be found on any campus, but these malcontents usually left for other institutions. And, since most professors, administrators and students on most of the campuses in the country were white and male, homogeneity was the norm. But times have changed.
Shrinking financial resources for higher education, the public’s critical attitude toward scholarly pursuits, tension over affirmative action, and the escalating movement to eliminate tenure are eroding faculty morale. The morale of Black faculty, however, is being undermined in ways not experienced, and seldom understood, by their white male colleagues.
The Black Scholar’s Burden
According to Dr. Linda K. Johnsrud, author of “Maintaining Morale: A guide to assessing the morale of mid-level administrators and faculty,” morale is a multi-dimensional construct — “A level of well being that individuals or groups experience in reference to their work.” Morale is built with job satisfaction, commitment, enthusiasm, and a sense of common purpose, she said. The sense of meaninglessness, powerlessness, and social isolation, can erode it.
“African-American faculty often carry the burden of being viewed as affirmative action hires,” Johnsrud said. “You have to prove yourself in ways your white colleagues don’t.” Scholars in the field of Black studies have an added challenge, she said. “If you work in that area, not only do you have to do the scholarship, but then you have to justify its worth.”
Black scholars comprise almost 5 percent of the nation’s higher education faculty. Of these, roughly half teach at historically Black institutions. Although it is becoming easier to find traditionally white campuses with clusters of African-American faculty, Black scholars often find themselves the only — or one of very few — Black faculty on campus. This isolation can lead to situations that are destructive to morale.
Dr. C. Aisha Blackshire-Belay came to Ohio State University in 1989, after having lived and worked in Germany and other parts of Europe for thirteen years. She was the first and only African American in the university’s German department. Her prestigious credentials include a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, a graduate degree in Germanic linguistics and literature from the University of Munich, and master’s and doctoral degrees from Princeton University. Blackshire-Belay also had been a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.
“German departments in this country are truly the most traditional and conservative. So when you go the route of tenure, it is a question of whether you fit in with their vision of the department,” Blackshire-Belay said.
The German linguist’s efforts to expand the vision of her department to reflect the multi-cultural Germany she had experienced were met with hostility by her colleagues. Although the university didn’t hesitate to feature her in promotional literature demonstrating its commitment to affirmative action, her attempts to pursue tenure on an accelerated schedule were discouraged.
“I was called in my first year, anti told that I should slow down,” Blackshire-Belay recalled. Before long, she felt unappreciated and exploited. Eventually, she left Ohio State for a position at Temple University and is now chair of the Africana Studies department at Indiana State University.
According to Jonathan Alger, associate counsel of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Blackshire-Belay’s experience is not unique. Black faculty whose scholarly interests conflict with those of their white colleagues often face problems, particularly when it comes to tenure.
“Faculty who bring minority issues into the classroom, take a multi-cultural focus, or who focus on under-represented or oppressed groups, sometimes have their scholarship questioned — especially if their colleagues are not accustomed to this.” Alger said, adding that tenure disputes in this area are being won using the argument of academic freedom.
Another problem affecting morale is the disparity between the workload of Black faculty and that of their white colleagues.
“In addition to teaching, we get asked to serve on committees, mentor students, and engage in community work,” said California State-Hayward’s Dr. Terry Jones, president of the California Faculty Association. “But then when it is time for promotion and tenure, those things don’t count.”
Those who resist the extra workload risk being characterized as uncooperative. Those who accept it usually find less time to publish. Both options can jeopardize tenure. This lose-lose scenario can gradually dismantle a person’s morale.
“It sure will be nice when Black faculty are seen as equal contributors,” adds Dr. Anthony C. Ihunnah, president of the National Congress of Black Faculty and a faculty member at Rowan College in New Jersey. “Too often it appears our efforts are diminished by the perceptions of our colleagues or administrators. They interpret everything we do with a yardstick that doesn’t appear to be the same yardstick everyone else uses.”
Politics of Omission
When it comes to the decision-making process, not only are Black faculty omitted from discussions about curriculum, but they find themselves absent from discussions about grants, merit promotions, and other benefits as well. The result can be a sense of powerlessness and marginalization.
“They treat us as afterthoughts,” Jones said. “In a healthy institution the leadership would figure out ways of drawing [Black] talent in and make them feel part of the process.”
Black educators who feel marginalized usually find other ways to preserve their self esteem, even if it means cultivating their relationships out of the university setting in order to feel valued. In the long-run, however, their institutions suffer because they don’t benefit from the insight and experience Black scholars offer.
“Many of us really understand what it takes to educate an increasingly diverse, multi-cultural population,” Jones said. “We feel frustrated because we can’t get to the table to help our colleagues develop this. It’s like being a passenger in the car of a drunk driver. How do you get the steering wheel away from him with out killing him and you too?”
National salary surveys show that, on average, Black faculty earn less than their white colleagues. Some of the factors in that salary discrepancy is that Black faculty typically are found among the non-tenure track lecturers, instructors and assistant professors, they often work in the social sciences rather than the higher paid “hard” sciences, and they typically work at smaller, less well-endowed institutions.
Last year the AAUP reported that while the percentage of women and people of color who have begun teaching in higher education has increased markedly in recent years, most of these gains have occurred among temporary lecturer and visiting staff positions rather than full-time faculty posts. According to AAUP data, part-time faculty hold 38 percent of the faculty appointments nationwide. Though many of these faculty manage full-time course loads, Johnsrud reports, they are typically underpaid, contracted on a semester-to-semester basis, and often work without benefits.
When it comes to the relationship between compensation and morale, Johnsrud argues that salary is not an essential long-term motivator. Nevertheless, she has found that where salaries are perceived as unfair, the result is low morale among those at the low end of the scale.
The HBCU Experience
At Elizabeth City State in North Carolina, African Americans constitute 74 percent of a student population that is educated by a faculty that is 40 percent white. For this reason, attending to the needs of a diverse faculty is nothing new, according to Dr. Claudie Mackey, the university’s faculty senate chair who says he has observed little difference between the morale of Black and white faculty members.
“We are a campus that has historically worked together and we still have persons of both groups — white faculty and Black faculty — who have grievances. I don’t care what system you put in place,” Mackey said, “there will always be differences of opinion.”
Based on his experiences as vice president of academic affairs at Albany State in Georgia, Dr. Ernest Benson concludes that the conditions influencing faculty morale are related to much more than race relations.
“I think the prospects of tenure, promotions, office accommodations, and research support are the issues that influence faculty morale,” Benson said.
Mackey and Benson agree that grievances over these issues exist at HBCUs just as they do at other institutions. The difference is that at HBCUs, they are not generally perceived as having a racial element.
Nevertheless, Black faculty shouldn’t expect their experiences at HBCUs to be utopian either. HBCUs are not always able to compensate faculty at salary levels comparable to traditionally white institutions of the same caliber. Limited research resources and deteriorating campus facilities are other problems that can negatively affect morale.
“Just because you are a Black faculty [member] at a Black university or college doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be enthusiastic about coming to work every day,” Benson said.
However, Blacks who teach at HBCUs enjoy the unique sense of purpose and achievement that comes from knowing that they are making a direct contribution to the overall uplift of African Americans — a sentiment that can have a beneficial impact in morale.
As for white faculty at HBCUs, Mackey said, “Elizabeth City is a historically Black school, so there is a flavor of Afrocentrism. [But] I don’t see the white faculty on our campus viewing themselves as obsolete or as an unattended group.”
Mackey also offered advice to his white colleagues in states like California and Texas, where prognostications are that people of color soon will constitute the majority.
“Revisit the mission they set forth for their institutions and recognize that the lives of those young people they permit to enter their institutions are in their hands…. The whole notion of [embracing diversity] is preparation for change. Those [faculty and institutions] who fail to change, will die.”
In its 1993 report, “Mentoring Minorities in Higher Education: Passing the Torch,” the National Education Association (NEA) urged institutions to create mentoring programs for all new faculty, paying special attention to the needs of people of color and women.
“When it comes to tenure, the failure rate of women and minoritories is higher than for white males,” said Christine Maitland, coordinator for the NEA’s Higher Education program, “We’re trying to get our chapters to start mentoring programs. Mentoring and assisting both students and faculty … is the job of all faculty, not just faculty of color.”
Where peer mentoring exists, it usually occurs on an informal basis. Maitland is eager to find formal programs aimed at mentoring Black faculty. Thus far, she has been unsuccessful. She believes that one reason such programs are virtually nonexistent is that formal mentoring is contrary to the autonomy and independence ingrained in higher education faculty. Maitland also believes that many faculty feel uncomfortable mentoring colleagues of a different race, culture or gender.
In Jones’s view, mentoring is a two way street.
“While senior faculty have a responsibility to reach out to their new colleagues, young faculty also have a responsibility to seek mentors,” he said. “Sometimes we assume everyone is out to get us and don’t look at older white or Black faculty.”
White faculty who do reach out to Black newcomers sometimes find themselves alienated from their white colleagues, according to Ihunnah. “White faculty who want to help sometimes get listed as liberals, and therefore even their own colleagues won’t involve them on decisions, or they get ignored,” he says. “It is unfortunate. There is no real reward for white faculty who want to mentor Black faculty.”
Strengthening the Diversity Commitment
Dr. Johnsrud has found that relationships between the department chair and individual faculty members are crucial to faculty morale.
Responsibility for developing and nurturing a positive collegial atmosphere for faculty normally rests with the department chairs. To do this effectively in a multicultural environment, Johnsrud believes department chairs need ongoing training in the area of diversity and affirmative action. A sensitive and responsive department chair can help Black faculty feel welcome and valued, and thus boost morale. Too often, this is not the case. “Affirmative action is a step-child at many institutions,” said Dr. Rosa Maria Pegueros, a member of the history faculty at the University of Rhode Island. “If [faculty and administrators] had a mandate from the government to do anything else, they’d do it and there would be programs to support it. The belly-aching about affirmative action has been going on ad nauseam from the beginning. Instead, why not have a PR campaign to promote the value of having a diversified faculty?”
Having Black students can be another morale booster for Black faculty.
“African-American faculty have a major task,” Blackshire-Belay said. “It’s not just educating our students, we also need to be able to reach out to the Black community. If you don’t have Black students, you feel that you have let the community down.”
Creating a hospitable environment for Black faculty, revising the standards upon which tenure is granted, facilitating peer mentor relationships, expanding the ranks of Black students, and including Blacks in the decision-making process can improve the morale of Black faculty. At the University of Michigan, several additional strategies are in place to enhance the chances of career success for Black faculty.
“The university offers special opportunities to help support [minority faculty] in their research efforts,” said Dr. Janet Lawrence, director of the university’s Center for the Study of Higher and Post Secondary Education. “These range from the direct funding of research, to funds that can be used to buy release time. There are opportunities to bring people in on post-docs, with an eye to give them a leg up on the publication end of things. And there are special funds available for travel.”
Programs such as these can be invaluable to people working in fields where research funds are limited and competition is fierce — disciplines such as education and the social sciences, where Black scholars are concentrated.
Presidents, Chancellors Must Walk the Walk
In addition to programs that support diversity, having a college president or chancellor who is demonstrative about his or her commitment to diversity also boosts the morale of faculty of color.
“They’ve got to walk the walk as well as talk the talk,” Jones said. “These are powerful people. They can show support in the way they talk about these issues and in the people they bring onto campuses. This all helps to model the correct behavior. Fortunately, I’ve always been on a campus where the president did that. But in my estimation, there is not enough of it going on.”
Even so, Jones admits, administrators can only do so much.
“The university is not like a corporation,” he said. “In major corporations, you wouldn’t dare: openly defy the CEO. But full professors at the top of the range, don t give a damn [what the president does] unless they’re trying to get more pay or a better office. The heart and soul of the university is the faculty. That is the toughest nut to crack.”
Johnsrud cautions institutions against using a one-size-fits-all remedy for faculty morale problems. Before launching programs, she recommends the use of a survey instrument to assess where people are with respect to morale. If a school is unprepared to act on the basis of the assessment, it might be better to wait until such a commitment can be made. Soliciting feedback without a commitment to action can worsen the problem.
However, in an increasingly competitive academic job market, institutions that hesitate to create situations in which the morale of Black scholars — as well as other faculty — is nurtured and maintained, will suffer.
“Optimally, we should not wait until times of crisis to worry about morale,” Johnsrud writes. “Morale is important. Our morale is our commitment to move forward, our enthusiasm to take on new challenges, and our spirit to maintain the highest of standards. Our academic institutions, the public that we serve, and particularly our students, deserve no less.”
1. A sense of purpose 2. Adequate financial compensation 3. Research opportunities 4. Peer mentoring 5. Up-to-date campus facilities
1. Isolation and marginalization 2. Threats to tenure and financial security 3. Disparity of workload 4. Tensions over affirmative action 5. Limited access to research resources
RELATED ARTICLE: Black Peer Mentors, Cooperative Advocacy Beneficial to Morale
Black faculty may indeed benefit from establishing mentor relationships with senior white faculty, but in her own experience, Dr. Rhonda Jones-Webb, an behavioral scientist and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, has found that sometimes there is still a need to develop relationships with Black colleagues.
At institutions like Minnesota, where Black faculty are scattered in different departments and throughout different geographic locations, developing such relationships can be hard.
“[The isolation] makes it difficult to get the type of mentorship and develop the types of relationships you need,” said Jones-Webb. Although she was not the only African-American in her department when she arrived at Minnesota five years ago, she is now.
Her research examines alcohol use among African Americans, and while her white colleagues have been supportive of her work from the beginning, Jones-Webb was eager to find Black colleagues who understood the unique challenges of researching issues that affect African Americans. Fortunately, activities sponsored by the associate vice president of minority affairs and diversity helped.
“We have initiated efforts to improve the climate for faculty of color,” says Dr. Robert Jones, a professor and assistant vice president of academic affairs at the University of Minnesota. Among these efforts is a panel discussion and reception for faculty of color, hosted by the university’s president, Dr. Nils Hasselmo. The event serves as a forum for senior faculty of color to voice their concerns, while also sharing insights with incoming faculty about how to succeed at Minnesota. This year the university will launch a series of faculty development workshops designed to help junior faculty of color learn more about getting funding for research projects, getting published, and networking both within and outside of the university. The faculty development program includes a mentoring component and is modeled after a similar program at Penn State, Jones said.
“These programs helped me to meet other people to collaborate with,” Jones-Webb said. “I think it is useful to have someone in a key administrative position like that who has the ability to bring people together across the campus.”
Jones-Webb also thinks that it would be useful to expose Black youth, at an early age, to the to the problems African Americans face when dealing with the “culture in academia.”
“I think there is a culture in academia that sometimes presents difficulties for Blacks and other people of color. I didn’t have aunts and uncles or parents who taught in academic institutions. It is not something we’re exposed to at a young age,” Jones-Webb said.
At California State-Hayward, the Center for the Study of Intercultural Relations is a facility that attracts faculty of all racial backgrounds who are interested in making the university a more diverse place. It also is a network through which faculty provide support for each other.
“You get tired of battling white administrators and trying to get them to be more diverse,” said Terry Jones, one of the institute’s co-founders and president of the California Teacher’s Association. “The Lone Ranger is dead. Faculty of color who attempt to go it alone will be dead too.”
The center is instrumental in boosting the morale of faculty and students of color on a campus that is at the heart of the battle over the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), which aims to end the state’s affirmative action programs. One of CCRI’s creators, Dr. Glen Custred, is a member of the Hayward faculty.
“The worst thing to do is lay down and be quiet,” Jones said. “You have to be vocal and make your presence felt. These universities need us more than we need them, if they’re to effectively educate people in an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-racial society. [Most] white faculty don’t have a clue about how to do this.”
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